A superbloom in Turkish-UAE ties

UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan (L) met with Turkish President Recep Erdogan in Ankara on Nov. 24, 2021

A new vector of immense geopolitical possibilities surged in “post-coronavirus” West Asia with the visit of the UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Ankara and his meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday. 

The Crown Prince, popularly known as MBZ, was on a visit to Turkey after a gap of nearly a decade characterised by a Time of Troubles in UAE-Turkey relations. The nadir was reached when Turkey alleged an Emirati role in the failed coup attempt in 2016 against Erdogan, which almost certainly had an American hand. 

A visceral hostility followed that reached a climax last year when the UAE sheltered a colourful Turkish mobster-turned-whistleblower Sedat Peker who had earned Erdogan’s wrath and chose to hit back by leaking incriminating information about senior Turkish government figures from his safe haven in the Gulf state. Peker is currently based in the UAE and is becoming a hot potato now that MBZ and Erdogan are making up and a return visit by the latter to Abu Dhabi is in the cards. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu would be traveling to Abu Dhabi in December, presumably to lay the ground for Erdogan’s visit. 

Such flurry of activity might suggest that this is yet another desert bloom, a climatic phenomenon accompanied by the proliferation of insects, birds and small species of lizards, that invariably dies a sudden death. But on the contrary, this is more like the superbloom that botanists describe, with a rare concatenation of events, which makes it an extraordinary occurrence.  

Foremost among these events is the devastation caused by coronavirus that triggered historic shifts in not only the global economy but also in international relations. The convulsion is being felt at its most fateful level in the West Asian region where the petrodollar states are groping a way out of deep recession and is witnessing the US retrenchment in a melancholy, long, withdrawing roar. 

The regional states are called upon to adapt to the grim reality. Thus, a common thread binding the various vectors of realignments going on the region currently is that the US is conspicuous by its absence as promoter, instigator or catalyst or even as despoiler in such unprecedented situations ranging from Iran’s steady normalisation with Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s with Syria and Iran or Turkey’s with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. 

The US retrenchment is only beginning but it already has a calming effect on the regional politics. A corollary is that the regional states are doing what they can to shield themselves from the turbulence that is bound to flow into West Asia and Africa at some point if and when the US-China rivalries spill over. During US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s maiden Africa tour, he got a taste of it when he tried to brainwash African leaders with dollops of Sinophobia but in return heard fulsome praise for China for its constructive engagement with the African economies. 

No matter the US’ focusing on the Indo-Pacific, West Asia remains and will continue to be the crossroads of trade routes fuelling the world economy. The countries of the region are intensely conscious of the absence of a regional equilibrium. They have begun to explore the possibilities of a regional consensus to the extent possible to foster peace, stability and economic growth. 

This becomes an imperative need as Washington’s containment strategy towards Iran unravels and the options get limited, and no regional country wants to return to a resuscitated US-led regional phalanx of anti-Iranian states. 

Meanwhile, the overall trust and confidence in the US’ capability to lead the petrodollar states has crumbled. Saudi Arabia is ignoring President Biden’s message to pump more oil so that Americans can have affordable gasoline to get to and from work or take to Thanksgiving and Christmas travel. Again, the ingenious creation of the so-called ministerial grouping known as the “Indo-Abrahamic Accords” — US, Israel, the UAE and India — by Blinken notwithstanding, the UAE too has taken a stance similar to the Saudi refusal to boost oil production to bring down oil price for the American consumer. Interestingly, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri Kani met with senior Emirati officials on Wednesday. 

The UAE state news agency WAM said Kani, who is Iran’s deputy foreign minister, met with the diplomatic adviser to the UAE president, Anwar Gargash, and Emirati minister of state for foreign affairs Khalifa Shaheen Almarar and the discussions stressed the importance of strengthening relations “on the basis of good neighbourliness and mutual respect”, working for greater regional stability and prosperity and developing bilateral economic and commercial ties.

Yet, the UAE dialogue with Iran is happening at a time when ABC News reports that the US and its allies, including Israel, are already debating a list of “Plan B” options if the forthcoming negotiations due to start at Vienna this weekend collapse.

The general assumption that the UAE is a counter-revolutionary state fixated on undermining social movements and rising powers trying to transform the status quo or any potential for change in the region probably merits a review. Fundamentally, its foreign-policy emphasis is on maintaining regional stability, which translates as a stable and calm region, that forestalls UAE being swallowed up by regional disorder.

The UAE policies — from Qatar to Libya – can be seen as primarily defensive — ie., moderation as the key to maintaining regional order and its own security. Of course, this is not to overlook the contradiction that the UAE shirked political reforms despite its talk of political moderation or that it is difficult to square the idea of moderation with the brutal civil wars in Libya and Yemen. 

That said, UAE’s rapprochement with Damascus (alongside its détente with Iran) holds interesting possibilities for post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. Equally, the UAE diplomacy at the highest level to initiate constructive dialogue, reduce tension, find common goals and strengthen economic ties with Turkey also opens up seamless possibilities.  

Thus, MBZ’s visit to Ankara highlighted a strong interest from both countries to promote investment in such sectors as technology, transport, health, energy, and food security. After the talks, UAE announced a $10 billion fund for investments in Turkey “to support the Turkish economy and boost bilateral cooperation between the two countries”, the main focus being on “strategic investments”, especially in sectors including energy, health and food. read more 

Turkey’s economy is in dire straits and for Erdogan it is crucial that the crisis is effectively tackled before he seeks a renewed mandate in the 2023 election. The UAE’s calculus is also driven by economic considerations. Turkey is a big and lucrative market. With the devaluation of the lira, Turkey is now an excellent place to make investments that will pay off in both the short and long terms.

What distinguishes a superbloom from the transitory desert bloom is that it is botanical phenomenon in which an unusually high proportion of flowers whose seeds have lain dormant in desert soil germinate and blossom at roughly the same time. There are rumours that the UAE will purchase a significant amount of Turkish defence products.

The UAE is reportedly interested in mediating between Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The UAE foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, met with Assad in Damascus on November 9.

Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) speaks with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE Foreign Minister, Damascus, Nov. 9, 2021.

Neither Erdogan nor MBZ made any statements after their talks yesterday. But the fact that they met and are planning to meet again shortly signals a shared conviction that past animosities can and must be laid to rest.  

Certainly, there is a big picture here. The tenuous network of Gulf alliances anchored on robust, unwavering US support has come undone; UAE-Saudi equations are in a state of flux; the overall weakening of popular Arab movements has eased the UAE’s threat perception regarding Turkish foreign policies. 

On the other hand, for Turkey, its isolation in Eastern Mediterranean and growing friction in relations with Russia make it necessary to improve relations with regional states. Even as Turkey’s normalisation with Saudi Arabia and Egypt is taking time to fructify, UAE has seized the opportunity to reach out to Turkey and normalise relations relatively quickly.