Turkish-Emirati relations deteriorated significantly after the July 15 coup attempt. After a long period of non-communication at the highest levels, however, there are signs that dialogue between the two countries could be rebuilt.
The 2011 Arab revolutions constituted a turning point in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East, and the Gulf countries in particular. While Ankara supported the popular movements, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sought to prevent the revolutionary attempts, particularly in Egypt and Libya, by backing counter-revolutionary actors. The difference of opinion became so sharp that Turkish-Emirati relations started to suffer.
The situation reached its climax in 2016 when some policy circles voiced allegations that the UAE supported the July 15 military coup attempt. Relations between the two countries continued to deteriorate in the following period.
It is important to touch upon the reasons as to why the UAE has chosen to be a malignant actor against Turkey.
First, after the Arab revolutions, both countries started to take an active stance in regional politics, creating competition for regional leadership. Turkey believed that a democratic region was a better partner for Ankara. The UAE saw the Arab spring as a threat to its very existence.
Although the UAE is not comparable to Turkey in terms of population and military capacity, Abu Dhabi’s aggressive foreign policy and its pursuit of a foreign policy parallel to that of the US and Israel put it at odds with Turkey.
The UAE has also greatly influenced Saudi Arabia's foreign policy, particularly since 2016. Thus the Saudi stance towards Turkey also became negative, providing the UAE an important ally in confronting Turkish regional influence. As a result, the UAE combined the financial advantage from its oil wealth with its strategy of buying influence, and started acting as a barrier against Turkey’s regional leadership.
The UAE has also joined forces with the US and Israel in order to counter Turkey’s increasing influence in the region. Ankara has made serious breakthroughs in the defence industry. Wanting to show that it has become a game-changer in regional politics, it has started to use its hard power on the field, in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Meanwhile, the UAE aims to become the leading country of the Arab world, and accuses Turkey of meddling in the internal affairs of Arab countries, likening Ankara’s regional policies to that of Iran - a stance Turkey categorically rejects.
The July 15 coup attempt was a key moment in the rivalry between Turkey and the UAE, as many policy circles in Turkey thought that the UAE supported the coup plotters — so much so that when certain government officials announced that a Gulf country gave $3 billion in support to the coup plotters, experts claimed that this country was the UAE.
For Ankara, July 15 was an instance of direct targeting, and the hostility between the two countries after the attempted coup became more apparent.
Countering regional influence
The Abu Dhabi administration has made substantive efforts to break Ankara’s regional influence in five key ways.
First, it was active in areas where Turkey has intense foreign policy engagement, especially in Libya, Syria and the Horn of Africa.
The UAE carries out diplomatic, military and economic activities to upset Turkey’s presence in these places. For instance, the UAE has worked closely with the Somaliland administration to encourage them to seek independence from Somalia. In Libya, Abu Dhabi increased its support to Khalifa Haftar to topple the internationally recognised government in Tripoli that has signed strategic cooperation agreements with Turkey.
Second, the UAE seeks to punish Turkey’s partners. In this context, Qatar is the prominent example: Doha’s strategic cooperation with Ankara has been interpreted as a key reason behind the UAE-led three-and-a-half-year blockade on Qatar.
Third, the UAE instrumentalises the Arab League to hinder Turkey’s policies. Traditionally controlled by Egypt, the Arab League has become an institution acting under the aegis of the UAE and has condemned Ankara’s activities many times.
Fourth, the UAE sought to hamper Turkey’s regional economic influence by trying to prevent its economic activities - by pressuring countries with which Turkey had good economic relations, supporting an unofficial boycott of Turkish goods, or by directing global capital to anti-Turkey activities.
Finally, the UAE has supported media and publications to damage Turkey’s historical and current reputation among Arabs. Abu Dhabi used new media instruments alongside traditional media tools, as well as systematic smear campaigns on social media.
Steps towards rapprochement?
Although the UAE did not participate in the recent regional rapprochement movements as a preference, limited positive signals could still be received in Turkish-Emirati relations.
After a long period of non-communication at the highest levels between the two countries, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and the UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan exchanged greetings and congratulated one another for the holy month of Ramadan in a phone call in April. It has been Turkey’s non-exclusionary and open-to-dialogue rhetoric that is the main reason behind the positive signal in bilateral relations.
The former UAE Minister of State, Anwar Gargash, stated that bilateral relations could be improved within the framework of the principle of respect for mutual sovereignty.
Thus, the dialogue between the two countries could begin to be rebuilt, albeit to a limited extent, on non-political issues. It should be noted that Turkey does not rule out the political and diplomatic rapprochement regarding the UAE and is aware that this possible rapprochement will be beneficial for both countries.
From this point of view, ending anti-Turkey activities and entering into a constructive dialogue with Ankara will have much more positive results for both Abu Dhabi and regional politics. Meanwhile, Turkey will be decisive in overcoming the problems in the region by adopting a constructive attitude today, as in the past.
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