Turkey, UAE and Saudi Arabia pull together after falling out

By Amélie Zaccour
Posted on Thursday, 29 December 2022 10:54

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomes Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Ankara on 22 June 2022. © MUSTAFA KAMACI/TURKISH PRESIDENCY PRESS OFFICE / AFP

After an Arab Spring-inspired decade of tensions and geopolitical rivalries, rapprochement appears to be on the horizon between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The UAE is already back in business with Ankara.

On 22 November, the Saudi Ministry of Finance announced the contribution of $5bn in economic aid to Turkey, something that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi within the Saudi kingdom’s Istanbul consulate froze relations between the two countries.

Over time, however, rapprochement between the two countries began to thaw somewhat, beginning with a Saudi removal of the embargo on Turkish-made products, which had fallen by 98% between 2020-2021, and continuing with the end-of-April 2022 invitation of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s invitation to Riyadh by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS).

The Turkish president then returned the favour by inviting MBS to Ankara in June 2022, which would be bookended with a Turkish court’s closure of the Khashoggi file, completing MBS’ return to the international scene since the journalist’s assassination.

Guns & Money

Where Riyadh was able to reignite relations with Ankara this year, Abu Dhabi had, for its part, taken a step ahead. Mohammed Bin Zayed (MBZ), Crown Prince of the United Arab Emirates and de facto leader of the country, had already embarked on a diplomatic visit to the Turkish capital in November 2021 to meet President Erdogan, a first at this level in Turkey since 2012.

This visit concluded with the signing of multiple agreements and contracts, along with a $10bn economic stimulus provision from the UAE to Turkey. Like their Saudi neighbours, the Emirates have promised several billions of dollars in investments and currency exchanges for the purposes of bolstering the Turkish lira in the face of rapid inflation.

The economy has a significant role in this diplomatic thawing of relations. However, a certain nuance exists between the Saudi and Emirati approaches. For the time being, the rapprochement between Riyadh and Ankara, for instance, is a political matter, whereas Emirati-Turkish cooperative relations are primarily military-oriented.

Continued interest

On March 2021, the Emirates signed an estimated $2bn military arms purchase contract, which included 120 Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones used in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. A portion of the purchased military equipment is believed to have been delivered to the Emirates last September.

As a sign of their continued interest in Turkish drone weaponry, President Erdogan said the Emirates have since contracted Turkey to build a Bayraktar TB2 factory in Abu Dhabi, according to local Turkish media. Saudi Arabia has reportedly expressed interest in the drones and begun negotiations with their Turkish counterparts.

This extensive cooperation in an area as sensitive as national defence is surprising, as relations between Turkey and the Gulf States have been marked by strong tensions since the 2011 Arab Spring. Ankara has supported movements associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunisia and Egypt, attempting to capitalise on a perceived political opportunity to push its own Turkey-oriented Islamic doctrine.

This, according to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, would be received as a threat to their own regional stability.

On the other hand, in Syria, the three countries were able to agree on the need to bring down the regime headed by Bashar al-Assad as well as the Islamic State, known also as Daesh.

The Muslim Brotherhood vs. Salafism

This post-Arab Spring climate of mistrust between the parties continued to fester, further intensifying during the Saudi and Emirati-led blockade of Qatar in June 2017.

Ankara flew to Doha’s aid, as it shared a common Muslim Brotherhood-based vision of the region with the Qataris, and deployed troops to a Qatar-based Turkish military base. This would reinforce the idea that Erdogan’s own regime represented a threat to the Saudis and Emiratis.

“Between 2017-2021, the intense competition between Ankara on one hand and Riyadh-Abu Dhabi on the other took the form of a cold war, resulting in several proxy confrontations, particularly in Libya and Syria,” wrote Jana Jabbour in a May 2022 note from the Institut français des relations internationales (Ifri).

During the second Libyan Civil War, Turkey supported President Fayez el-Sarraj’s Government of National Unity in Tripoli, recognised by the UN, whereas the Saudis and Emiratis backed his rival Marshal Haftar, whose movement was eventually defeated in 2019.

Despite a common aversion to Assad’s regime in Syria, Ankara ended up supporting groups close to its political brand of Islam against Saudi Arabia and its Salafist allies. Jabbour continues: “Negative and confrontational discourse dominated Turkey-Gulf State relations, while each side took turns demonising the other side.”

This would continue when Turkey’s foreign minister accused Saudi Arabia and the Emirates of destabilising the region, while the latter accused Turkey of having a destructive presence in the region. During this period of back-and-forth verbal hostility, President Erdogan implicated, without specifically naming him, the responsibility of MBS in Khashoggi’s assassination.

Iran

Normalisation, however, would be inevitable, with the continued rivalry between the three Sunni Islamic states and Iran pushing the former to seek reconciliation with one another. Another significant factor in a shift in the diplomatic climate would be American disengagement from the Middle East, symbolised by the relative silence on the part of the United States to the Houthi-claimed attacks against Iran-supported Yemeni rebels since 2019.

“You have a consolidation of the new post-Arab Spring regional chessboard, where it is becoming less and less sensible to continue opposing one another,” observes Emma Soubrier, associate researcher at Université Côte d’Azur and Tufts University.

“They pushed their pawns wherever they saw fit, while also realising the inefficacy of remaining in a zero-sum game dynamic.”

Turkish-Emirati military cooperation remains a part of this logic, corresponding more to the Emirati desire to diversify its military supplies, partly illustrating the non-aligned diplomatic approach that Abu Dhabi now claims. However, it also illustrates the common perception among Turks and Emiratis that Iran is a regional threat.

This has been uncharted territory for the Emirates which, unlike the Saudis, had not been subject to Iran-backed terrorism on its territory before 2022. On 17 January, a drone and missile attack on an airport and a port facility resulted in the deaths of three people in Abu Dhabi.

Within this context, it is in the common interest of the Gulf monarchies and Turkey to reinforce their cooperation….

Seven days later, a ballistic missile fire was intercepted in the Emirati capital. Houthis claimed responsibility for both of these attacks. A week later, on 2 February, three drones were again identified and neutralised in Emirati airspace, which would be claimed by Alwiyat al-Waad al-Haq, an unknown group linked to pro-Iranian activities in Iraq.

This recent Iran-Turkey rivalry had, for some time, played out largely on Syrian and Iraqi territory, most notably through fighting between Turkish forces and Tehran-backed Shiite militias in Idlib, northern Syria, in 2020.

More recently, the secretary-general of the Iraqi Shiite movement Asaïb Ahl al-Haq (Arabic for Leagues of the Righteous) has expressed his opposition to the Turkish presence in northern Iraq, promising a response.

“Within this context, it is in the common interest of the Gulf monarchies and Turkey to reinforce their cooperation as nuclear agreement negotiations between the United States and Iran would not work out in their best interests,” wrote Georges Clementz and Rodolphe El Chami in a note from the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS) published in May 2022.

After oil

This new regional order has also been defined by the need for economic stimulus. Saudi Arabia has been preparing for the post-oil era with its Vision 2030 economic diversification initiative. In order to attract foreign investment, particularly of American and Chinese origins, the Saudi kingdom will require a more favourable environment, one that will be easier to develop with more normalised relations with Turkey.

The Emirati economy has since been hit hard by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to the collapse in oil prices, some key aspects of their diversified economic initiative, such as tourism, have also suffered.

“The Emirates and Turkey have bet on national defence in their economic transformation goals, and their strategy to consolidate a Middle Eastern defence industry will establish it as an emerging world power, complete with a competition with the United States,” analysed Soubrier.

For its part, Turkey remains on the lookout for the slightest opportunity to deal with the ongoing economic crisis. The Turkish lira has lost 28% of its value within the last year, with inflation reaching 84.39%, according to Türkiye İstatistik Kurumu (TurkStat). The billions of dollars in aid from the Gulf States are therefore a godsend for President Erdogan, especially with his intention to seek a third term in the upcoming presidential election.

An alternative

These marriages of convenience between the two monarchies and Ankara will see their durability put to the test moving forward. Some observers, like Clementz and El Chami, see a promising dynamic at work between the Saudis and Turki. On the strategic level, American regional disengagement will push Saudi Arabia to seek alternatives, and “Turkey could therefore increase its importance in the eyes of Riyadh, especially with the growing Houthi threat,” they write.

As for military cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Ankara, the promise of a lasting relationship appears to be the case.

“Reading between the lines of the Turkish-Emirati strategic partnership, it was clear that from the moment that part of the arms deliveries was not suspended and the memorandum of understanding had been ratified in the face of the crisis, that a political posture was on display before the world, no longer calling into question the continuing relationship between the respective states,” says Soubrier.

Soubrier’s comments reflect the military defence cooperation protocol signed in 2011 between the countries in the midst of the Arab Spring, as well as its ratification in 2017. However, Jabbour remains cautious about this new dynamic.

“Despite evolving global, regional, and national realities pushing Ankara and the Gulf State axis towards one another, the root causes of discord remain in place and will prevent any meaningful partnership. In one another’s eyes, the three Sunni powers are condemned to remain a sort of best enemies.”

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