Shifting tides in the Middle East

US President’s snub to the greater Middle East at “Summit for Democracy” further establishes his lagging interest

Azhar Azam December 14, 2021

the writer is a private professional and writes on geopolitical issues and regional conflicts

The writer is a private professional and writes on geopolitical issues and regional conflicts

Turkey and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) maintained warm economic, cultural and political ties until relations descended into deep animosity in 2010 over Ankara’s support for the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Cairo. Turkey backed the Islamist organisation while Saudi Arabia and the UAE opposed its rule. Broad approval of the pan-Islamic religious movement in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria was perceived as a threat to the dynastic rule in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Qatar, another hereditary state, endorsed Mohamed Morsi before he was overthrown by Egyptian army in 2013 and died during a trial over charges of espionage in 2019.

Qatar’s diplomatic crisis, Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, competition for influence in Sudan and exchange of accusations to undermine the Palestinian cause deteriorated Saudi-Turkish relationship even further. Each of them wanted to lead the Muslim world. Ankara’s pursuit of irredentist and neo-Ottoman ideology across the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Mediterranean and Caucasus widened the trust deficit. Nevertheless, Turkey and Saudi Arabia managed to find consensus on Syria where they backed the opposition forces. Notwithstanding the differences on the Brotherhood, the US — through one of the costliest CIA covert programmes, Timber Sycamore, in Syria — managed to align regional rivals in 2013 and started to deliver lethal assistance to 50 vetted opposition factions. The operation, staffed by representatives from America, France, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, conked out as patrons supported their favoured groups. Resultantly, the US policy in Syria failed and many CIA-supplied weapons ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda.

In March 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan supported the Saudi-led mission in Yemen and slammed Iran for trying to dominate the region by following a sectarian agenda and backing the Houthi rebels, demanding of Tehran to withdraw forces from Yemen, Syria and Iraq. There are speculations that Ankara can still intervene in Sana’a affairs over requests to jump into the fray from the Al-Islah Party — the Yemeni affiliate of the Brotherhood that ostensibly played an important role to cool tensions between Saudi Arabia and Turkey and whose cooperation in the conflict Abu Dhabi has long opposed.

In December 2017, ties between Ankara and Abu Dhabi plunged to a new low after Erdogan, without naming the UAE foreign minister, chided him as an “impudent” nouveau riche after he shared a tweet denunciating Ottoman leader, Fakhreddin Pasha, of stealing money and manuscripts from Madinah in 1916. In turn, Abu Dhabi stressed that the Arab world “will not be led by Tehran or Ankara”.

Egypt, the UAE and Turkey have been at odds on multiple fronts in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Last year, bickering turned into fierce diplomatic spat once Abu Dhabi indicted Ankara for interference in Libya, and Turkey claimed that the UAE was assisting Al-Shabab militants in Somalia while Egypt was “trying to destabilise the whole region”.

Erdogan, who threatened to suspend diplomatic relations with the Emirates on normalising relations with Israel, seems to tow the UAE line as he recently agreed to minimise “differences of opinion” and emphasised on a “mutually beneficial” relationship with Tel Aviv in a phone talk with his Israeli counterpart, Isaac Herzog. The US’s consistent deprioritisation, reduced engagement and phased pullback from the greater Middle East that started under Obama, adopted by Trump and being followed by Biden to shift focus on a theatre of strategic importance — i.e. the Asia-Pacific — propelled countries for a wider regional rapprochement. Qatar’s blockade by the Arab quartet — Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt — which demanded that Doha downgrade diplomatic ties with Tehran and close a Turkish military base on Qatari soil was withdrawn and diplomatic relations were restored in January. After lifting the embargo, Abu Dhabi said it didn’t “cherish any feuds” and expressed willingness to bury the hatchet with Ankara.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu gave an affirmative response and said that contacts between Ankara and Cairo had been restored since the two regional powers sparred and broke off in 2013. Tensions eased between Egypt and Turkey once the Turkish government forbade three Brotherhood-linked TV channels in the country from airing criticism against Cairo.

In a glaring move, Erdogan bypassed diplomatic protocol and personally received the UAE National Security Advisor, Tahnoun bin Zayedon, on August 18. The “historical and positive” meeting, focused on cooperation and economic partnership, was a carpe diem moment for Ankara that helped an increasingly isolated Turkey to recalibrate relations with the Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia to launch a charm offensive to curry favour with Abu Dhabi for “serious” investments.

A rare phone call between Erdogan and the UAE de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Zayed, on August 31 further opened up the way for new wider regional reconciliation. Abu Dhabi profited from the détente too since it has been seeking to shore up Middle East collaboration under Washington’s steady withdrawal from the region.

The cost of the bitter Turkey-UAE rivalry — which fueled conflict in Libya, tested their relations on the Brotherhood and their allies in Syria and Tunisia, and pushed to vie for influence in Somalia — is particularly high for Ankara where stubbornly high inflation has reached 19% forcing the central bank to sell $128 billion forex reserves to support the free-falling Lira.

The establishment of a $10 billion fund by the UAE in Turkey and cooperation agreements between the two countries would shift the trend from conflicts to economic issues. The pivot to the economy and possible swap deals should support the Lira, which has shed 45% of its value this year, and set the tone for other countries to follow and contribute to region’s stability and growth.

The UAE has been trying to cap rivalries with both Turkey and Iran as the Gulf state hones in on a post-pandemic economy after the US retreat from Afghanistan provided a “very worrying test” about the opaque US commitment.

After Abu Dhabi said it would take steps to de-escalate tensions with Tehran, bilateral rifts took a backseat during the Iranian officials’ visit to the UAE as the two sides agreed to work for regional stability and prosperity. In a latest diplomatic overture, the UAE’s top diplomat reached Damascus and threw trust behind the Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Erdogan is keen to enhance ties with Saudi Arabia and make use of the “close cooperation” for regional peace, stability and prosperity. Albeit expressing strong reservations about resumption of talks on the Iran nuclear deal, Riyadh intends to continue negotiations with Tehran.

Washington’s allies in the Arabian Peninsula have voiced their “angst” to the Biden administration on the declining US commitment to the region. The US President’s snub to the greater Middle East at the “Summit for Democracy” further establishes his lagging interest in the region and would accelerate this novel, localised framework of cooperation and broader regional rapprochement.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 14th, 2021.

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