Is the UAE competing against Turkey in the Balkans? turkey and uae for albalkans

“The Emirates shocked Sarajevo, including the Grand Mufti.”

This is how a recent headline read in the popular Croatian daily Slobodna Dalmacija after the United Arab Emirates sent planeloads of medical aid to Serbia, and neighboring Croatia and Montenegro, but not to Muslim majority Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, despite having embassies in Serbia and Montenegro, the UAE has no diplomatic presence in Bosnia.

So shocked were Bosnian Muslims that the UAE, a fellow Muslim state, was helping Serbia (a country that waged war against Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s) and not them, that the Grand Mufti of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina Husein efendi Kavazović publicly reacted in an attempt to calm the situation. Clearly aware of the geopolitical motives behind the medical aid, he told his fellow Muslims: ”Politics is politics, and they must not be allowed to damage the good relations between our people.”

So, is Abu Dhabi shunning Bosnian Muslims?Is the UAE competing against Turkey in the Balkans?

Not so long ago, Serbia and UAE were not the best of friends. During the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UAE financially supported Bosnian Muslims to battle Bosnian Serb rebels backed by neighboring Serbia. TV stations in the UAE aired moving images of Bosnian Muslims massacred by Serb forces, resulting in Emiratis raising huge amounts of money for Bosnia – including a nationwide telethon that raised over $43 million in just one day.

Emirati royals lavishly contributed to the Bosnian cause – with then President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan donating over USD $10 million, and Minister of Defense Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, donating nearly USD $15 million. A few years after the Bosnian war ended and Serbian forces started their military onslaught against Kosovar Albanians seeking independence, the UAE supported NATO’s bombing campaign against Serbia.

A decade later, when Kosovo declared independence in 2008, the UAE became the first Arab country to recognize Kosovo – which angered Serbia and led to the severing of freshly inked diplomatic ties. In fact, the UAE even deployed some 1,500 soldiers to the breakaway province of Kosovo as part of the KFOR peace-keeping mission.

However, following a 2013 visit by Abu Dhabi’ Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the UAE Muhammad Bin Zayed to Belgrade, relations underwent a dramatic overhaul. Fatah’s former strongman in Gaza, Muhammed Dahlan, was the linchpin in revamping ties between the two countries. So important was his role, that the government of Serbia awarded him citizenship and decorated him with a Medal of the Serbian Flag.

Thereafter, relations took an upward spiral. 

Investments from the UAE to Serbia soared from 300.00 euros in 2010 to 180 million euros in 2018. UAE’s state-owned airline Etihad purchased a 49% share of Air Serbia, the country’s national carrier. In 2015 an Emirati company struck a deal to develop a €3.5 billion high-end real estate project along Belgrade’s rundown riverfront. Loans totaling more than $1 billion were given to Serbia with generous repayment terms.

A $400 million loan from the UAE’s Development Fund was channeled to gain a controlling stake in bankrupted socialist-era farms. Moreover, bilateral trade between the two countries rose from US $31.2 million in 2014 to $83.2 million in 2017 and $184 million in 2018. Finally, a number of lucrative arms deals were inked with the UAE taking advantage of Serbia’s lax export controls to purchase large quantities of weapons, some of which ended up in Syria and Yemen.

But what exactly are Abu Dhabi’s motives in Serbia? 

Foreign policy observers point to mutual commercial interests, with both sides having a decision-making culture that comes from the top echelons  and an attempt by the UAE to diversify its investments and prepare for a post-oil economy

. While these are valid points in understanding relations between the two, the ideological dimensions of an ongoing Middle Eastern geopolitical rift should not be overlooked – that of the UAE against Turkey and Qatar.

Namely, Ankara is and has long been a major player in the Balkans and Abu Dhabi clearly wants to crowd it out of the region.

Here is why.

Since coming to power in 2002, Turkey under its incumbent AK Party has invested significant energy and resources into gaining greater political, economic, and cultural clout in the Balkans. Ankara restored dozens of Ottoman-era cultural heritage sites, handed out hundreds of university scholarships, and led major infrastructure projects while private Turkish businessmen and associations opened universities, schools and businesses. 


Turkey saw a total of $9.8 billion in exports to the Balkans in the first nine months of 2019, a 3.7% increase compared to the same period the year before. Turkey exported the largest portion of this  to Romania with $2.9 billion, followed by Bulgaria with $1.8 billion, and Greece and Slovenia with $1.5 and $1.2 billion, respectively.

Turkey became one of Serbia’s most important trading partners, despite old animosities and the country’s strong support for Kosovo’s independence. In fact, as of 2019, Serbia is Turkey’s largest trading partner in the Western Balkans. The number of Turkish companies operating in Serbia shot up from 130 in 2015 to 800 in 2020. These companies employ more than 8,000 people. Turkish investments in Serbia went up from $1 million in 2011 to $200 million today. In 2008 their annual trade volume stood at 340 million euros – by 2019 the annual figure had exceeded $1 billion euros. ”We have never before had such robust economic relations between our two countries.

Relations between President Vučić and Recep Tayyip Erdogan today are at an exceptional level” says Ivan Ejub Kostić, a geopolitical analyst based in Belgrade. ”In fact, we can easily say that Serbia has never, in its modern history, had better relations with Turkey” he adds.

In neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bakir Izetbegović, leader of a major Bosniak Muslim political party who spent two terms as a member of the tripartite Presidency, is widely perceived as having close ties with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In fact, many from the upper echelons of the Bosniak Muslim elite are seen as having warm feelings towards Turkey.

Although far from having Islamist underpinnings, Izetbegović’s public gestures such as  saying “There is a leader here sent by God. His name is Recep Tayyip Erdogan” as well as his meeting with Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood members in Bosnia and his raising of the four-finger ‘Rabia sign have all been interpreted as expressions of sympathy towards the AKP and the Muslims Brotherhood respectively.

Likewise, the Bosnian Islamic Community’s decision to hold funeral prayers in absentia for Egypt’s first democratically elected President and Brotherhood member Mohammad Morsi and their public referral to him as a ‘martyr’ further added to their image of being Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers. 

Lastly, Bosnia’s cordial relations with Qatar and Al Jazeera’s regional channel headquarters in Sarajevo is viewed with suspicion from the UAE-Saudi block and their sympathizers in the Balkans. 

Since Abu Dhabi considers the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” and is antagonistic towards both Turkey and Qatar, it has clearly decided to use Serbia as a staging ground to leverage the Turkish and Qatari presence in the Balkans.

It goes without saying that for the UAE, just like for Turkey, having a presence in the Balkans is not only tempting but logical – Serbia connects the Balkans with central Europe, Romania and Bulgaria and connects to the Black Sea while Bosnia, Montenegro and Croatia connect to the Adriatic Sea.

Jahja Muhasilović, a lecturer at the International University in Sarajevo who has been closely following Turkey’s diplomatic maneuvers in the Balkans over the past years, believes that it would be naïve not to see the geopolitical dimension of the Emirati involvement in the region. He adds ”…the involvement of the Emiratis is seen as a counterbalance to Russian and especially Turkish and Qatari influence in the region.

Turkey is recognized by the UAE as an open supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood across the world. Qatar, on the other hand, is seen as one of the main financiers of the movement. So, one of UAE’s primary ambitions is to suppress these aforementioned influences in the Balkans.

Zijad Bećirović, who heads a think tank in Slovenia, agrees that the UAE is entangled in a geopolitical struggle with Turkey but adds ”maybe UAE do[es] have a plan to push out Qatar and Turkey from Bosnia and Herzegovina as they are trying to do in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Sudan and Egypt. However, such a scenario is unlikely in Europe. With the coronavirus and the fall in oil prices, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia are in for a big financial crisis.”

This is not to say that there are no UAE or Saudi activities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, the UAE’s strategic investments in Serbia (air industry, defense sector, real estate, agriculture) should be discerned from private Emirati and Saudi individuals who purchase summer homes or build an occasional mosque in Bosnia. By cultivating ties with Serbian elites and developing a confluence of geopolitical and economic interests, the UAE is opening yet another front – after Libya, Somalia and Syria – in its ideological rift against Ankara and Doha.

For a new player, the UAE has had relative success in cementing its presence in Serbia and Montenegro in such a short time. On the other hand, though trade relations are good between the Balkans and Turkey, Ankara has not been as active on the diplomatic front lately. This is primarily due to Turkey’s more pressing issues in the Middle East and North Africa where support for allies no longer takes the form of soft, but rather, hard power. However, in the long run, Turkey will most likely maintain its upper hand in the region as it shares numerous historical, cultural, and social traits with the Balkan nations.

At the time of writing, a plane full of medical supplies from Qatar arrived in Sarajevo, followed, a few days later, by a plane with medical gear and Covid-19 testing kits from the United Arab Emirates. There was, however, a key difference. Namely, the UAE aid that arrived to Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia was official UAE government aid while the planeload that arrived in Sarajevo was a personal gift from Sheikha Hind bint Maktoum bin Juma Al Maktoum, wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai.

Increased Turkish and Emirati activity in the region leads to an important geopolitical conclusion – that the Balkans and Middle East are two interrelated geopolitical units. It is obvious that there is geopolitical and security interplay between the two regions and that patterns of enmity and affinity that dominate so much of the Middle East are clearly having a spillover effect in this part of Europe.


Is the UAE competing against Turkey in the Balkans?

This is how a recent headline read in the popular Croatian daily Slobodna Dalmacija after the United Arab Emirates sent planeloads of medical aid to Serbia, and neighboring Croatia and Montenegro, but not to Muslim majority Bosnia and Herzegovina. In fact, despite having embassies in Serbia and Montenegro, the UAE has no diplomatic presence in Bosnia.