After more than a decade of mutual antagonism and distrust, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates turned the corner in 2021. Turkish-UAE relations reached their peak before the 2011 Arab Spring, which subsequently revealed wide gaps in their regional interests. While Turkey—and Qatar—supported the public uprisings that challenged the region’s dictators and monarchs, the UAE feared the rise of political Islam to power and in some cases it supported regimes to strengthen their grip on power. The emergent contest devolved into outright hostility, rupturing the once-close relationship between Ankara and Abu Dhabi.
A clear line may be drawn from the first protests to grip the region in 2011 to the tense relationship between Turkey and the UAE that has begun to thaw two years ago. The Turkish government’s overt support for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood during and after the Arab Spring enraged the Emirati government and alienated Ankara from many of the Gulf monarchies. Abu Dhabi and Ankara found themselves supporting opposite sides in Libya, and rumors circulated that Emirati leader Mohamed bin Zayed provoked Assad to attack Turkish troops in Syria. In addition, when Qatar was blockaded by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt, Ankara essentially broke the blockade and sent its troops to Doha to deter a likely invasion. However, in the past two years, the Al-Ula agreement has contributed to broadly improved relations between Turkey and its erstwhile adversaries.
The Turkish government, which continues to struggle with domestic economic woes, has had to pursue a more pragmatic foreign policy. Economic hardship and challenge facing President Erdogan in the upcoming elections urged Ankara to reduce the distrust with many Gulf states resulted from Turkey’s support of uprisings in Syria and other Arab countries. To balance its books at home and reduce tensions abroad, Ankara has undertaken a massive effort to reestablish its relations with the UAE and the other Gulf monarchies. The Gulf states have proven receptive to Turkish overtures because they also realize that competition and animosity have brought little benefit for either side. Moreover, since the conflicts in which they were embroiled did not directly affect their national security (the example of Turkish military operations in Syria notwithstanding), Turkey and the Gulf states found it easier to bury the hatchet and search for common ground.
The new chapter in Turkey-UAE relations began where such rapprochement so often does: commerce. In 2022, trade between the two countries reached $19 billion. In March 2023, Turkey and the UAE signed a free trade agreement to boost bilateral trade to $40 billion over the next five years. The central banks of the two countries inked a $5 billion swap deal, and the UAE promised to invest $10 billion in the Turkish economy. What is more, the UAE is the second largest importer of Turkish arms, including advanced combat drones.
For the ailing Turkish economy, the new trade deals grant it a much-needed lifeline. For the UAE, its new partnership with Turkey allows it to diversify its international connections to compensate for the United States’ perceived withdrawal from the Middle East. Washington’s hasty exit from Afghanistan at the beginning of the Biden administration heightened fears that the United States’ other regional partners would be likewise abandoned. Therefore, the search for new partners has taken on greater importance to buttress the UAE’s security vis-à-vis regional rivals like Iran. In addition, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh continue to jostle for regional leadership, and the former has striven to remain one step ahead of its larger neighbor. Indeed, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman does not appear willing to let the UAE realize its ambitions to become the leading Gulf monarchy; thus, the more the rivalry between the two Gulf states grows, the more partners the UAE will seek further afield.
Return to the Past
Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE also has important implications for Qatar, another of the UAE’s regional competitors. Some pundits have argued that the UAE has offered Turkey improved trade ties and investment deals to pull Ankara into its orbit. It is an open secret that Qatar and the UAE are engaged in a relentless rivalry for regional influence, and while the diplomatic landscape of the Gulf has improved dramatically after the signing of the Al-Ula Agreement, the rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Doha has not died. As long as these small states enjoy massive hydrocarbon revenues and harbor ambitions of regional power, competition between them will persist.
However, it will be more difficult for the UAE to drive Turkey and Qatar apart than it may believe. The Turkish and Qatari governments share a bond forged during difficult times for both states, through attempted coups and regional ostracization. They share many foreign policy interests and continue to enjoy close ties. Perhaps most importantly, the two states respect each other’s relations with third parties; so far, Qatar has made no objection to Ankara’s recent reset with Abu Dhabi. Consequently, it can safely be assumed that Turkey’s good relations with the UAE will not come to impact Turkish-Qatari relations.
The key irony behind Turkey’s standoffish relations with the UAE and other Gulf monarchies is that Turkey was once considered a security guarantor for the Gulf region. Though the Arab Spring put an end to these expectations, the wounds of the past decade have begun to heal. With the Arab Spring safely in the past, the region’s states have once again sought to return to traditional security arrangements. Therefore, Turkey’s next move may not be to split with Qatar, but to elevate relations with the UAE (and others) to the level of Turkish-Qatari relations. Although Turkish leaders vary widely in their stances toward domestic politics—and Erdogan appears uniquely vulnerable to an electoral defeat in the country’s upcoming elections in May—the broad consensus in Ankara has been that his initial policy of “no problems with neighbors,” effectively abandoned in the wake of the Arab Spring, should once again be prioritized as the guiding principle of Turkey’s foreign relations. It seems likely that Turkey’s relationships in the Gulf region will once again come to reflect this philosophy.