Executive summary

Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Gulf countries have been long collaborating and competing in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003. The United States (US) sought the support of regional allies to contribute to building the new political order as well as engage in economic reconstruction. Pre-war political and economic ties had helped Turkey and the UAE in establishing their influence in the country, and particularly in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Local actors in Iraq often sought to build relations with each of these actors to balance others, primarily Iran. Over time, the conflicting regional agendas of Turkey and the UAE produced spill-over effects in Iraq, particularly since the 2017 Gulf crisis, thus undermining their ad hoc cooperation in the country.

This paper argues that Turkish and Emirati engagement in Iraq has been based on a long-standing business-oriented approach that provided their political interventions with extra durability (and vice versa), compared to some other regional actors that sought influence in Iraq. The dynamics underlying relations between Turkey and the UAE in Iraq are subtler and less visible for external observers than those between Turkey or Gulf countries and Iran who had more intense and extensive flashpoints. 

Introduction

Since the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have competed in Iraq and influenced the country’s politics. The two countries, in addition to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, are both United States (US) allies that Washington cooperated with in varying capacities to assist in the reconstruction and building the political order of post-invasion Iraq. However, the Gulf crisis of 2017 negatively affected their collaboration in Iraq. At the same time, the US also occasionally contained the growing competition between Iraq’s neighbors to cultivate influence in the country.

For two decades now, Turkey has had two key concerns in Iraq: the first to counter the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and EU countries, and second to expand business opportunities. For Turkey, the geographic proximity and ethnic and sectarian composition of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and the Nineveh governorate made these two areas a starting point for projecting Turkish influence. The presence of a large minority of Arab Sunnis and the numerically less significant Turkmens has created both imperatives and pretexts for Turkey to cultivate influence in northern Iraq.

Meanwhile, for the UAE and Saudi Arabia, the transborder tribal links of the governorates of southern and western Iraq (e.g. Basra, Muthanna, Dhi Qar, and Anbar governorates) rendered them suitable habitats for cultivating influence. For Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, countering Iran’s influence has been a key goal. Both countries, however, diverged in their tactics and policies to achieve this goal, occasionally contradicting each other. With the defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS) in 2017, the two countries worked to align their policies more than before. 

The thin geographic and demographic barriers between these spheres of influence would not ultimately limit competition between Turkey and the UAE/Saudi Arabia. Neither demographic and ethnic lines, nor geopolitical imperatives could uphold those imagined buffers between the spheres of influence of those countries in Iraq over the long-term. This can be explained through the following four reasons: