The United Arab Emirates (UAE) launched a period of diplomatic normalization in 2020. The normalization with Israel in August 2020 was followed by the end of the Qatari rift in January 2021, a move that was relatively more popular and less controversial than the former. More recently, the UAE rehabilitated its relations with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, despite disagreements among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states on whether to bring Syria back into the diplomatic fold.
In the last decade, Turkey and the UAE have positioned themselves as archenemies and have been embroiled in numerous regional crises, which resulted in enmity and rivalry between each other as well as other regional actors. Now, a normalization between the two countries seems to be occurring as well, with Muhammed bin Zayed’s visit to Ankara on November 24 formalizing the rapprochement.
Even though the media was more interested in the UAE's promises to invest in Turkey's markets, friendly images of the two leaders that have hitherto placed themselves on opposite poles send a clear message to their competitors and foes that peace is possible, even if hostile discourse is still fresh and widely broadcast in both governments' media. This normalization, thus, might be considered a precursor to Turkey's possible normalization with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, and even Syria (albeit not soon). At the same time, it may mean the same for UAE's relations with Iran.
The Root of the Hostility: Shift of Regional Gravity Forces and Underestimation of Each Other
Both countries have begun a period of normalization in the past two years, as both increased their diplomatic foes in the recent decade. This increase in adversaries was not merely due to aspirations of power, but was more parallel to the regional and global changes that followed 9/11: most importantly, the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Arab uprisings. These incidents ushered in a power vacuum in the region as the traditional Arab centers of power Baghdad, Damascus, and Cairo fell and smaller powers took their place by way of Doha, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. While the two countries attempted to benefit from the vacuum, they situated themselves on different poles on almost every issue. The UAE claimed that Turkey has aspirations of reviving the Ottoman empire at the expense of Arabs, while Turkey blames the UAE for destabilizing the region.
Turkey situated itself on the side of protesters in many states during the Arab Spring, while the UAE's leadership considered them a vital threat as the Muslim Brotherhood gained political power in Egypt and Tunisia. Indeed, the UAE saw the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a matter of national security and thus denounced any parties that have close relations with them; the three-and-half year Qatari crisis, for example, was a result of Qatar’s close relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership. Regardless of the outcome of the protests, however, neither Turkey nor the UAE gained much as the conflicts, both diplomatically and militarily, lasted longer than anticipated.
Mutual accusations did not bear any fruit for either party; this realization happened before the departure of previous U.S. President Donald Trump but was expedited with the accession of Joe Biden. Although President Biden was given as a reason for many normalizations in the region, such as Qatar and the rest of the Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, Turkey and Egypt, and many others, attributing them to Biden may be reinforcing an American-centric lens and thus exclude key regional dimensions. Firstly, many of the Emirati-Turkish negotiations began much earlier than publicly announced. For example, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that intelligence services had met for months before the UAE National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan visited the country. Attributing the normalizations to Biden also undermines the harsh impact COVID-19 had on the region. Given that states underwent a prominent shrink in the economy due to COVID-19 restrictions, diplomatic normalization is likely to create economic benefits and ease recovery.
Even though Biden Has encouraged regional powers to reach out to each other, these reconciliations were not solely because of Biden’s personality and party, but more importantly, regional powers’ collective realization that the U.S. is no longer interested in the Middle East and is ready to depart from it. The Afghanistan withdrawal was one such reason for regional powers to question their relations with the United States. In light of this, some analysts even described the UAE-Turkey rapprochement as a step towards a post-American era in the region, with some American disapproval to accompany it. the Biden administration, for example, did not welcome the UAE's desire to normalize with Syria and visit Damascus.
The UAE's normalization disposition may not stop with Turkey. The UAE and Iran are discussing the possibility of normalization, or at least have been in contact with each other to avoid any conflict. It was even reported that Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan would visit Tehran soon to discuss the regional issues and nuclear talks.
UAE’s Investments in Turkey: Lifejacket for Turkish Economy or Mutual Gains?
Because Turkey’s economy has faced significant problems ranging from high inflation to unemployment, the government is facing criticism and repeated calls for snap elections. In addition to the aforementioned economic developments, the recent depreciation of the Turkish Lira positioned the economy as the most important issue in Turkey's agenda. One day before bin Zayed and Erdogan’s meeting, the lira fell around 15 percent vis-à-vis USD and reached a historical record of 13.50 TL to USD.
Because bin Zayed’s public agenda for the visit comprised the negotiation of investment deals and economic cooperation, the visit seems to be a sort of lifejacket for the Turkish economy. The media reported $100 billion in investment, but the more realistic figures were between 10-20 billion: Abu Dhabi recently announced that they allocated $10 billion in funds for the areas that included energy, infrastructure, and finance.
Even though this move came when Turkey was in most need of foreign investment, the investment was also UAE’s priority. As an oil-rich emirate financing the country, Abu Dhabi has been a long player of international investments. Foreign investments for the UAE are essential for several reasons: the UAE has long been aiming to diversify its oil-based economy, meaning it is always looking for investment globally. Turkey has been on the Gulf investment agenda since 2002, but the recent crises between Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE made Qatar a more significant player in the Turkish economy. Qatar has been a significant investor in Turkey's banking and real estate sector, stock market, and shopping malls. Therefore, one cannot ignore the regional calculations of the UAE as it seeks to undercut Qatar, further emboldened by the recent reconciliation.
Saudi Arabia's desire to diversify its economy far from oil has also created an atmosphere of rivalry with the UAE. Saudi Arabia now seeks to be a regional hub for international companies, which Dubai has long enjoyed. Saudi and Qatari rapprochement also appears to be materializing faster than that of the UAE and Qatar one. Thus, it seems that UAE might feel left out, and is doing everything it can to stay ahead.
Hamdullah Baycar is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. His writing focuses on identity, tolerance, multiculturalism, and heritage in the Gulf. Follow him on Twitter: @Hamdullahbaycar