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Analysis

Meeting between Erdogan and MBZ points to a new, pragmatic regional order

Bitter rivals Turkey and UAE are striking a conciliatory tone, in line with Ankara’s moves away from its Muslim Brotherhood allies

Lazar Berman

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, attends the Dubai Air Show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on November 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, attends the Dubai Air Show in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on November 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

This week saw events play out in Ankara that would have been unthinkable not too long ago: Mohamed Bin Zayed, Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince and the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader, flew out to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After Wednesday’s meeting, the two countries inked billions of dollars worth of cooperation and investment agreements in trade, energy, technology, banking, and investments.

The last visit to Turkey by MBZ, as he is popularly known, was in 2012. In the ensuing decade, bilateral relations between the nations collapsed.

In the wake of the so-called Arab Spring, which felled Sunni Arab regimes across the Middle East, Erdogan began pushing a regional order rooted in political Islam, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Islamic Ennahda party in Tunisia. In this project, Turkey allied closely with the UAE’s neighbor Qatar, which also sought to expand its influence through Islamist movements.

The UAE, seeing the Muslim Brotherhood as a concrete threat to its own internal stability, viewed the emerging Turkey-Qatar network as its foremost adversary in the region, a more pressing threat even than that posed by Iran. Abu Dhabi sought to counter Turkey’s emerging Islamist network with an alliance of its own, based on a moderate, pro-Western model.

Turkey, meanwhile, fought back on the ideological front. Ankara pushed the narrative that it represented democratic rule against authoritarian monarchies in the Gulf and — after Egypt’s Abdel Fatah el-Sissi led a 2013 military coup against Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi with the backing of the UAE and its Gulf allies — against military regimes like in Cairo.

Relations reached a nadir in the wake of the 2016 military coup attempt against Erdogan. Turkish intelligence sources then accused the UAE of funneling money to the plotters through former senior Palestinian official Mohammed Dahlan, believed to be a close confidant of MBZ.

Turkish soldiers secure the area, as supporters of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan protest in Istanbul’s Taksim square, early Saturday, July 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

The rivalry bled out across the region.

In 2017, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt blockaded Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism and aligning too closely with Turkey and Iran. Senior UAE officials were especially strident in their denouncement of a new Turkish military base in the peninsular country. In 2020, UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said that “The Turkish army in Qatar is a source of instability in the region. Our region needs no regional protectors or the reinstatement of old colonial ties.”

The crisis was eventually resolved earlier this year.

In Libya’s civil war, the UAE and Egypt backed General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army while Turkey supported the rival Government of National Accord, even sending troops to intervene.

The UAE has also sought to join the EastMed Gas Forum, an alliance of Turkey’s regional and European rivals looking to develop and protect their natural gas assets in the Mediterranean Sea.

Members of Turkey’s parliament vote to send Turkish troops to Libya to help the UN-supported government in Tripoli battle forces loyal to a rival administration in eastern Libya, January 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

The Horn of Africa was another arena of rivalry. Turkey has invested greatly in Somalia while Qatar, a longtime key presence in the region, has led peace efforts in Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are investing heavily in Ethiopia, and see the Red Sea area as critical to their own security.

After the Abraham Accords were announced in August 2020, normalizing ties between Israel and the UAE, Erdogan — whose own country shares open-if-fraught relations with Israel — threatened to suspend diplomatic ties with Abu Dhabi. “The move against Palestine is not a step that can be stomached,” he said then.

According to Moshe Albo, a modern Middle East historian and researcher at the Dado Center for Interdisciplinary Military Studies, “The rivalry between the UAE and Turkey in Libya, in the Horn of Africa, and in the EastMed creates areas of friction — through proxies, but still very clearly — between the two countries that characterize the last decade.

“It’s not only ideological, geopolitical, it’s also personal. It’s also Erdogan himself.”

An emerging pragmatic approach

And yet despite the ongoing, multi-dimensional feud, the two countries’ powerful leaders still met and signed agreements this week, with both sides sounding an optimistic note.

Several factors pushed them toward the meeting and the less antagonistic relationship it may portend.

For one thing, the UAE, whose prosperity has traditionally been rooted in its oil and natural gas reserves, has made a strategic decision to rapidly diversify its economy.

“The UAE’s grand strategy is to position itself as a hub for global trade, connecting economic interests between East and West,” explained Brandon Friedman, director of research at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “Given the pandemic, and the global economic downturn, the UAE saw opportunities to promote intra-regional trade.”

Abu Dhabi also noticed that Turkey is facing a number of crises simultaneously. Having spent most of the last decade picking fights with regional rivals like Greece and Egypt — and, of course, Israel — Ankara has found itself increasingly isolated of late, with Joe Biden, a personal adversary of Erdogan, now in the White House.

This file photo taken on August 23, 2019 in Istanbul shows a Turkish seismic research vessel docked at Haydarpasa port, which searches for hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas and coal reserves at sea. Greece on August 11, 2020 demanded that Turkey withdraw a research ship at the heart of their growing dispute over maritime rights and warned it would defend its sovereignty (Ozan KOSE / AFP)

Moreover, Turkey’s lira continues to tumble, and inflation in 2021 is nearing 20 percent.

“Turkey’s regional isolation, and slow-motion economic crisis, have provided the UAE with an attractive economic opportunity to invest on favorable terms in the Turkish economy,” said Friedman.

It seems that Turkey understands the weakness of its position as well. Turkish authorities have ordered Muslim Brotherhood media outlets in the country to stop attacking Egypt’s Sissi regime, and Qatar has followed suit. Erdogan has recently put out conciliatory statements toward Greece, the European Union, Egypt and Israel.

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Egypt’s former president Mohammed Morsi salute the members of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, Turkey in Sept. 2012 (photo credit: AP/Kayhan Ozer)

The UAE seems to be betting that the changes in Turkey’s fortunes will make it more likely to compromise on natural gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, a potential economic boon as European demand for natural gas continues to soar ahead of winter.

The election of Biden in the US, also a key driver in the change to Erdogan’s approach, led American allies across the region to change their approach as well. They concluded that the US is determined to strike a deal with Iran, that American involvement in the Middle East is waning, and that there would be a particular focus on their domestic human rights policies.

For the UAE, this caused its leaders to seek to lower tensions and seek dialogue with Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“We are seeing more dialogue in the region and fewer proactive steps than in the past,” explained Moran Zaga, an expert on the Gulf region at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. “There are many conflicting interests, but the path regional states are choosing changed in the direction of soft power.”

The UAE remains highly suspicious of Turkey and its allies, but it is willing to pursue a pragmatic, ad hoc policy of dialogue when it serves its interests.

Opportunities after the Oknins

For Israel, there are potential opportunities in the emerging Middle East reality as well.

“The Turkish-Emirati-Israeli connection is still under the table, but it exists,” said Zaga. “It may be that we received a hint about it with the release of the Israeli couple.”

Tourists Mordy and Natali Oknin were freed by Turkey this month after spending eight days in detention for photographing a palace of Erdogan’s, in a drama that gripped Israelis amid fears the two bus drivers could face lengthy imprisonment on implausible allegations of espionage.

Israeli couple Mordi and Natalie Oknin, who were held in Turkey for a week on suspicion of espionage, are greeted upon their arrival home in Modiin on November 18, 2021 following their release. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The Israeli government specifically thanked Erdogan for his role in setting them free, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog both held rare calls with the Turkish leader.

Erdogan’s personal involvement in securing the couple’s release was seen as a signal of improving ties between the countries, officials in Turkey told Israel’s Kan news last week.

The incident followed other positive signs in Turkish-Israel ties since Biden’s election. Last December, Erdogan had stated that “Our heart desires that we can move our relations with [Israel] to a better point.” (Though this week he once again accused the Jewish state of “oppressive” policies toward Palestinians.)

Despite the indications of a new Turkish approach, gaps remain on core interests. The Palestinian terrorist group Hamas is one such issue, as it retains offices in Turkey and, Israeli officials say, directs terrorist activity against Israel from Turkish soil.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid demanded Turkey shut down Hamas offices in the country, after Jerusalem announced the arrests of a sophisticated 50-member West Bank Hamas cell that was being directed from Istanbul.

Yesh Atid party leader Foreign Minister Yair Lapid speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 8, 2021. (Oliiver Fitoussi/Flash90)

“Hamas’s offices in Istanbul will be shut down. We must prevent these heinous acts of terrorism against Israeli citizens,” Lapid said, a day after another Hamas terrorist carried out a deadly terror shooting in Jerusalem.

Given the cell’s links to Turkey, Israel reportedly held off on announcing the arrests, originally planned for 10 days ago, until it had managed to secure the release of the Oknins.

Israel is also concerned about Turkish support for anti-Israel organizations in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Still, a Middle East with countries looking to hedge their bets and open dialogue with rivals could open new diplomatic and economic opportunities for Israel, not least of all with Turkey. It certainly does not hurt that even the Muslim Brotherhood’s key state backers in Ankara are willing to walk away from them when it is seen tp serve their interests.

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