On Valentine’s Day, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) showered the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with love, at a festive reception in Abu Dhabi. The Turkish flag was waving in almost all main streets of Abu Dhabi, including on the walls of Khalifa Tower. UAE’s top pop singer recreated Erdogan’s favorite love song and sang it in Turkish, as a gift from the Emirati people to the Turkish people. Amidst this dazzling show of love, a dozen economic bilateral agreements were signed by senior officials on both sides, to add up to the billions of dollars that the UAE generously poured into the struggling Turkish economy, four months ago.
The people of the Middle East, especially in Egypt and Saudi Arabia where rapprochement with Turkey is developing at a slower but steady pace, were watching the show of UAE wooing Turkey in such an exaggerated manner, with unblinking eyes and dropped jaws. No one could understand the motives behind this dramatic shift from extreme animosity to extreme love, especially from the side of the UAE towards Turkey.
Only one year ago, the UAE was dealing with Turkey as an existential enemy. The Emirati media used to label the Turkish President as a sponsor of Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists. UAE supported Kurdish groups in northern Syria against Turkey’s interests. Even worse, there were direct conflicts between the UAE and Turkey in Libya. In the Mediterranean’s hot summer of 2020, the UAE sided with Greece against Turkey and sent F-16 fighters to harass the Turks, under the title of running joint military exercises with Greece.
In an interview with Aljazeera TV, a short while ago, the Turkish Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, vowed to punish the leaders of Abu Dhabi for sponsoring warlord Khalifa Haftar against the GNA in Libya, and also for the UAE’s alleged drone attack on the Military Academy in Tripoli that killed tens of unarmed cadets while asleep, in January 2020. Ironically, Hulusi Akar did not join Erdogan on his Valentine’s Day visit to the UAE, as he always used to do on almost all of Erdogan’s foreign visits. A COVID-19 infection, that disappeared as soon as Erdogan took off to Abu Dhabi, was publicly used to justify the absence of the Turkish Minister of Defense. However, I personally believe that Hulusi Akar decided to keep himself out of this particular political show, out of self-respect and integrity, especially since most of the regional conflicts between Turkey and the UAE have not been resolved yet.
Nevertheless, a non-biased look at the bigger picture can give us a clue about the UAE’s clumsy foreign policy in the region, especially towards the non-Arab countries of the Middle East, namely Israel, Turkey, and Iran. In my opinion, the whole issue boils down to the historical tribal competition between the UAE and its neighbor Qatar. Qatar is rapidly growing as an influential power in the Gulf and the whole Middle East region, in contrast to UAE’s shrinking role in the region, despite its economic successes and continuous outreach to the West.
Qatar is now the representative of the interests of the United States in Afghanistan. Qatar was the only country in the region that was able to intervene in Afghanistan to clean up the mess of the hasty US withdrawal, thanks to its old relations with the Taliban. The Qatari Prince Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani is the only leader of an Arab country to be invited to a meeting with US President Biden, in Washington, since Biden was elected, more than a year ago. In addition, Europe is currently begging Qatar to save itself from the ongoing economic crisis resulting from the shortage of Liquified Natural Gas.
On the regional level, Qatar is the only country in the Gulf region that is immune to the attacks of the Houthis militia, which has been targeting Saudi Arabia and UAE for a while, due to Qatar’s strong relations with Iran. Also, Qatar’s relations with the most powerful Arab powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have been steadily improving since the signing of the Al-Oula reconciliation agreement in January 2021. Meanwhile, the NATO-skilled Turkish military is training and equipping the Qatari military, which will soon become an advanced military power in the region.
In contrast, the UAE is rapidly losing most of its cards, because of its clumsy foreign policy that depends on panic reactions to potential national security threats. Allying with Greece against Turkey in the Mediterranean conflict, in 2020, proved to be a waste of time and money. It had not given the UAE the access it desired to Europe, or even an observer status access to the EastMed Gas Organization. Likewise, normalizing ties with Israel, in 2020, with the hope to get the advanced F-35 fighter jets from the United States did not work. Up till this moment, the UAE did not get even a small piece of the ammunition it was supposed to receive as part of that deal.
And, most recently, following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the UAE lost its status as a partner in running the Kabul Airport, which now will be managed by Turkey in close coordination with Qatar. Moreover, the UAE’s National Security Advisor’s attempts to improve relations with the Iranian Mullah regime did not save his country from being attacked by the Iran-backed militia in Yemen, last month.
The aforementioned developments explain why the UAE decided to rush on fixing strained ties with Turkey, and could well explain the exaggerated show of love that we have seen in Erdogan’s reception in Abu Dhabi, this week.
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