The United Arab Emirates’ de facto ruler landed Wednesday in Turkey’s capital as part of a diplomatic spree to end regional rifts that have defined the Middle East for over a decade.
The Ankara meeting brings together two regional powerhouses that have long viewed one other as ideological foes: Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. MBZ, who is on his first official visit to Ankara in nearly 10 years, was met with fanfare. Erdogan held a welcome ceremony for the Crown Prince at the presidential palace that included a cavalry procession.
Hours later, the UAE announced a $10 billion investment fund in multiple sectors of the Turkish economy, including energy, climate change and trade. The move may buoy Turkey’s floundering economy at a time when its years-long currency crisis has picked up speed. As an initial sign of the economic impact of the Crown Prince’s visit, Turkey’s lira appreciated by about one point on Wednesday after having hit a record low in recent days.
Why this meeting matters
The rivalry between the UAE and Turkey has played out on some of the most lethal battlefields in the region over the past decade, reshaping the Middle East in the process. A détente between the former foes could have a similarly transformational effect.
The roots of the recent feud go back to MBZ’s campaign to stamp out the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement across the region. Erdogan, for his part, has been the Islamist group’s most powerful supporter.
MBZ has long been a key backer of Egypt’s military, which overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president – Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsy – in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2014, then installed former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as president. Sisi has presided over some of the repressive campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood and political activists in Egypt’s modern history.
In Libya, MBZ backed the renegade general Khalifa Haftar in his bloody bid to wrest power from the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and supported by Erdogan.
But the guns have since fallen relatively silent on many of the region’s faultlines, and its major players must now contend with economies reeling from the combined effects of regional instability and the pandemic. Turkey is one of those countries that has been struggling to keep its economy afloat in recent years. In reviving Ankara’s relationship with Abu Dhabi, and attracting a slew of investments from the oil-rich UAE, Turkey’s strongman president may be hoping for a much-needed lifeline.
“(Erdogan) stayed in power due to the economy. So a weaker economy before 2023 elections is definitely something he doesn’t want.” Turkey analyst and editor at large at TRT world Yusuf Erim told CNN. “And Emiratis have the money to be able to provide a booster shot for the Turkish economy.”
In exchange, Abu Dhabi may seek concessions on several regional flashpoints, such as Libya, raising the specter of a potentially game-changing quid pro quo.
Another factor driving the apparent rapprochement, analysts say, is skepticism of America’s commitment to the Middle East. As successive US presidents have refocused on Asia, many key regional leaders increasingly feel they need to fend more for themselves. The UAE appears intent on leading the charge to make the neighborhood safer.
The country was once dubbed Little Sparta because of a muscular foreign policy that punched well above the size of its nearly 10-million strong (mostly foreign) population. For years, it intervened in a number of wars, taking on Iran’s regional paramilitary partners in countries like Yemen, Syria and Iraq, in parallel to its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Now it seems to want to be seen as the region’s chief peacemaker.
“What is driving all of this is a deep assessment of the UAE’s role in the region, a deep review of the UAE’s regional influence that it has gained over the last ten years plus,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdalla, a retired Emirati professor of political science. “The UAE is trying to consolidate its regional influence and it is trying to project itself as a peacemaker from now on.”
“We have had enough of instability, conflict and clashes of interest that nobody has gained from. And if there was any gain it’s been very few.”
Since August 2020, the UAE has normalized relations with Israel, healed a years-long political rift with gas-rich Qatar, made a series of diplomatic overtures to regional nemesis Iran, and led the charge on a region-wide push to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world, working to end President Bashar al-Assad’s decade-long diplomatic isolation.
MBZ’s meeting with Erdogan is the most high-profile meeting between former rivals yet. It follows a visit by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdallah bin Zayed — MBZ’s brother — to Damascus earlier this month, the first since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed — another of MBZ’s brothers — is reportedly set to visit Tehran this week.
Those meetings echo wider regional shifts. Iraq appears to be emerging as a nexus for rapprochements in the region, namely by brokering talks between Saudi Arabia and its regional archrival Iran. The scope of those talks is unclear, and sticking points around armed Iranian-aligned groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen remain plentiful. Yet leaders on both sides say they are keen to de-escalate a proxy war that has ravaged large swathes of the region.
Last week, Gulf Arab countries issued a joint statement endorsing the revival of negotiations to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Some of those countries were among the pact’s most vociferous opponents when it was first reached in 2015.
The main driver for the détente, analysts say, is a perceived disengagement by the US from the region — an assertion that US officials have repeatedly denied.
On Saturday, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue — a major annual security conference in Bahrain — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he had encountered from allies a “level of angst that the US is not really committed to this region.”
“We remain committed to this region. We still have tens of thousands of troops in this region. We have significant capability here,” Austin said. “As a person who has fought here for a number of years, defending interests in this region, let me assure you that we are not going to abandon those interests going forward.”
But those reassurances seem to be falling on deaf ears. Conference participants repeatedly probed US officials about an apparent passiveness in a region where they were once a robust interventionist force. One participant asked about the absence of retaliation to a blast at a US base at al-Tanf, Syria last month.
Brett McGurk, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa at the White House’s National Security Council, implied that the response was covert. “These subjects, you do not always talk about in the open and not every response is going to be on CNN or something blowing up,” McGurk said in Manama on Sunday. “So, ‘we did not do anything’ is not accurate.”
Still, regional players seem to have decided that they can no longer outsource their security to the US, which once jumped to their defense during Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait, but did nothing – at least publicly – in response to an attack on Saudi oil refineries in 2019 which halved the kingdom’s oil production.
Times are apparently changing.
“All these countries right now are reformulating their policies and preparing for less US engagement. They understand that they need to play more proactive roles with their neighbors,” said Turkey analyst Erim.
“Regardless of (which US president) is in power right now, or who comes to power in 2024, many of the dynamics that are resulting in this wave of rapprochement and warmer winds between these countries will still be in place.”
CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh, Isil Sariyuce, Kareem Khadder and Mostafa Salem contributed reporting.