Ankara and Abu Dhabi’s relationship has been shaped by rivalry for several years. What fruits might normalisation bear?
UAE Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed (MBZ) is expected to visit Turkey this week, marking a significant change in the geopolitics of the Middle East. Reports state that Abu Dhabi is planning to invest billions of dollars in Turkey, particularly in the healthcare and industrial sectors.
It is rumoured that the UAE will purchase a significant amount of Turkish defence products. This rapprochement appears to be the result of the UAE’s economic interests as well as Turkey’s desire to normalise relations in the region.
The UAE and Turkey have competed for influence in the region for over a decade now. The growing economic, political, diplomatic, and military strengths of the two nations, combined with a fragile regional environment, fuelled the rivalry.
The UAE initially hoped to transform the Middle East in its image but encountered a strong obstacle in Turkey. This rivalry between Ankara and Abu Dhabi was exhausting and costly for both.
During the wave of Arab uprisings, Turkey supported democratic change in the Middle East, while the UAE put its weight behind autocrats.
The first spike in tensions was seen in Egypt, when Sisi took power by force. It continued with the UAE’s aid to the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey and the blockade against Qatar. Somalia and Sudan were also areas of competing interests for both states. The war in Libya and the UAE’s attempt to bribe the Assad regime to attack Idlib pitted both nations against each other.
Unlike Turkey, the UAE had limited national resources to engage in this competition. With a population of 10 million, only 11.48 percent of whom are UAE citizens, the UAE needed to subsidise its lack of manpower, capability and expertise by purchasing human capital.
The UAE employed foreign consultants to formulate its policies - an expensive endeavour. Turkey, on the other hand, could rely on its own local experts.
Despite this disparity in resources, the UAE managed to compete as it bought lobbyists in the US. It also received military support, expertise and intelligence from Saudi Arabia (MBZ had strong relations with Muhammad bin Salman). Moreover, during the Trump administration, the UAE could rely on strong American support. With the Abraham Accords, the UAE also established ties with Israel.
For the UAE, maintaining this support was a delicate balancing act, and eventually its tenuous network of alliances came undone. The UAE lost the trust of Saudi Arabia and found itself in a weak position vis-a-vis the Biden administration. The country then discovered its rivalry with Turkey was untenable. The UAE’s threat perception regarding Turkey’s foreign policy eased, as the UAE now regards popular Arab movements as weaker than before.
On the other side of the coin, Turkey also aimed to normalise its relations in the region. Developments in the eastern Mediterranean, as well as changes in Turkish-Russian relations, made it necessary to end tensions with regional states. With Turkey on one side, and Egypt, Israel or Saudi Arabia on the other, the countries negotiated for a process of normalisation.
Contrary to initial expectations, negotiations went slowly, especially regarding Saudi Arabia. This incremental progress provided the UAE with an opportunity to reach out to Turkey and normalise relations relatively quickly.
Besides the fatigue of international competition, changing geopolitical rivalries, and the opportunity presented by Saudi Arabia’s thaw with Turkey, the UAE’s calculus is also economically motivated. Turkey is an emerging - and lucrative - market for the UAE. With the devaluation of the lira, Turkey is now an excellent place for foreign investments that will pay off in both the short and long terms. For Turkey, investments from the UAE would boost the economy and help Turkey evolve into an export powerhouse.
The UAE-Turkey rivalry has also revealed that the latter’s military equipment is effective. Rather than fighting Turkey’s military equipment in costly military adventures, the UAE now seems to be interested in acquiring them.
The low price tag on these Turkish defence products is just one more incentive. The UAE’s defence procurements from other states like the US or Russia are expensive and take a big toll on the defense budget, whereas Turkey cuts costs and provides quality.
Unexpectedly, the new rapprochement between the UAE and Turkey seems to show promise. However, the UAE’s sincerity, or lack thereof, will determine if this is just a pause in the rivalry or if it will lead to deeper cooperation.
If the UAE sees benefits in working with Turkey, the mistrust that has evolved over the years between the two nations could shrink rapidly.
More importantly, in order to foster deeper cooperation Turkey and the UAE need to discuss their vision for the Middle East. If their differences persist, relations may once again break down. This is particularly true if the Middle East faces other incidents of unrest like the Arab uprisings of the last decade.
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