Turkish President Erdoğan travelled to the United Arab Emirates on February 14, hoping to develop the momentum Turkey has captured with the UAE. Erdoğan has been given a warm and friendly welcome after touching down in Abu Dhabi.
Even though Erdoğan received a grand reception on Monday, the relations between the two countries have not been always warm and cordial. Turkey and the UAE have been at loggerheads over the Middle East since al-Sisi overthrew Egypt's elected government in 2013. As a result, the two countries have been promoting conflicting political and ideological prospects for the region. The UAE leaders, staunch opponents of the Muslim Brotherhood, did not have much sympathy for the AKP government which firmly sided with the Brotherhood. Turkey made some unsubstantiated allegations against the UAE about its collaboration with the failed 15 July coup plotters. Besides, as recent as October 2020, the rapprochement between the UAE and Israel made headlines in Turkey where the pro-government media accused the UAE leaders of being “despicable” and “waging war against Islamic values.” The recent high-level visits and increasing trade volumes between these two countries show however that they have decided to bury the hatchet. There are a few reasons why Turkey and the UAE are trying to deepen their cooperation.
Firstly, Turkey faces its worst economic crisis in the last two decades. Turkish lira lost more than 40 percent of its value last year despite continuous burning of the foreign currency reserves of the Turkish Central Bank. In January, the annual inflation rate reached 49 percent, while many believe that this official rate is highly underestimated. Erdoğan desperately needs to attract foreign investment from Arab countries like in the good old days to fix Turkey’s economic crisis. Besides, Turkey’s critical presidential elections will be held next year. The windfalls from the UAE can have a boosting effect for Turkish economy, and thus for Erdoğan’s chance to get reelected. We cannot say that his efforts of the rapprochement with the UAE did not bear any fruits. After the visit of Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, de facto ruler of the UAE, to Ankara in November, the UAE announced that it allocated a $10 billion fund to invest in Turkey. Lately, the UAE also signed a $5 billion currency swap with the Turkish Central Bank. During this visit, the two countries signed 13 agreements on defense, trade, land and sea transportation, industry, and the economy.
Secondly, the Emirati leaders have started to follow their own version of a zero problems policy with its neighbors after a bellicose decade in the Middle East in tandem with the US policy of disengagement from the region and focus on China and in face of growing Iranian military capabilities. This new approach “prioritizes diplomatic solutions, soft power, and de-escalation of tension on controversial issues with neighbors and regional players.” In this vein, the Emiratis reached out to Iran to improve bilateral ties, downsized its army in Yemen, made no objections to the lifting of sanctions against Qatar, recognized Israel as a sovereign state and established diplomatic relations with it.
In this context, Erdoğan’s visit to Abu Dhabi is in harmony with the UAE’s new policy. As the crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed emphasized, the UAE is keen to cooperate with Turkey "to confront a number of common challenges that the region is witnessing through dialogue and diplomatic resolve." Before his visit, inan op-ed entitled “Now is the time for regional peace and cooperation initiatives” in the prominent Emirati daily Khaleej Times, Erdoğan said that “As Turkey, we do not separate the security and stability of the United Arab Emirates and our other brothers in the Gulf region from the security and stability of our own country.” I would like to point out that the highlighting of stability and dialogue are not just some diplomatic niceties in a geography where hard power is valued above all. To the contrary, this overemphasis can be an indication that they have reached the limits of their expansionist policies in the last decade, and that they want to preserve their achievements without further conflicts between the regional powers.
On the other hand, the mutual understanding of de-escalating tensions between the two countries does not mean that they have settled all their differences. To begin with, the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey is a potential source of conflict. Although Turkey ordered the Muslim Brotherhood to curtail its criticism towards the Gulf States and Egypt, the Brotherhood continues to operate in Turkey and to enjoy a close relationship with the AKP government. Secondly, Turkey was not able to de-escalate the tensions with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the closest allies of the UAE in the region. Besides, Turkey and the UAE continue to support different warring sides in Libya. Lastly, it seems that the AKP government is not very happy with the rapprochement between the UAE and Israel. Just a few days before Erdoğan’s important visit to the UAE, Turkey’s foreign minister Çavuşoğlu announced to the press that “normalization of Turkey’s relationship with Israel will not happen at the expense of the Palestinian cause, as some countries did. This potentially damaging comment was an undeniable reference to the recent developments between the UAE and Israel.
To conclude, the reciprocal high-level visits between Turkey and the UAE are good steps to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East. It seems that Turkey’s main interest is to attract Gulf funding to soften its economic woes in accordance with its détente efforts in the Middle East. Accordingly, Erdoğan also plans to travel to Saudi Arabia in the following weeks for similar reasons. In other words, Turkey’s economic predicaments do not permit extended conflicts in the region. The UAE however is more interested in promoting regional stability and cessation of hostilities with the countries in the region, including Turkey. Nevertheless, despite an understanding of deepening the bilateral cooperation between Turkey and the UAE, the underlying issues have the potential to muddy the water in the future.