This week’s state visit by Emirati President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Turkey is widely seen as a step on the way to reconciliation. It follows a period of tension with the Gulf resulting from Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Probably intentionally, the visit coincided with the Champions League final at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on Saturday evening. The English team Manchester City, which is owned by Sheikh Mohamed’s brother and deputy Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, beat Italian side Inter Milan to the European title.
But the visit involved more than just sport, with Sheikh Mohamed and newly re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signing a trade agreement worth $40 billion, drafted last month. Turkey is in need of money to prop its ailing economy. Last week, the prominent Turkish economist Ugur Gurses was reported as saying that “an unknown country deposited up to $5 billion in the Central Bank over the past two weeks.” That was meant to stop the decline of the Turkish lira since Erdogan’s re-election. Though it is not clear if the money came from Abu Dhabi or not, many Turkish commentators agree that Erdogan is seeking economic help from the Gulf. Turkish journalist Feyza Gumusluoglu, who has covered the Gulf for years for the Turkish media and written a book on the region, said Turkey was keen to improve its relations with wealthy Gulf states like the UAE and Saudi Arabia. “Ankara wants to attract capital to help resolve its economic issues,” she told Al-Ahram Weekly.
Turkish-Gulf relations have been strained for more than a decade, as Ankara has supported Islamist groups in countries that witnessed popular uprisings in 2011. From Tunisia to Syria, through to Libya and Egypt, Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood angered Gulf countries, and when a collective of Gulf countries and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar in 2017, Turkey strongly sided with Doha. After reconciliation with Qatar around three years ago, the ice started to thaw between Turkey and both Saudi Arabia and UAE. It was Abu Dhabi that began the trend of Gulf normalisation with Turkey. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi started normalising relations with Israel and Iran, probably at a faster pace than its largest neighbour Saudi Arabia. Speculation about Saudi-Emirati competition in the foreign policy arena has always been denied by both sides as fabrication by opposition groups, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. That means there is no room for Turkey to play on Saudi-Emirati differences to maximise economic benefits from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
In fact, Turkey is looking to enhance relations with both countries and others in the region, including Egypt, for the sake of mutual economic benefits. “To be fair, I do not expect that Abu Dhabi or for that matter Riyadh will give Turkey such a huge choice. I still see the two Gulf states as strategic allies that face the same compelling geopolitical challenges,” Gumusluoglu said. She added that, aside from economic matters, all parties are following the same uniform regional trend of reconciliation. She also remarked that Turkey is still “sympathetic to the movement [Muslim Brotherhood],” however. That is contrary to reports and commentary noting that Turkey is distancing itself from a group classified as a terrorist organisation in many countries. The reason that Gulf countries began to normalise relations with Turkey by mid-2021 is that “the Muslim Brotherhood movement posed almost no security risk to the Emirates as its spread had long been contained and the Gulf crisis [ie, the boycott of Qatar] was resolved,” Gumusluoglu told the Weekly. Regarding the issue of what appears to be a shift away from the US in the region, she disputed the idea that a shared interest among the UAE, Turkey and Israel is driving reconciliation. “Abu Dhabi has absolutely no interest in steering itself or any state away from the US,” she added.
The Emirati president’s visit to Istanbul was not restricted to bilateral relations, however. Joining the two leaders at the table was the head of the Libyan interim government supported by Turkey, Abdul- Hamid Dbeibeh. The odds are that the conversation that ensued had little to do with sports diplomacy. Other regional issues will have been discussed: Turkish drones attacking a suburb of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, killing three Syrian Kurdish ‘elements’. Turkish artillery also attacked parts of Efrin in northwestern Syria. The UAE was the first among Gulf countries to court Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and normalise relations with Damascus. Turkey is still reluctant to follow suit despite Russian mediation. Even more than Man City’s historic win, the final at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium marks a new chapter in Turkish relations with the UAE and the entire Arab region.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 15 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly