UAE vs Turkey: the regional rivalries pitting MBZ against Erdogan

When Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader, shook up the Middle East by agreeing to normalise relations with Israel, just two states in the region cried foul.

Iran was predictably first up. Regime hardliners in the theocracy often call for the destruction of the Jewish state and deride the UAE as an American stooge. But arguably the harshest reaction came from Turkey, despite it being the first majority Muslim country to recognise Israel seven decades ago.

After Ankara raged that “the conscience of the region’s people” would “never forgive this hypocritical behaviour,” president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to withdraw Turkey’s ambassador to the UAE. Abu Dhabi had anticipated the verbal salvo from both countries. But it was Turkey’s response that would have irked most.

During the past 18 months, the UAE has sought to reduce tensions with Tehran, and Emirati officials insisted September’s Israel deal had nothing to do with Iran, saying Abu Dhabi wanted to use diplomacy and de-escalation to resolve its issues with the Islamic republic. But just as Sheikh Mohammed, Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, has sought to cool the temperature with one nemesis, the UAE’s rivalry with Turkey has moved to a whole new level.

Over 10 months of accusation and counter accusation, it has become the Middle East’s most toxic feud, pitting two of the region’s most powerful, assertive leaders against each other; one of the US’s closest Arab partners against a Nato member. And it has reverberated from the oil-rich Gulf to the Horn of Africa and the front lines of Libya’s civil war, further fuelling tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

“It’s the struggle defining the politics of the Middle East at the moment,” says Emile Hokayem, Middle East expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “It’s a rivalry that plays out directly and by proxy in many places — and it’s one that will draw in international actors on both sides.”

Move to a ‘bigger alliance’

The UAE deal with Israel was at least in part motivated by Abu Dhabi’s desire to deepen its regional alliances against Ankara and project its influence as the rivalry intensifies, Turkish officials and Emiratis believe.

“After hearing threats from Turkish officials — and you hear them so loud — of course it helps to have an ally like Israel. It accelerated the deal,” says Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati academic who often reflects the state’s thinking. “You share intelligence; you are part of a bigger alliance and perception matters as much as reality.”

Those “threats” emanated after Turkey stepped up its military intervention in Libya’s civil war this year to support the UN-backed government in Tripoli.

Abdullatif al-Zayani, Bahrain foreign minister; Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli prime minister; Donald Trump, US president; and Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, UAE foreign minister © Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty
A protest against the UAE’s decision to normalise relations with Israel, in Gaza City last month
A protest against the UAE’s decision to normalise relations with Israel, in Gaza City in September © Mohammed Abed/AFP via Getty

Before Ankara deployed troops, including Syrian militias, and air defence systems, the UAE’s proxy, renegade general Khalifa Haftar, was in the ascendancy as he laid siege to Tripoli, bolstered by huge shipments of arms and equipment from the Gulf state, according to UN officials and diplomats.

But Turkey’s firepower neutered Gen Haftar’s aerial superiority, ending his bid to topple the Tripoli administration and forcing his fighters into a hasty retreat. It severely dented Abu Dhabi’s ambitions in the north African state as the conflict triggered fears of a broader regional conflagration erupting on the southern Mediterranean.

After an unidentified jet launched strikes against a Libyan base hosting Turkish troops in July, Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, warned that his country would hold the UAE to account at “the right place and right time”. He accused the Gulf state — an absolute monarchy which Ankara says props up despots throughout the region — of committing “malicious acts” and sponsoring terrorists hostile to Turkey.

On the other side, the UAE accuses Mr Erdogan of colonial delusions, supporting Islamist groups and forming a hostile axis with Qatar, its Gulf rival. The belief in Abu Dhabi is that wealthy Qatar provides the funding, and Turkey the muscle as Mr Erdogan seeks to position himself as a leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

“Turkey has many things to answer for, with its long-term attempts — in concert with Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood — to sow chaos in the Arab world, while using an aggressive and perverted interpretation of Islam as cover,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, wrote in the French magazine Le Point in June as tensions over Libya soared.

Sheikh Mohammed, known colloquially as MBZ, is spearheading the Arab push against Turkey’s influence. But the UAE is not alone in voicing concerns about Mr Erdogan’s forays in the Middle East, which include Turkey’s offensive into north-east Syria last year and military operations in northern Iraq, both to counter Kurdish militants Ankara considers terrorists.

Egypt, which along with the UAE and Russia also backs Gen Haftar, threatened to deploy troops to Libya this year. And in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has imposed a de facto ban on Turkish imports, underscoring the tensions between Ankara and Riyadh.

“If you look at the threat matrix in the region, Turkey has very quickly gone into a prominent spot — they are everywhere,” says a senior Saudi official. Iran still poses a more direct threat to the kingdom, he says, but “we just see things getting worse”.

“Erdogan’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh [where he has thrown his weight behind Azerbaijan in a dispute with Armenia] is very disturbing, not because it’s an issue that has anything to do with us, just that it’s another sign of where he’s going.”

Competing spheres

If Libya was the flashpoint that brought the rivalry to its most bellicose point, it was not the cause. Rather, it is a symptom of a decade of animosity fuelled by ideological differences as both governments’ adventurist foreign policies have butted up against each other.

The UAE, which has an indigenous population of just 1.5m but is one of the region’s wealthiest countries, has long punched above its weight. Since the 2011 Arab uprisings rocked the region, Abu Dhabi has deployed tens of billions of petrodollars to bolster allies across the Middle East and Africa through trade, aid and the use of military resources.

Libyan fighters secure the area of Abu Qurain against forces loyal to UAE’s proxy, General Khalifa Haftar
Libyan fighters secure the area of Abu Qurain against forces loyal to UAE’s proxy, General Khalifa Haftar © Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty
Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, warned that his country would hold the UAE to account after an ‘unknown’ foreign jet launched strikes against a Libyan base hosting Turkish troops in July
Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defence minister, warned that his country would hold the UAE to account after an unidentified jet attacked a Libyan base housing Turkish troops in July © Turkish Defense Ministry/AP

The Gulf state’s foreign investment and bilateral aid to eight countries including Egypt, Pakistan and Ethiopia, has totalled at least $87.6bn since 2011, according to the American Enterprise Institute, which analysed publicly available data. “The UAE has used investment and aid more often, and in more direct ways than any other Gulf state. And it has become much more political,” says Karen Young, a Gulf expert at AEI.

But just as Sheikh Mohammed has sought to extend the UAE’s reach, so too has Mr Erdogan been actively expanding Turkey’s influence.

“Where you find Emirati activity you often find Turkish activity directly countering it in a way Iran doesn’t,” says Michael Stephens, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. “They believe they are up against a Turkey that is very hostile in terms of its nationalism, its power projection and a determination to make sure the UAE doesn’t get its own way.”

Last year, Mr Erdogan said the number of Turkish embassies in Africa had risen from 12 to 42 over the previous 15 years. He has also extended Ankara’s influence closer to the UAE’s shores.

In 2017, Turkey fast-tracked the deployment of troops to a Qatari base in a muscular display of support for Doha days after Abu Dhabi and Riyadh led a regional embargo against their Gulf neighbour. The same year, it opened its largest overseas military base in Mogadishu as Ankara and Abu Dhabi vied for influence in the Horn of Africa.

In October 2018, Turkey signed a defence co-operation agreement with Kuwait, deepening its alliances in the Gulf states’ backyard, just as Riyadh was grappling with its worst diplomatic crisis in decades after Saudi agents murdered Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.

In a Twitter post this month Mr Gargash described Turkey’s military presence in the Gulf as an “emergency”. And he blamed Qatar and Turkey for reinforcing a “policy of polarisation”.

Roots in the Arab spring

It was not always this way. In the first years after Mr Erdogan steered his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development party (AKP) to power in 2002, Turkey was deemed by many inside and outside the Middle East as a model for the region. Gulf governments looked to increase economic ties and saw a potential Sunni partner to counter Shia Iran.

That changed when Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, won Egypt’s first democratic presidential election after the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

“I was like a prince and was invited to all meetings — all doors were open,” says a Turkish official who was a diplomat in the UAE in the 2000s. “Then the paranoia started in Abu Dhabi when we supported the democratically elected leader, Morsi. They were furious.”

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Doha to meet Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani
Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrives in Doha to meet Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani © Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP
Mohamed Morsi, the late Egyptian president, was jailed after being removed in a 2013 coup
Mohamed Morsi, the late Egyptian president, was jailed after being removed in a 2013 coup © Ahmed Omar/AP

The Arab uprisings became a defining moment in Turkey’s relations with the axis of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. For Sheikh Mohammed, the tumultuous period presented a threat; for Mr Erdogan, it was an opportunity.

The crown prince was convinced that Washington had abandoned a longtime ally in Mubarak, and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government in the Arab world’s most populous nation confirmed his fears about Islamist movements exploiting the chaos.

Those events reinforced the belief of the former Sandhurst military academy graduate that the UAE had to take a more active role in shaping the neighbourhood, using its resources to counter Islamist groups with an almost ideological zeal. It has been at the core of his foreign policy ever since as he has become arguably the most influential Arab leader.

But for Mr Erdogan, the Egyptian revolution offered a chance to forge alliances with an Islamist ally at the heart of the Arab world.

While the UAE funded Egyptian media outlets hostile to the brotherhood, Ankara backed Morsi with political and financial support. The dynamics dramatically shifted when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seized power in a 2013 coup. An autocratic military man, Mr Sisi settled seamlessly into Sheikh Mohammed’s camp, crushed the Islamist movement and received billions of dollars of Emirati aid.

In contrast, Mr Erdogan viewed the toppling of Morsi as an affront — and a warning that he could be next. Turkish officials suspect Abu Dhabi may have had an indirect hand in the attempted overthrow of Mr Erdogan in 2016, although they present no evidence.

“When there was a coup attempt in Turkey, we know very well who in the Gulf was happy about that,” Mr Erdogan thundered in a 2017 speech.

In the years after the Egyptian coup, Turkey became a haven for members of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled a brutal crackdown. Today, it is the region’s hub for Arab dissidents, while Abu Dhabi and Riyadh throw their weight behind strongmen.

“They want autocrats to stop political parties in the Middle East,” says another Turkish official. “But it won’t work, they always overestimate their abilities and underestimate their enemies.”

MBZ’s limits

To some, the rivalry has exposed the limits of the UAE’s power. A former senior western intelligence official believes “we may have seen the high tide of Emirati influence around the region”.

“What happened in Libya is a good example that if a serious power throws its weight behind the other side, there’s not much the Emiratis can do because all they’ve got really is cheque books and arms sales,” he adds.

He views it as less a regional rivalry and more Abu Dhabi targeting Turkey because the UAE considers itself as the “brains” of an anti-Islamist alliance.

“The full extent of MBZ’s ambitions are coming up against some real obstacles,” he says. “He’s looking for recruits to take on Turkey, including the Americans, hence this identification of Turkey with Iran, but I’m not sure he’s going to succeed.”

UAE jets prepare to take part in joint training with Greek forces
UAE jets prepare to take part in joint training with Greek forces © Greek Defense Ministry/AP
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed with French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed with French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017 © Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP via Getty

Others expect Sheikh Mohammed to bolster existing alliances in the region and beyond. Less than two weeks after it signed the Israel deal, the UAE dispatched four F-16 fighter jets to take part in a Greek military exercise as tensions between Ankara and Athens over maritime rights hit fresh highs.

The UAE has been participating in military exercises with Greece since 2017, but this allowed Sheikh Mohammed to project his alliances beyond the Middle East.

“The UAE needed to send a message, ‘we are here whether you like it or not, we have not given up on Libya,’” Prof Abdulla says. “Egypt and Saudi are our best regional allies, but we are broadening our global friends — Israel is joining in, Greece is there.”

Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Erdogan have not held a formal bilateral meeting since 2012. But the crown prince hosted Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, in February and has had at least three phone calls with him since as the two countries strengthen their relationship.

The Israel deal assured that the UAE’s standing rose across the political divide in Washington — Abu Dhabi’s prime goal when it signed the agreement. Sheikh Mohammed also has a willing ally in French president Emmanuel Macron, who has provided political support to Libya’s Gen Haftar, shares his concerns about Islamist movements and has become increasingly critical of Mr Erdogan’s foreign policy.

While Turkish officials are dismissive of their smaller rival, Ankara is aware of Sheikh Mohammed’s influence in western capitals.

“Turkey does not fear the UAE. Turkey fears that the UAE will use the west against it . . . MBZ has been spending millions of dollars lobbying against Turkey,” says Muhittin Ataman, head of foreign policy research at Seta, an Ankara-based think-tank close to the ruling AKP. He says Sheikh Mohammed and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are pursuing “a zero-sum relationship with Turkey”.

It is a rivalry that shows no signs of abating. “It’s going to be an enduring feature of the modern Middle East,” Mr Hokayem says.

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