Abu Dhabi is suddenly prioritising the need to improve relations with Ankara, but it has long way to go in convincing Turkey that it's serious.
On January 7, UAE’s State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, told Bloomberg “We don’t cherish any feuds with Turkey” adding that his country is Turkey’s number one trade partner in the Middle East. He was wrong though - Iraq is Turkey’s number one trade partner in the Middle East.
Three days later, Gargash told Abu Dhabi-based Skynews Arabia channel that the UAE wants to normalise relations with Turkey within the framework of mutual respect for sovereignty.
In his latest interview, the Emirati official stressed three times that the “UAE has no good reason to have problems or conflicts or disagreements with Turkey,” adding, “we are the biggest trade partner of Turkey in the Arab world…We don’t have border problems with it or any similar problems...We view this stage as positive and we must re-build the bridges – between us.“
Yet, the Emirati official shortly afterwards noted that Abu Dhabi wants “Turkey to restore its compass with the Arab world" and not be the primary supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood. Gargash added that the UAE’s problem with Turkey is that the latter wants to "expand its role at the expense of Arab countries.”
Speaking on behalf of the Arabs is meant to create a false perception that UAE is the leader of the Arab world. This sense has been inflated after Abu Dhabi managed to successfully support a coup in Egypt in 2013 and has been able to increase its influence in Saudi Arabia. Ironically, despite the Emirates' restless attempts to defame Turkey’s image and the reputation of its foreign policy, the majority of Arabs still view the country positively.
Less than two months ago, Gargash was still peddling anti-Turkey rhetoric.
“The Turkish military presence in the Arab Gulf is an emergency. It reinforces polarisation, and it does not take into account the sovereignty of states and the interests of the Gulf countries and its people,” the UAE’s state minister said on Twitter.
In fact, according to the latest most comprehensive Arab poll, Turkey’s foreign policy is the most positive in the region compared to that of China, Germany, France, Russia, America, and Iran. The majority of Arabs sees Turkey as the second least threatening country to them while Israel, US, and Iran are the most threatening.
The intriguingly conciliatory statements by the Emirati official and the sudden U-turn provoke the question, why now? Well, the UAE fears isolation as a result of the new geopolitical configuration in the region.
It lost a powerful ally in the White House and had to re-adjust its position taking into consideration the latest Saudi-Qatari reconciliation. If improved significantly, the Saudi-Qatari rapprochement has the potential to attract other regional powers towards it in the future such as Turkey, Pakistan and maybe even Egypt.
By forcibly changing its course, the Emiratis lost the chance to save face. It would be naive for anyone to believe that Abu Dhabi is genuinely altering its policies, as opposed to just laying low waiting for the right moment to flip back again. This is one reason why almost no country in the region trusts Abu Dhabi right now, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
But the UAE’s calls for normalisation shouldn’t be ignored, instead, they should be put to the test. Positive signals along with constructive policies are much needed at this particular time where chaos and uncertainty is the norm. The Emirati call to build new bridges with Turkey should be accompanied by serious measures from Abu Dhabi to give weight to its official statements.
During the last few years, the UAE has used its ambassador in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, to hurt Turkey in every possible way. Emirati officials used to tell American officials that Turkey is a long-term threat to his country and to the US.
In 2017, leaked e-mails for the Emirati ambassador quoted him telling a prominent New York Times columnist that the UAE doesn’t want Turkey to be able to shape a dinner menu much less a country.
In June 2020, a document revealed that Otaiba was pitting the US against Turkey. He even tried to provoke Egypt to go into a confrontation with Ankara in Libya. Otaiba told US officials: “Unless Turkey's actions in Libya are checked, this could easily go from bad to worse."
The UAE has a lot of friends in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. Last week, Biden appointed the former US ambassador to the UAE under the Obama administration to his National Security Council team. Better Emirati relations with Turkey would require Abu Dhabi to stop its lobbying games against Ankara from the US.
On another level, the UAE has been using fake news as a weapon against Turkey. In the last few years, anti-Turkey media outlets, in Turkish and foreign languages, funded by Abu Dhabi have mushroomed. Parallel to this effort, the Emiratis have stepped up its support for foreign think tanks in the US and Europe.
These platforms had a sole agenda; demonising Turkey and its foreign policy in the public sphere. In this sense, it is sensible to assume that there can be no normalisation with Ankara while these other efforts continue.
Moreover, Abu Dhabi has been pursuing a disruptive policy all over the Middle East to undermine Turkey’s effort to stabilise the region (in Syria, Libya, Somalia, the Gulf, Azerbaijan to mention a few) — even if this means that Abu Dhabi has to work with Iran’s IRGC militias, Russian mercenaries, warlords, terrorist organisations like the PKK, the PYD, or Al Shabab.
It goes without saying that UAE can’t continue supporting terrorist organisations while seeking to normalise its relations with Ankara at the same time. The same thing goes for Abu Dhabi’s highly destabilising regional policies.
Despite the flowery words accompanying the Emirati U-turn, it is impossible to hide the fact that Abu Dhabi didn’t want a reconciliation process to occur within the GCC in the first place, and unlike Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had no genuine interest in it. The UAE should draw lessons from the Gulf crisis. It was disastrous, extremely costly to the region, and managed to achieve nothing beyond chaos.
Efforts by the UAE to destabilise the region and spread chaos by supporting coups, warlords, and dictators should be stopped whether in Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, Levant, and elsewhere.
Using other states - such as France, Greece, Cyprus and Armenia, or provoking them against Turkey will not go unnoticed. As Abu Dhabi calls for normalisation, it should be aware that its behaviour on these issues will be monitored closely. Ankara won't hesitate to enforce its red line if its national security is threatened.
On a bilateral level, the Turkish media has often accused the UAE of supporting the 2016 failed coup. At the end of 2019, Mohammed Dahlan — the man who does the Abu Dhabi’s dirty work — was added to Turkey’s list of most-wanted terrorists for his alleged links to the FETO terror group, and his role in supporting the failed coup.
Abu Dhabi has also been sending non-national spies and agents to Turkey to collect data on dissidents, and try to destabilise Ankara. It goes without saying that these operations have to stop. The Emiratis also charged innocent Turkish citizens over bogus claims to exact political revenge.
One known case is Mehmet Ali Ozturk who's been in prison since February 2018. It would be good for the Emirati officials to give some weight to their call to normalise relations with Ankara and to start by freeing him.
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