GCC crisis: Unresolved tensions plague Turkey-UAE relations

GCC crisis: Unresolved tensions plague Turkey-UAE relations
Comment: As the US loses influence in the region, both Ankara and Abu Dhabi are seeking to fill the void with assertive foreign policies, write Theodore Karasik and Giorgio Cafiero.
6 min read
Relations between Turkey and UAE have fluctuated in recent years [Anadolu]
The Qatar crisis has created a complicated dilemma for Turkey. Ankara has for years had deep economic and political relationships with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members on both sides of the diplomatic rift.

Although on one hand, the GCC's diplomatic row has afforded Ankara an opportunity to demonstrate its true commitment to Qatar as Doha's closest regional ally, the spat has also added varying degrees of friction to Ankara's relations with the countries blockading Qatar. 

The GCC member on most tense terms with Turkey is the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) ascended to power in 2002, Abu Dhabi's relationship with Ankara has fluctuated.

The bilateral relationship is complicated, as both countries place value on their economic and investment links, while viewing each other's actions in the Middle East as destabilising.

Although the UAE and Saudi Arabia were Turkey's top two export partners in the GCC in 2014, Abu Dhabi interprets Ankara's foreign policy as threatening to the UAE and its regional allies' security.

In fact, Abu Dhabi's suspicion that Ankara sponsors local Muslim Brotherhood offshoots throughout the GCC, and a narrative in Turkey that Abu Dhabi had a hand in last year's failed coup plot, as well as previous alleged efforts to oust Turkey's AKP leadership, have fuelled friction in Emirati-Turkish relations.

Economic ties between the two countries have prevented political tensions from fuelling an all-out crisis

The Turkish media frequently blasts the UAE for promoting anti-Turkey narratives and causes in the world of Washington's media and think tanks.

Tension in bilateral relations grew rapidly in 2013 after the Emirati-backed Egyptian military ousted the Turkish-backed democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed in Morsi. That same month, Abu Dhabi withdrew its ambassador to Ankara. Two-and-a-half years later, the UAE condemned Turkey's decision to shoot down a Russian fighter jet that had briefly entered Turkish airspace during an operation in northern Syria.

In April 2016, bilateral relations seemed to be improving with Abu Dhabi's appointment of a new ambassador to Ankara, Khalifa Shaheen al-Marar, who remains in the post.

Yet the failed coup attempt several months later reignited friction, with journalists in Turkey and elements of the AKP establishment alleging that the UAE had a hand in efforts to sponsor Erdogan's ousting.

In May 2017, Abu Dhabi's ambassador to Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, said the majority of American citizens failed to understand Turkey and "the long-term threat it poses to most of us". 

Although Turkey and the UAE both condemned Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the political fallout has again brought tensions in Ankara-Abu Dhabi relations close to the surface.

The perception from Ankara is that the UAE has promoted this anti-Erdogan discourse in Washington

Following the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation's (OIC) summit on Jerusalem, held on 13 December 2017 in Istanbul, numerous Emirati media outlets attacked Erdogan.

Badr al-Din Habib Oglu, the secretary-general of the Turkish-Arab Institute for Strategic Studies, alleged that the UAE and Saudi Arabia were complicit in Washington and Tel Aviv's plan "which revolves around abandoning the Palestinian cause and selling Jerusalem". 

Tension did not ease after the Abu Dhabi-based English daily, The National, published a remark made by US national security adviser General HR McMaster that Turkey and Qatar were guilty of "sponsoring radical Islamist ideology". As McMaster's assessment is illustrative of a staunchly anti-AKP viewpoint held by numerous officials in Trump's inner circle, the perception from Ankara is that the UAE has promoted this anti-Erdogan discourse in Washington.

Read more: GCC crisis: What's behind Trump's volte-face on Qatar?

As last year drew to an end, rhetoric heated up significantly between Ankara and Abu Dhabi. On 21 December the UAE's foreign minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahayan, retweeted an accusation that Fakhreddin Pasha-led Ottoman troops were responsible for looting Medina 102 years ago.

Erdogan described the UAE's foreign minister as an "impertinent man" who is "spoiled by oil" before rhetorically asking: "When my ancestors were defending Medina, you impudent (man), where were yours?"

The demand for the closure of the joint Qatari-Turkish military base in the emirate as one of 13 issued by the self-styled "Anti-Terror Quartet" to lift the blockade on Qatar, illustrated a clear opposition to Turkey's military presence in the GCC.

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Unquestionably, of the three GCC states blockading Qatar, the UAE mainly backed this demand. Whereas Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have maintained rather warm relations with Ankara since 5 June, it is the UAE and Egypt whose attitudes toward Turkey are most negative among the blockading countries.

Unquestionably, Sudan is set to become another flashpoint in tensions between Turkey and the UAE, with Ankara and Khartoum now planning on establishing a Turkish port, and a military base on Sudan's Suakin Island, a former Red Sea port city once under Ottoman rule.

The Egyptian media's negative reaction to this development, underscored by new tensions in Cairo-Khartoum relations that resulted from Erdogan's visit to Sudan likely reflect Abu Dhabi's position as well.

Erdogan described the UAE's foreign minister as an 'impertinent man' who is 'spoiled by oil'

In light of the UAE's recently announced economic and military partnership with Saudi Arabia - which some analysts have described as a "GCC 2.0", or a parallel council to the GCC - Abu Dhabi and Riyadh's differing views of Turkey's role in the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf's security architecture will have to be addressed carefully.

Seven months into the Qatar crisis, the diplomatic row has fuelled perceptions both in Turkey and the UAE of the other as guilty of waging dangerous and reckless foreign policies, while interfering in other countries' domestic affairs.

Thus far, however, the economic ties between the two countries have prevented political tensions from fuelling an all-out crisis. For now, the tension between Abu Dhabi and Ankara seems to mainly be behind closed doors.

Interestingly, in November, the political problems between Abu Dhabi and Ankara did not stop the UAE and Turkey's state-run Mechanical and Chemical Industry Corporation  from signing a deal at the Dubai International Airshow. The $20.2 million agreement will sell Turkish-made MK-82 and MK-84 bombs to the UAE.

With Turkey and the UAE's security guarantor - the United States - losing influence in the region, both Ankara and Abu Dhabi are seeking to fill voids in the Middle East with assertive and muscular foreign policies.

Yet the visions of these two powers are incompatible with one another, which raises concerns about their strong economic relations being vulnerable to potential political crises that loom in the future.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero

Dr Karasik is the Senior Advisor at Gulf State Analytics in Washington DC. He was an adjunct lecturer at the Dubai School of Government where he taught graduate level international relations.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.