The recent changes in the geopolitical situation and a United States that is less committed to the region could push Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to work together and focus on pragmatic cooperation in the Libyan crisis and the Eastern Mediterranean, experts said.
Converging interests have driven regional power shifts in the Middle East, mainly led by Turkey and the UAE. Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) visited Turkey for the first time since 2012 in November while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan paid a visit to the UAE last week.
“Turkey is carrying out normalization processes with actors that emerged in a previous period as an opposition bloc but it can be seen that this process is much more accelerated and moving in a different direction with the UAE,” Mustafa Yetim, a Gulf studies expert at the Ankara-based think tank, Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), said. “This process can have a positive impact on actors that previously were against Turkey and in which the UAE had a significant position, and the crises in which these actors were involved.”
Vişne Korkmaz of Nişantaşı University, on the other hand, underlined that although it is voiced that the UAE is reviewing its foreign policy since the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) normalization with Qatar at Al-Ula, she thinks Abu Dhabi has not given up on its “little Sparta” policy.
Saying that although the UAE is described as a small state, Kormaz said that the country showed that even small states can pursue expansionist policies and that the UAE has built a capacity for this that it still holds.
“However the UAE has seen the limits of the policy it has pursued since 2014,” Korkmaz said, pointing to its Yemen policy as well as its rivals such as Qatar taking greater roles in the region, of which Afghanistan is an example. She pointed further to the geopolitical conjuncture as a reason for these limits and highlighted that the U.S.’ regional policies and its stance affect the country. The U.S. is currently in no position to pursue a policy of polarizing regional states with high capacities, she said.
After years of looking abroad for answers, countries in the Middle East now appear to instead be talking to each other to find solutions following two decades defined by war and political upheaval.
The diplomatic maneuvering signals a growing realization across the region that America’s interest is moving elsewhere and that now is the time for negotiations that were unthinkable just a year ago.
And with the border-locking chaos of the coronavirus pandemic largely behind them, Mideast leaders are now shuffling, talking face-to-face amid a flurry of diplomatic meetings, seemingly eager to hedge their bets.
An intra-Gulf feud that saw Qatar boycotted for years by four Arab countries ended in January at Al-Ula.
Stressing that one of the main and most critical areas in which Turkey and the UAE can cooperate is the Libya issue, Yetim said: “The Libyan issue is critical in that it represents Turkey’s last circle and breakup from regional isolation efforts.” He reminded that the UAE’s involvement in Libya through proxies constituted a peak in the crisis between Ankara and Abu Dhabi and indicated that the UAE could contribute economically and politically to Libya’s restructuring and overcoming the dual structure in Libya through diplomacy.
“We do not have the Libya of 2014, which polarized countries such as Turkey, the UAE, Qatar and Egypt. The U.S.’ main goal seems to be to limit Russia’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Actors such as the UAE and Russia, which supported (eastern-based putschist Gen. Khalifa) Haftar after 2014, have seen that Haftar neither possesses the military nor political power to control all of Libya,” Korkmaz said. Saying that Turkey has good relations with both of the main candidates currently – former Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha and current Interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Mohammed Dbeibah, she underlined that the UAE is similarly a pragmatic country. “Therefore, all these factors can lead Turkey and the UAE to act more in coordination in establishing stability in Libya.”
“In the Libyan crisis, the UAE has left its quasi automatic anti-Turkey stance and preferred dialogue and diplomacy after testing Turkey’s resistance in Libya and seeing Turkey’s maritime and military deal with Libya as well as the limitations of the claims of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel, Greece and the Greek Cypriot administration in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Yetim said. He added that the EastMed project, a planned subsea pipeline to provide natural gas from the Eastern Mediterranean to Europe and a project strongly opposed by Turkey, which entered a difficult phase was another factor for the UAE’s change in its policy.
“The fact that normalization in the Eastern Mediterranean such as between Turkey and the UAE, Egypt and Israel has started, shows that regional actors pursuing an anti-Turkey policy, did not gain what they sought from this policy. The EastMed (project) did not take place since Turkey is preserving its civilian as well as military capacities, which allow its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean,” Korkmaz said.
She further reminded that the U.S. withdrew its support from the pipeline project. “Since it was already an economically unfeasible project and was born dead due to the impossibility of realizing it without Turkey, the U.S. seems to have withdrawn from it.” Korkmaz also said that in the midst of tensions with Russia due to Ukraine, Washington is aware of the position Ankara holds in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
“Knowing that the problems between regional countries are not ideological, the U.S. has played a facilitating role for Turkey, Egypt, Israel and the UAE to find a win-win ground.”
Turkey wants to see energy as an incentive for political resolution on the island and peace in the wider Mediterranean basin, not a catalyst for further tensions.
“At this point, it can be said that there is a lack of interest from global actors in the EastMed project, which had high costs but was supported to politically isolate Turkey, and that the regional anti-Turkey bloc has broken down,” Yetim said.
Similarly, Yetim emphasized that Turkey is in a stronger position in the Eastern Mediterranean in the face of the Greece-Greek Cypriot duo, which was supported by the U.S., European Union, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE.
“Within this scope, Turkey being in a normalization process with Israel and voicing that it can play a role in transferring Israeli energy sources to international markets could lead to the UAE supporting this process as Abu Dhabi also started diplomatic relations with Israel with the Abraham Accords.” However this will not come at the cost of the Palestinian issue, he said.
“One of the most sensitive areas in this regard is Libya. Everyone accepts that the next process in Libya cannot be thought separate from Turkey,” Korkmaz said, indicating that all regional countries agree on the need for a healthy transition in the North African country as well as elections.
Syrian civil war
Once ostracized autocracies such as Bashar Assad in Syria, and shunned former top figures such as Moammar Gadhafi’s son in Libya, are back in the political arena amid the still-smoldering ruins of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. The Arab countries’ aim to normalize with Assad could pose another challenge to enhanced relations with Turkey as Ankara opposes reestablishing ties with the dictator.
Syria’s Assad has clawed his way back from the precipice. Though the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib remains under the control of opposition forces, Assad controls the rest of the country.
Speaking on the issue, Yetim said on the other side that there is not sufficient data to say that the Syrian issue is a priority in Turkey-UAE relations.
“Turkey is carrying out the process on Syria with Iran and Russia, which are already active players on the field. On the other hand, there is a possibility of normalization with the Assad regime by regional countries such as Jordan or GCC actors such as Oman and the UAE and other steps by these regional countries in this regard can be expected this year.”
He indicated that the issues of terrorism, the Idlib-centered migration problem and the position of the Syrian opposition are the main concerns of Turkey and that the UAE playing a contributing role to ties between the Assad regime and Ankara at a time of normalization could be a positive development.