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Rapprochement with the UAE: Is Turkey changing its foreign policy?

December 7, 2021 at 2:03 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (L) pose for a photo after a signing ceremony of bilateral agreements at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on 24 November 2021. [Ali Balıkçı – Anadolu Agency]

The past few weeks have brought about an important shift in the region, represented by the visit of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Zayed, to Turkey and his meeting with Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where he was warmly received. The two countries signed a number of agreements and memoranda of cooperation, mainly in the commercial and economic sectors.

The visit represents the climax of the path of rapprochement between Turkey and a number of countries that stood on opposite sides to it in various regional issues, and even formed an axis to confront it, namely Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain.

Mohammed bin Zayed visited Turkey to coincide with the Bahraini Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Saudi Minister of Commerce. There were also many meetings previously held between Cairo and Ankara with the aim of improving relations. Then the Turkish President crowned all this by emphasising that the “strong steps” taken by his country with Abu Dhabi will soon be taken in Cairo and Tel Aviv.

Given the severity of the polarisation that has characterised the relations of the two sides over the past eight years, especially Ankara and Abu Dhabi, including each supporting different parties in a number of countries and conflicts, the question asked by many today is whether something will change in the regional policies of these countries, and what the repercussions of this will be on the region’s issues.

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From a theoretical and principled point of view, there must be a change after all the steps taken by the two sides, although we must not overestimate its value. However, changes to some extent or another seem logical and expected. Some initial indications began to appear, such as the UAE’s release of a Turkish businessman who had been detained since 2018 after the visit of Mohammed bin Zayed, and before that, Turkey released a person accused of spying for the UAE while his trial before the Turkish judiciary continued.

However, radical changes related to the main directions of foreign policy are unlikely. For Turkey, issues such as Syria, Iraq, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean are at the heart of its foreign policy vision and the keys to its national security. Therefore, Ankara is not expected to make any tangible changes to its policies there, and it – along with the rest of the countries – will not change its position and vision for the region and its issues just because it reconciled with others, or their tensions calmed.

ANKARA, TURKEY - NOVEMBER 24: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C-L) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (C-R) pose for a photo during their meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on November 24, 2021. ( Murat Kula - Anadolu Agency )

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C-L) and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (C-R) pose for a photo during their meeting at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on November 24, 2021. [Murat Kula – Anadolu Agency]

On the other hand, this also does not mean that there will be absolutely no change in the Turkish foreign policy and its dealings with these countries. Three changes are likely:

First is the language of discourse, with the intensity of media strife and bickering between the two sides  expected to decrease. This has already begun recently and is expected to continue.

The second change is related to the direct bilateral relations between the two sides, especially in the fields of economy, trade and investment. These steps have already begun recently and were reinforced by the visit of Mohammed bin Zayed and the announcement of an investment of $10 billion in Turkey as a first stage. What makes this path more likely is the absence of major and fundamental obstacles in the path of direct bilateral relations between the two parties.

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As for the third change, it is related to the Arab opposition residing in Turkey, which is at the heart of the polarisation situation between Turkey and the aforementioned axis. Therefore, it is logical to expect repercussions from the new path to a certain extent, especially since there is an existing example of the matter, which is Turkey’s “restriction” of the work of the Egyptian opposition media operating on its soil once it began dialogue with Cairo.

In conclusion, the path of rapprochement today is required and desired by both sides of the equation – Turkey and the other axis – which means that there is something that each side will offer to the other to make it succeed. While we have focused on the changes on the Turkish side in this article, logically, we will see similar changes and others on the other side.

However, this does not mean that the success of the path and it reaching the end of the stage is guaranteed or certain, as it is still in the initial stages and will undergo many tests of good will and sincerity. There is also the possibility of changes in the international and regional environment that reduce the desire of the parties or some of them to complete the path.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 6 December 2021

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