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Turkey and the UAE: regional and international balance

May 3, 2016 at 1:24 pm

It is not strange for Turkey-UAE relations to improve; what would be strange is for them to remain tense just because the two countries have different views on a number of political issues in the region. At the forefront of these issues is the Justice and Development Party-led Turkish government’s support for the demands of ordinary Arab citizens for reform, democracy and a fight against corruption and tyranny; they have chosen this legitimate path. Turkey has supported the protests, which were backed by most Arab countries in their initial stage, as they are popular, peaceful and democratic demands. However, some countries, including the United Arab Emirates, were against having a certain political group in power in a number of Arab states. Political Islam, represented mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood and other “religious” parties, was unacceptable to the UAE.

Turkey saw the arrival of the Muslim Brotherhood or other parties in government in Egypt as a normal democratic step, as long as they remained within a democratic and peaceful framework. The people who voted them in had to be the judge of this, in Egypt and elsewhere. Arab peoples will not discover democracy without free and fair elections with the participation of all parties and political trends. Elections should decide political leadership, which is what happened in Tunisia and Egypt post-2011.

The UAE and other states’ refusal to accept the democratic will of the people in Egypt which brought Dr Mohamed Morsi to the presidency was strange, as the new democracy was sought by all of the people. The popular and official Turkish position was supportive of the democratic approach in Arab countries and not specifically of a certain trend; Ankara did not interfere in the affairs of Arab countries at all. The politics of any country, Arab or not, should be decided through elections. Military coups, no matter how they are dressed-up or funded, are an assault against the will of the people; they are undemocratic. No military coup has ever succeeded in meeting the people’s aspirations; they are doomed to fail, and are usually ended by other coups that try in vain to save the situation, until the people are free to decide their own political future through democratic approaches. That is what happened in modern Turkey.

Thus it was natural for the coup government of Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt to reach a dead end; the Egyptians themselves have admitted this three years after his military intervention. Money alone does not solve the problems arising from military rule, especially if the military wishes to rule directly. That’s what happened with General Kenan Evren in Turkey, who led a military coup in 1980, introduced a new constitution in 1982 and won as the first coup president. However, he failed in the lead role in political life, despite US, European and Israeli support, because he could not get the Turkish people to support him, apart from those who kept close for their own interests.

Turkey has its current vision because it went through this painful experience within living memory. It has gone through four successive military coups, which were all in vain. The UAE has not been through such experiences but still backed the 2013 coup in Egypt in the hope that the military would manage to change the people’s will by force, gain the trust of ordinary Egyptians and succeed politically, economically, socially and internationally; that has not happened. The military in Egypt has failed horribly on the political level, and faced huge economic failure. Thus it is necessary to fix Egypt, not through Turkish or UAE visions, but through making sure that the will of the Egyptians prevails once more and returning democracy to the country. This will benefit all Egyptians and not just one group, with the others in prison.

The UAE and Turkey had a serious dispute as a result of positions they held on Egypt which were not relevant to their bilateral relations. This had a huge impact, to the point that some bilateral reactions were seen as hostile without having real cause to be, until the situation in Egypt reduced the severity of the dispute. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia succeeded in neutralising the coup issue so it has a limited effect on Turkey-Saudi relations. The neutralisation policy succeeded with a genuine rapprochement between Riyadh and Ankara, which both need in light of the huge regional challenges facing them. In addition, Turkey’s position on Egypt has become clearer, with it being viewed as support for democracy per se and a rejection of military coups — from which Turkey has suffered a lot – and not as support for a specific political group. Arab fears in general, and Gulf concerns in particular, of Turkish interests in Arab states have been overcome; indeed, the opposite has been proven with Turkey giving priority to Arab rights with courage, regardless of the ideology or political orientation behind them. It is doing this even if it means that Turkey will be hit economically and politically. Turkey’s backing for Palestinian rights is strong and clear, even if it harms its relations with Israel; backing Arab rights in Yemen against Iranian policies was a key factor in Saudi Arabia’s change towards Ankara; supporting the UAE’s claim over three islands in the Gulf demonstrates that Turkey is a friend of Arab states in the face of numerous challenges facing Arab and Gulf countries regionally and internationally.

There is no doubt that Turkey’s signing of strategic cooperation agreements with the Qatari government towards the end of 2015, the signing of a similar document with Saudi Arabia this year, and the improvement of Turkish-Kuwaiti and -Bahraini relations are all factors in Ankara and Abu Dhabi’s push towards renewed communication in the effort to build strong political and economic relations, despite certain differences.

Turkey made clear the principles of its participatory foreign policies with Arab and Islamic countries at the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul last month; direct contact was established with the Emirati delegation and the UAE made a significant contribution to the success of the conference. The government in Ankara will continue its cooperation with Gulf, Arab and Islamic states in realising the goals of the summit so that it won’t end up as another talking-shop, but an introduction to social, economic and political strategies and projects that can improve relations between Islamic countries.

The resumption of Turkey-UAE communication post-summit is, therefore, no surprise. There are numerous political and economic issues on the discussion table. Strengthening links with the UAE does not mean that Turkey will downgrade relations with other Gulf States; in fact, it could increase cooperation and integration. There is also no doubt that the success of the OIC summit in Istanbul in agreeing to diagnose problems within the Islamic world, and holding Iran to account for much of the instability in the region, will support greater links between Turkey and UAE with regards to many problems and crises.

UAE investments in Turkey are increasing dramatically, and many Turkish companies have won major contracts in the Emirates over the past few years, some of which were disrupted due to bad relations between the two capitals. All of this puts pressure on the governments in Abu Dhabi and Ankara to maintain the pace of economic prosperity in line with positive political developments. Political stability in both countries will lead to more economic cooperation.

Perhaps the decline in Turkey-Russia economic relations, due to the latter’s aggression against Turkish territory and its attempts to impose a political and economic agenda on the region, is one of the reasons for Turkish rapprochement with the Gulf States in general, and the UAE in particular. This is not least because Russia-US understanding appears to be at the expense of Arab, Gulf and Turkish interests and in favour of other regional parties. The Saudi leadership has been aware of this and has thus stressed upon Gulf States, including the UAE, to look to expand their friendship with strong countries such as Turkey.

The rapprochement does not mean that all sticking points between the UAE and Turkey will disappear overnight, particularly with regards to the political situation in Egypt. Turkey is keen to observe democratic principles along with the rights of Arabs, Egyptians and Muslims, regardless of Western double standards.

Nor should the rapprochement be linked to specific issues such as Al-Sisi, the Muslim Brotherhood or Mohamed Morsi. Turkey’s concern is about injustice and inequality, not just because the victims might be Brotherhood members or whatever. The politicised use of murder, crimes and bloodshed by any president should not pass without accountability, but the fate of such a person should be decided by his people and not foreign countries. All aspects of Turkey’s acceptance of Arab refugees are humanitarian, whether they are from Syria, Iraq, Yemen, the UAE or other opposition groups. This is based on Turkey’s commitment to human rights according to UN charters and the position of the EU, which imposes conditions on Turkey in this regard. Most refugees opt to stay in Turkey.

It is within this context that the demand of the UAE government for Ankara to hand over seven members of the Emirati opposition living in Turkey should be viewed. Ankara cannot violate international and EU laws in this respect; Turkey does not have the right to extradite them, for under UN treaties, they have to be regarded as refugees. It could be up to the UN whether to keep them in Turkey or to deport them to another country. Their presence in Turkey does not mean that they have the Turkish government’s overt support or assistance whereas Britain, for example, offered citizenship to leaders of the Emirati opposition, who were actually more dangerous to the UAE than those members in Turkey. Although they chose to live in Turkey, their cases are being examined through the UN and not just Ankara’s policy.

Military cooperation between Turkey and the UAE is growing as part of the international cooperation in the fight against terrorism; there are a few Emirati military aircraft at Turkey’s Incirlik airfield. This is not necessarily in order to impose some sort of mutual blackmail on anyone. Turkey rejects attempts to blackmail its government, including economic pressures, and does not use such a policy against others. However, at the same time, it does not allow any opposition members from any country to use Turkish territory for hostile, criminal or terrorist acts elsewhere; this includes UAE, Arab and Islamic opposition groups. The rights of residence are granted for humanitarian reasons, as guaranteed by international charters, and are not intended for use against any other country, even in political disputes.

Translated from, 27 April, 2016

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.