This week, events unfolded in Ankara that would have been unthinkable not so long ago: Mohamed Bin Zayed, the powerful Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the de facto leader of the United Arab Emirates, flew out to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Following Wednesday’s meeting, the two countries entered into multibillion-dollar cooperation and investment agreements in trade, energy, technology, banking and investment.
The most recent visit to Turkey by MBZ, as he is popularly known, was in 2012. During the following decade, bilateral relations between nations collapsed.
In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, which overthrew Sunni Arab regimes throughout the Middle East, Erdogan began pushing for a regional order rooted in political Islam, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Islamic Ennahda party in Tunisia. In this project, Turkey closely allied with the United Arab Emirates’ neighbor Qatar, which also tried expand their influence through Islamist movements.
The United Arab Emirates, which saw the Muslim Brotherhood as a concrete threat to its own internal stability, saw the emerging Turkey-Qatar network as its main opponent in the region, a more pressing threat even than that of Iran. Abu Dhabi sought to counter Turkey’s emerging Islamist network with its own alliance, based on a moderate, pro-Western model.
Turkey, meanwhile, struck back on the ideological front. Ankara ran the story that it represented democratic rule against authoritarian monarchies in the bay and – after Egypt’s Abdel Fatah el-Sissi led a military coup in 2013 against Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi with the support of the United Arab Emirates and its allies in the bay – against military regimes such as t. ex. in Cairo.
Relations reached a nadir in the wake of the 2016 military coup attempt against Erdogan. Turkish intelligence sources have since accused the United Arab Emirates of sending money to the plotters through former senior Palestinian official Mohammed Dahlan, who is believed to be a close ally of MBZ.
Turkish soldiers secure the area, when supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, early on Saturday, July 16, 2016. (AP Photo / Emrah Gurel)
The rivalry bled across the region.
In 2017, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt blocked Qatar and accused Doha of supporting terrorism and being too close to Turkey and Iran. Senior UAE officials were particularly harsh in their condemnation of a new Turkish military base in the peninsula. In 2020, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said that “The Turkish army in Qatar is a source of instability in the region. Our region needs no regional protectors or the restoration of old colonial ties.”
The crisis was eventually resolved earlier this year.
In Libya’s civil war, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt supported General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan national army, while Turkey supported the rival government for national agreement and even sent troops to intervene.
The United Arab Emirates has also sought to join the EastMed Gas Forum, an alliance of Turkey’s regional and European rivals seeking to develop and protect its natural gas resources in the Mediterranean.
Members of the Turkish parliament vote to send Turkish troops to Libya to help the UN-backed government in Tripoli fight forces loyal to a rival administration in eastern Libya, January 2, 2020. (AP Photo / Burhan Ozbilici)
The Horn of Africa was another arena for rivalry. Turkey has invested heavily in Somalia, while Qatar, a long-standing key presence in the region, has led peacekeeping operations in Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti. At the same time, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are investing heavily in Ethiopia and see the Red Sea region as crucial to their own security.
Following the announcement of the Abraham Accords in August 2020, Erdogan – whose own country has open, albeit full-fledged relations with Israel – threatened to normalize relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates – to suspend diplomatic relations with Abu Dhabi. “The pressure on Palestine is not a step that can be resisted,” he said.
According to Moshe Albo, a modern Middle Eastern historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, “The rivalry between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey in Libya, the Horn of Africa and EastMed creates friction areas – through agents, yet very clearly – between the two countries that characterize the last decade.
“It’s not just ideological, geopolitical, it’s personal. It’s Erdogan himself.”
An emerging pragmatic approach
And despite the ongoing, multidimensional feud, the powerful leaders of the two countries still met and signed agreements this week, with both sides sounding an optimistic tone.
Several factors drove them towards the meeting and the less antagonistic relationship it may be.
First, the United Arab Emirates, whose prosperity has traditionally been rooted in its oil and natural gas reserves, has made a strategic decision to rapidly diversify its economy.
“The United Arab Emirates’ major strategy is to position itself as a hub for global trade, connecting economic interests between East and West,” said Brandon Friedman, head of research at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “Given the pandemic and the global economic downturn, the United Arab Emirates saw opportunities to promote intra-regional trade.”
Abu Dhabi also noted that Turkey is facing a number of crises at the same time. After spending most of the last decade picking fights with regional rivals such as Greece and Egypt – and, of course, Israel – Ankara has found itself increasingly isolated in recent times, with Joe Biden, a personal opponent of Erdogan, now in White House.
This photo taken on August 23, 2019 in Istanbul shows a Turkish seismic research vessel docked in the port of Haydarpasa, looking for hydrocarbons, oil, natural gas and offshore coal reserves. On 11 August 2020, Greece demanded that Turkey withdraw a research vessel at the heart of its growing dispute over maritime rights and warned that it would defend its sovereignty (Ozan KOSE / AFP)
In addition, Turkey’s lira continues to fall and inflation in 2021 is approaching 20 percent.
“Turkey’s regional isolation and slow economic crisis have given the United Arab Emirates an attractive economic opportunity to invest on favorable terms in the Turkish economy,” Friedman said.
It seems that Turkey also understands the weakness in its position. Turkish authorities have ordered the media of the Muslim Brotherhood in the country to stop attacking Egypt’s Sissi regime, and Qatar has followed suit. Erdogan has recently made conciliatory statements against Greece, the EU, Egypt and Israel.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi greet members of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, Turkey in September 2012 (photo: AP / Kayhan Ozer)
The United Arab Emirates seems to be betting that changes in Turkey’s fortunes will make it more likely to compromise on natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, a potential economic boon as European demand for natural gas continues to soar ahead of winter.
The election of Biden in the United States, also an important driving force in changing Erdogan’s approach, led to American allies across the region also changing their strategy. They concluded that the United States is determined to reach an agreement with Iran, that US involvement in the Middle East is waning and that there would be a particular focus on their domestic human rights policy.
For the United Arab Emirates, this prompted its leaders to try to reduce tensions and seek dialogue with Iran, Syria and Turkey.
“We are seeing more dialogue in the region and fewer proactive steps than before,” said Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – Israel’s Institute of Regional Foreign Policy. “There are many conflicting interests, but the path chosen by regional states is changing in the direction of soft power.”
The United Arab Emirates is still very suspicious of Turkey and its allies, but they are willing to pursue a pragmatic, ad hoc policy of dialogue when it serves its interests.
Opportunities after the Oknines
For Israel, there are potential opportunities even in the emerging reality of the Middle East.
“The Turkish-Emirati-Israeli connection is still under the table, but it does exist,” Zaga said. “It may be that we got a hint about it when the Israeli couple was released.”
Tourists Mordy and Natali Oknin were released by Turkey this month after spending eight days in jail for photographing an Erdogan palace, in a drama that gripped Israelis for fear the two bus drivers would face lengthy jail terms for improbable espionage allegations.
The Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin, who were detained in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, are welcomed when they return to Modiin on November 18, 2021 after being released. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
The Israeli government specifically thanked Erdogan for his role in liberating them, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog both had rare talks with the Turkish leader.
Erdogan’s personal involvement in securing the couple’s release was seen as a signal to improve ties between the two countries, Turkish officials told Israel’s Kan News last week.
The incident followed other positive signs in relations between Turkey and Israel since Biden’s election. In December last year, Erdogan had stated that “Our heart desires that we can move our relationships with [Israel] to a better point. “(Although he this week again the accused the Jewish state with “oppressive” policies toward the Palestinians.)
Despite the indications of a new Turkish approach, gaps remain in the core interests. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas is one such issue, as it retains offices in Turkey and, say Israeli officials, is targeting terrorist activities against Israel from Turkish soil.
On Monday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid required Turkey closed down Hamas offices in the country after Jerusalem announced the arrest of a sophisticated 50-member Hamas cell on the West Bank on its way from Istanbul.
Yesh Atid party leader Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks at a faction meeting in the Knesset, Jerusalem, November 8, 2021. (Oliiver Fitoussi / Flash90)
“Hamas’ office in Istanbul will be closed. We must prevent these heinous acts of terrorism against Israeli citizens, “said Lapid, a day after another Hamas terrorist carried out a deadly terrorist attack in Jerusalem.
Given the cell’s links to Turkey, Israel is said to have waited to announce the arrests, which were originally planned 10 days ago, until they had succeeded in securing the release of the owls.
Israel is also concerned about Turkish support for anti-Israel organizations in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Nevertheless, a Middle East with countries that want to secure their investments and an open dialogue with rivals can open up new diplomatic and economic opportunities for Israel, not least with Turkey. It really does not hurt that even the central state supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Ankara are willing to walk away from them when it is considered to serve their interests.