An Overstretched UAE Looks to Mend Ties With Turkey

This time last year, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey appeared to be on opposing sides of a range of issues spanning the broader Middle East and North Africa region. But recently, leaders from the two countries have started to talk again. Concerns in 2019 and 2020 that a regional “cold war” pitting Emirati and Turkish interests against each other in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa and even the Caucasus have given way to a thawing of relations. The shift in approach by Abu Dhabi toward deescalating regional points of tension is part of a broader effort by the kingdom’s rulers to recalibrate their foreign policy stance after a period of arguable overextension. 

The highest-profile indication of a rapprochement between Abu Dhabi and Ankara was a mid-August visit to Turkey by the UAE’s national security adviser, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Weeks after that trip, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a telephone call with the UAE’s crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Tahnoon is a brother of MBZ, as the crown prince is popularly known, and MBZ has repeatedly entrusted him with responsibility for sensitive regional and international portfolios. In the ongoing—and likely permanent—absence from public life of his half-brother, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, since his stroke in 2014, MBZ and a small circle of senior advisers, including Tahnoon, direct most aspects of Emirati policymaking, especially in foreign, security and defense affairs. 

Since 2019, the UAE has been pragmatically reassessing its regional posture in response to setbacks its forces have faced in conflict zones like Yemen and Libya, which risked drawing the country deeper into a set of increasingly unwinnable wars. The first sign of this shift came in June 2019, when Abu Dhabi unilaterally drew down most of its direct military presence in Yemen in favor of a less visible but still influential footprint that worked through local political partners and security forces in southern Yemen. In Libya, the moment of truth came in summer 2020, after the UAE’s ally, Gen. Khalifa Haftar, attempted to break out of his stronghold in eastern Libya and capture the capital, Tripoli. That campaign failed largely as a result of a significant escalation in Turkish military and political assistance to the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord. 

The Yemeni and Libyan cases illustrated the limitations of the UAE’s ability to project military and political power beyond its borders and constituted a reality check at the end of a post-Arab Spring decade largely defined by the muscular assertion of Emirati influence across the region. The setbacks coincided with a growing realization in both Abu Dhabi and Riyadh that the years-long blockade of Qatar they were then leading had failed to yield tangible results, as well as with the spate of Iranian-linked attacks on Saudi oil facilities and shipping routes in the region. Of particular concern to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh was the Trump administration’s decision to use force to respond only to attacks that hit U.S. assets, rather than those directed against Emirati or Saudi targets. 

The UAE’s reversion to dialogue and diplomacy is a pragmatic recalculation of a set of policies that risked doing it more harm than good.

From Abu Dhabi’s perspective, three successive U.S. presidents—Barack Obama, Donald Trump and now Joe Biden—have injected doubt and uncertainty into the reliability of the U.S. as a long-term partner and security guarantor. In Obama’s case, this was due to the way he was perceived to have “abandoned” then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the 2011 revolution, and his decision years later to exclude the Gulf states from the Iran nuclear negotiations. In Biden’s case, the Emiratis have been dismayed at the way the withdrawal from Afghanistan was handled. The fact that such concerns have swirled around not one or two, but three U.S. administrations has only fueled the UAE’s pragmatic reassessment of its regional interests and the optimal mix of policy tools it should use to achieve them. It quietly began reaching out to Iran in July 2019 after attacks on shipping off the Emirati coast in May and June, and UAE officials called for deescalation when U.S.-Iran tensions spiraled after the killing of Iran’s top military commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in January 2020. 

Uncertainty over regional geopolitics also partly explains why the Turkish government has shown its own interest in repairing fractured relationships. Ties between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, especially, began to improve in late-2020, after they had gone into a deep freeze with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Perhaps not uncoincidentally, the thaw began as regional leaders adjusted to Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election and moved away from the raw power politics that had characterized the Trump era. This same calculation lay behind the relatively quick resolution of the blockade of Qatar, which came about in January during the transition from Trump to Biden after having been stuck for more than three years.

Saudi officials initiated both the rapprochement with Turkey and the dialogue with Qatar, reflecting Riyadh’s sense that it should take measurable steps to remedy some of the mistakes it made during the Trump years in the eyes of the incoming administration. Emirati officials followed the Saudis in both cases, possibly to avoid the UAE becoming isolated as the regional geopolitical landscape shifted around them. However, MBZ also has had to contend with heightened competition with Saudi Arabia over multiple issues in recent months. Tensions between the two historically close allies erupted into public view at an OPEC+ meeting in July, which ended in an unresolved standoff over whether to extend limits on oil output. Saudi Arabia also recently amended its tariffs in a way that clearly targeted goods made in the UAE’s free zones or in UAE-Israeli collaborative ventures. 

All of this means that Emirati perceptions of potential and actual threats have likely evolved since 2019, when the UAE and Turkey appeared to be ranged against each other across multiple issues and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi seemed to have formed a decisive new axis in regional politics. After nearly a decade of pursuing an interventionist approach to regional affairs, the reversion to dialogue and diplomacy is a pragmatic recalculation of a set of policies that risked doing the UAE more harm than good. The disputes with Saudi Arabia serve as a reminder that, for all the issues that divide the UAE and Turkey, it is the relationship with Riyadh that could create the most challenges for Abu Dhabi, especially if the two countries compete in similar sectors for scarcer markets to power their respective post-pandemic economic recoveries. 

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

Articles: 14302

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *