UAE ruler meets Turkey’s Erdogan for first time in a decade

The de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates arrived in Turkey for the first time in almost a decade, heralding a thaw in one of the region’s most difficult relationships and buoying the Turkish lira.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, was greeted by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a marching band as he arrived at the presidential palace in Ankara, where the two leaders were expected to discuss investment and regional politics.

The lira, which on Tuesday lost almost 12 per cent of its value against the dollar amid mounting fears about Erdogan’s management of the economy, rebounded by as much as 10 per cent as markets cheered the prospect of Emirati investment in Turkey at a time when western capital is scarce.

Sinem Cengiz, an analyst on Turkish-Gulf relations, described the meeting as a landmark moment for the geopolitics of the region. “The visit symbolises a turning point in Turkey-UAE relations after a decade-long feud,” she said.

The two states have found themselves on opposing sides in conflicts and vying for influence across the region since popular uprisings rocked the Arab world in 2011, and their bitter rivalry has reverberated from the oil-rich Gulf to the Horn of Africa and the conflict in Libya.

The talks between Erdogan and Sheikh Mohammed, one of the Arab world’s most influential leaders, are a further sign of a tentative shift towards de-escalation in the Middle East as the election of US president Joe Biden and the economic turmoil triggered by the coronavirus pandemic have prompted regional leaders to recalibrate their foreign policies.

The UAE is shifting its focus towards economic diplomacy as it seeks to boost its post-pandemic recovery, while Erdogan wants to repair ties with regional rivals as he faces strained relations with western powers.

“Both countries realised that after being at each other’s throats for 10 years neither side had punched a knockout blow and it was time to disengage,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political science professor.

Turkish authorities hope the high-level visit will act as a spur to Emirati investment in their country. “Investors in the UAE will be motivated by improving political relations,” one Turkish official said.

The two nations are expected to sign a series of deals for investment in energy, technology and health as well as ports and logistics, according to Turkey’s state-owned TRT news service. Reuters news agency reported that Turkey’s central bank governor was also meeting Emirati officials to discuss the potential for a swap agreement that would boost the country’s foreign currency reserves.

Analysts caution that many of the underlying issues at the core of their dispute remain unresolved. Relations became strained when Turkey and its Gulf ally Qatar backed the Arab uprisings in 2011. The autocratic monarchies in the UAE, and its main ally, Saudi Arabia, saw the revolutions as a threat to regional stability and their own hold on power.

Abu Dhabi and Ankara backed opposing sides in Libya’s civil war, and UAE officials have railed against what they perceive to be Turkey’s interference in Arab affairs.

When Saudi Arabia and the UAE led a trade and travel embargo against Qatar in 2017, Turkey accelerated the deployment of troops to a military base in Doha in a muscular show of support for its closest Arab ally. But tensions began to ease after Saudi Arabia moved to lift the regional boycott of Qatar at the beginning of the year.

In the months since, Turkey has sought to reach out to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Israel as well as the UAE. Trade and investment had tailed off during the past decade of heightened tensions between Turkey and the UAE. Cengiz said: “The main theme of this approach is the economy: realpolitik outweighed idealpolitik.”

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