Can the UAE and Turkey mend their fraught ties?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s phone call with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) de facto ruler, on August 29 was yet another promising sign for Turkish and Emirati relations, which until recently embodied a rivalry that redefined the Middle East and North Africa’s geopolitical landscape.

In their decade-long competition that emerged following the Arab uprisings, the two countries took opposing sides in many regional conflicts, including Libya, Syria, and the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis. Yet according to Erdogan’s office and the Emirati news agency WAM, both Erdogan and Bin Zayed discussed regional issues and “the prospects of reinforcing the relations between the two nations in a way that serves their common interests and their two peoples,” in their first phone call in several years.

In another notable step, Emirati National Security Advisor Tahnoun bin Zayed al Nahyan met  Erdogan in the Turkish capital Ankara on August 18. It was the first visit of a leading Emirati official to Turkey since 2016, indicating Abu Dhabi’s keenness to restore relations with its former adversary.   

In a televised interview, Erdogan stated that the UAE may make “serious investments” in Turkey should negotiations between the two countries continue to show positive results. The topic of increased Emirati investments arose in the meeting, according to Erdogan, including discussions on economic and commercial cooperation, and investment opportunities in the transportation, health, and energy sectors.

Emirati investments in Turkey look set to occur, after chief executive of the Abu Dhabi-based conglomerate International Holdings Company (IHC) Syed Basar Shueb announced on August 25 that his company seeks investment opportunities in Turkey in the healthcare, industrial and food processing sectors.

While these developments may come as a surprise, there have been indications that Emirati and Turkish ties could only improve this year. At the beginning of the year, former Emirati Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash indicated a shift from the traditionally harsh Emirati rhetoric towards Ankara, saying “we don’t cherish any feuds with Turkey.”

Later, on March 12, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that there was no reason for Turkey not to resume ties with the UAE. And in a clear sign of friendly communication between the two countries, the UAE‘s Minister of State for Advanced Technology and Turkey’s Minister of Industry and Technology congratulated one another for their countries’ respective space programs in February.

Geopolitical tensions

A decade-long rivalry gradually developed between the two countries after the Arab uprisings. On the one hand, Turkey became close to Tunisia’s Ennahda party and Mohammad Morsi’s government in Egypt, after they won elections in their respective countries following the 2011 revolutions.

Tensions emerged after the UAE supported the 2013 military coup in Egypt which toppled Morsi, while Abu Dhabi faced allegations of working to undermine and overthrow Ennahda. Abu Dhabi resented Ankara’s stance in both countries and its harboring of exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood movements.

Later, during former US President Donald Trump’s tenure, tensions between the two countries erupted into direct geopolitical competition. Libya was a key flashpoint, as the UAE supported warlord Khalifa Haftar’s campaign to conquer Libya against the Turkish-backed and United Nations (UN)-recognized Government of National Accord. Abu Dhabi also began to warm to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and has tried to normalize his regime internationally, while leveraging Assad as a bulwark against Turkey, which intervened to help the Syrian opposition in Idlib.

Following the Gulf crisis of 2017, where Turkey sided with Qatar, escalation drifted towards the Horn of Africa. Somalia became a key area which reflected such divisions, as the UAE fell out with the Somali government in 2018, with Mogadishu’s central government moving further towards Ankara and Doha. After conceding ground to Turkey, which retained ties to Somalia, the UAE sought to expand its control in Somalia’s autonomous regions, including expanding its development of Somaliland’s Berbaba port.

Changing geopolitical landscape

It is important to note that such tensions peaked under the auspices of Donald Trump, who failed to encourage more diplomatic initiatives between the two US allies. Yet Joe Biden’s presidency has apparently prompted a revision of relations between the two countries.

While Turkey has sought to de-escalate its rivalries in different Arab countries, including repairing damaged ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt’s governments this year, it has been receptive towards restoring ties with Abu Dhabi, to meet its own economic interests through increasing trade relations. 

Significantly, the UAE has also shifted its foreign policy priorities over the last year. Firstly, it faced setbacks in various regional settings, including in Libya’s conflict after Haftar’s defeat in 2020, while it has struggled to expand its influence in the Horn of Africa. In both instances, Abu Dhabi backed opposite sides than Turkey, so it is evidently adapting its foreign policy after “conceding defeat.”  It has also faced much criticism for its actions in both countries, along with its involvement in Yemen’s war.

Therefore, the UAE has faced setbacks in both countries and now seeks to avoid the reputational repercussions, partly through appeasing the Biden administration and adopting a less bellicose foreign policy stance.

Indeed, further showcasing the UAE’s new pragmatic foreign policy, Tahnoun bin Zayed al Nahyan met Qatar’s Emir in Doha on August 26, after concluding his visit to Ankara. This gives a clear indication that Abu Dhabi is indeed on a diplomatic mission to repair its formerly tarnished relations.

Yet, while the UAE has sought to appease the Biden administration, it has felt increasingly fragile and restricted by its traditional allies, namely Washington and Saudi Arabia, and therefore seeks to establish new alliances. The United States’ tensions with Iran, which accumulated under Donald Trump’s administration, created a sense of vulnerability within Abu Dhabi, prompting the Emiratis to adopt a de-escalatory stance towards Tehran and build stronger relations to an extent.

The UAE has also diverged from its traditional close ally in Riyadh, as its opposition to the Saudi-sponsored Opec+ deal in June indicated. This has been a growing trend since the UAE began expanding its regional power, including reducing its involvement in Saudi Arabia’s intervention against the Houthis in Yemen since 2019, and backing the southern separatists, while taking the leading in backing Haftar’s military campaign in Libya.

So, while the UAE has adopted a more pragmatic approach, it has aimed to enrich itself in the meantime. This can be explained by its shift towards Russia and China in recent years, amid their expansion in the Gulf and wider Middle East. And as Turkey plays an important role in maintaining ties between Moscow, Beijing and Washington, Abu Dhabi sees it as a useful ally to garner its own independent foreign policy.

Hopes for de-escalation

Ultimately, the reduced tensions between Turkey and the UAE could impact developments in different countries in which the two previously competed. A key example is Libya. Although the UAE may still aim to salvage some influence in eastern Libya, some consolations may occur. And as Libya has progressed in its political transition under the transitional Government of National Unity (GNU), less direct competition from both parties could aid efforts for stability in the country.

Yet some differences may still linger between Turkey and the UAE, similar to how ongoing disagreements between Qatar and the UAE have continued, despite the Al-Ula summit last January, which brought an end to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) standoff.

Subtle jostling over influence in the Horn of Africa may continue, as Turkey offered to mediate the Nile River dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia on August 18, while it has sought to expand its investments in Ethiopia. Meanwhile, the UAE has also presented its own mediation initiatives over the Nile, while it seeks to retain influence in the wider Horn of Africa region, including Ethiopia.

However, these divisions would be mild in comparison to the geopolitical tensions that occurred in recent years. These tensions could be usefully thought of as a form of ‘managed competition’ between the two powers. Furthermore, an increase of economic ties and bilateral investments would certainly consolidate friendlier Turkish and Emirati relations, which may ultimately help to stabilize the volatile Middle East and North Africa region.