Turkish-Gulf Relations in the Context of Regional Reconciliation

Since 2021, Turkey has been resetting its policies in the Middle East and has started to reconcile with its rivals in the previous decade—Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). However, this process has not been linear and in some cases, there have been setbacks or even outright failures. Overall, Turkey’s reconciliation with the UAE stands out not only because of its relative speed, but also because of its potential. Turkish-Emirati ties in certain respects now resemble the long-standing and successful Turkish-Qatari relations, but still fall short of the strategic level of those relations. Turkey’s other attempts at reconciliation are all behind that with the UAE.

Reconciliation efforts with Syria have not reached the level of political normalization and now seem to be bogged down by the irreconcilability of each side’s demands. The only issue on which Ankara and Damascus agree is to oppose the American military presence in northeast Syria. Therefore, in the unlikely scenario that Turkish-Syrian reconciliation moves forward, it could create difficulties for the United States. This factor distinguishes Turkish-Syrian reconciliation from Turkey’s other regional reconciliation efforts.

The process with Egypt has been much more successful. Ankara and Cairo have restored full diplomatic ties and have exchanged ambassadors, and the leaders of both countries—Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—have met more than once. However, further progress appears limited, as both sides continue to have opposing views on Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean. The current calm in these conflict areas has allowed Turkey and Egypt to compartmentalize their relationship, engaging diplomatically and trying to advance economic relations despite diverging positions on Libya and the Eastern Med.

Before Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, Turkish-Israeli reconciliation had gone through the same stages as the Turkish-Egyptian process. Full diplomatic normalization had been achieved between the two countries, Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had held a bilateral meeting weeks before October 7, and Netanyahu was expected to visit Turkey in November. The two countries were considering further cooperation, especially in the field of energy and transport of Israeli gas. But even then, no progress was made, largely due to Israeli hesitance and lack of trust in Erdoğan. In the wake of Israel’s war on Gaza, the possibility of energy cooperation seems to have disappeared for the near future.

Turkey aims to divide the emerging anti-Turkish alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In contrast, Turkey’s reconciliation with the Gulf duo of Saudi Arabia and the UAE has progressed much better, albeit to different degrees. This makes sense considering that Turkey’s drivers for reconciliation are both economic and geopolitical. Economically, Turkey sought cash injections into its struggling, cash deficit economy while geopolitically, Turkey wanted to end isolation in the Arab world and the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey particularly aimed to divide the emerging anti-Turkish alliance in the Eastern Mediterranean by separating Turkey’s erstwhile rivals, Greece and Cyprus, from their new allies in the Middle East. However, as Turkish-Greek relations are currently experiencing a particularly warm period, the urgency for Turkey to reconcile with Egypt and Israel has diminished. In contrast, Turkey’s economic woes continue, and it is the Gulf countries rather than Syria, Egypt, or Israel that have the necessary sources to help Ankara economically.

Reconciliation With the Gulf

Turkey’s reconciliation with the UAE has moved more quickly than the one with Saudi Arabia. UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ) visited Turkey as early as November 2021, and the encounter marked the first meeting at the leaders’ level of all the reconciliation processes. MBZ was also among the first leaders to congratulate Erdoğan after his election victory in May 2023. The normalization process quickly resulted in the signing of important economic cooperation agreements. Most notable is the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), signed in March 2023 and ratified three days after Erdoğan’s election victory, which aims to increase bilateral trade to $40 billion. Bilateral trade already increased by 40 percent from 2021 to 2022, reaching $18.9 billion. The UAE also has given strong support to Turkey’s growing defense industry by ordering a large number of drones. Furthermore, the two countries are deepening their cooperation in the energy transition. Given that during the 2011Arab Spring uprisings Turkey had identified the UAE, rather than Saudi Arabia or Egypt, as its main adversary, it may be surprising how quickly reconciliation has taken place.

Several factors have contributed to this rapid reconciliation. First, MBZ and Erdoğan both demonstrate pragmatism and a desire to prioritize economic and diplomatic ties. Second, and perhaps more significant, there has been a swift “de-ideologization” of the region. Unlike Turkey’s other conflicts in which ideology often masked underlying geopolitical tensions, the rift with the UAE was primarily ideological, stemming from the dynamics of the 2011 uprisings.

Turkey’s rift with the UAE was primarily ideological, stemming from the dynamics of the 2011 uprisings.

While Saudi Arabia and the UAE often aligned their actions in response to the uprisings, Saudi Arabia perceived Iran as the primary regional threat, whereas the UAE’s concerns centered on political Islam, particularly on movements aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which were ascendant in several Arab countries and were backed by Turkey.

During and after the 2011 uprisings, counter-revolutionary forces backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE succeeded in stopping Islamists from reaching power or from holding onto power, but ideological struggles eventually took a back seat. Not only did the MB ultimately lose in its quest for power, but the movement’s appeal seemed badly tarnished by a decade of failure and widespread splintering. Moreover, as MB-linked movements lost momentum, conservative and counterrevolutionary forces in the region, led by the Saudi-UAE bloc, adopted a less alarmist approach, opening new diplomatic channels with Turkey and Qatar. Turkey may not have completely abandoned the MB movement, but its support has proven to be flexible and pragmatic, rather than rigid and ideologically driven. For instance, Turkey maintains working relations with MB-aligned groups in Libya and Syria while decreasing support for the Egyptian branch. Turkey’s pragmatic approach to its relations with the MB and the fact that the UAE stopped perceiving the movement as a significant threat made rapid Turkey-UAE reconciliation possible.

In contrast, over the last two years, Saudi Arabia has always followed behind the UAE in its reconciliation with Turkey. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) has been less willing to meet Erdoğan, and until recently the few meetings that have taken place had not led to major economic cooperation. From an economic perspective, this is not surprising. Historically, Turkish-UAE economic ties have always been stronger than those between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which were minimal even before their diplomatic relations withered. The current relatively weak economic ties points to untapped potential, but more political will is required to capitalize on economic opportunities. In this respect, Riyadh lags Abu Dhabi.

An obvious explanation would be the enmity between MBS and Erdoğan stemming from the Khashoggi affair, when Saudi agents killed Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Despite the ongoing reconciliation efforts, MBS has not forgotten Turkey’s diplomatic campaign against Saudi Arabia over the killing, as evidenced by his meticulous approach to meetings with Erdoğan. MBS has always tried to position himself as the dominant figure in their encounters. In contrast, MBZ has proven to be more pragmatic, initiating the first visit and allowing Erdoğan to claim a victory in domestic politics, presenting it as the UAE backtracking while Turkey emerged stronger from the decade-long rupture in ties.

A more structural reason is the size of these countries. For a smaller country, the UAE has proven to be much more agile than larger Saudi Arabia in its foreign policy, moving ahead of Saudi Arabia in its relations with Iran and Israel, for example. Relatedly, Turkey and Saudi Arabia both have reasonable claims to the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world and therefore inevitably engage in a rivalry.

Moreover, a deepening of ties between Ankara and Riyadh would significantly alter the balance of power in the region and send a threatening message to Tehran in a way that the Turkey-UAE reconciliation does not. Since all parties are striving for de-escalation and regional stability, this is not a message that any capital wants to send. Therefore, Riyadh has been careful in coordinating its reconciliation efforts with Turkey, Israel, and Iran, and has not put too much weight in any one direction.

Decoupling of Countries

The difference in the speed and degree of Turkey’s reconciliations is also a sign of the de-coupling of different regional blocs formed in response to the Arab Spring. In addition to the regional bloc formed by Iran and its proxies, a Saudi-UAE bloc and a Turkey-Qatar bloc emerged after the 2011 uprisings. Now, as a result of the regional reconciliation process, these countries have started to act more independently. For example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have diverged significantly in their foreign policies. In fact, a rivalry has emerged between the two countries, as evidenced by their competition to host the regional headquarters of international companies. The fact that both countries have similar powers and visions has the potential to accelerate their rivalry.

While it is not possible to speak of a rivalry between Turkey and Qatar, the two countries sometimes act more autonomously. The lifting of the Saudi-Emirati-Bahraini-Egyptian blockade on Qatar in January 2021 lessened Qatar’s dependence on Turkey. Turkey’s reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and the UAE has the potential to weaken Qatar’s economic priority role for Turkey.

Given the fast pace of the Turkey-UAE reconciliation, the UAE may well overtake Qatar in economic relations with Ankara. With the de-escalation of tensions between Abu Dhabi and Ankara, economic relations and bilateral trade started to increase rapidly and return to their previously robust levels.

Economic Dimensions, and Limits, of Reconciliation

Another dimension of economic relations is investment. The UAE has announced its intention to invest $15 billion in the Turkish economy. To what extent this will materialize is not known. Qatar has made similar pledges in the past, but it is unclear if they were fulfilled. Turkey’s hectic economic management and its tendency to deviate from orthodox economic policies are obstacles for long-term investment in the Turkish economy. This has been the case for Qatar as well as for the UAE.

Finally, the UAE offers important services in terms of financing and loans. While the size of the currency swap agreements between the central banks of Turkey and the UAE pale in comparison to those between Qatar and Turkey, the UAE has played an important role in providing loans to Turkish banks. In fact, in the first half of 2023, two UAE banks alone arranged 61 percent of all syndicated loans to Turkey. Securing UAE financing remains important for Turkey, since that western lenders are increasingly cautious about lending to the Turkish state and banks due to Erdoğan’s unorthodox monetary policies.

But economic ties do not translate into a full geopolitical alliance. While Turkey’s pragmatism toward the MB and the UAE’s desire to multiply its regional partners have ensured that the reconciliation has proceeded smoothly, this does not mean that there is a complete geopolitical alignment between Turkey and the UAE. For example, despite the easing of tensions, both countries continue to take opposing positions in Libya. On another front, while Turkey is careful not to criticize the UAE for its continued adherence to the Abraham Accords, it has been extremely vocal against Israeli atrocities in Gaza. In contrast, Turkey and Qatar have consistently aligned themselves in almost every regional conflict.

While reconciliation has proceeded smoothly, this does not mean that there is a complete geopolitical alignment between Turkey and the UAE.

Moreover, despite MBZ’s pragmatic moves to facilitate the reconciliation process, the UAE and Qatar still differ in their relationship with Erdoğan himself. While reconciliation began in 2021 and there were many promises of economic cooperation and leadership-level bilateral meetings throughout 2022, most important developments took place after Erdoğan won the May 2023 presidential election. The UAE, like Saudi Arabia, was waiting to see if Erdoğan would remain in power. Moreover, given Erdoğan’s urgent need for a cash injection before the election, the limited assistance from Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent a message that they were ready to work with Erdoğan without strongly favoring his continued rule. This contrasts with Erdoğan’s more durable allies in Doha and Moscow, who went to great lengths to provide him with financial assistance at a critical time.

In light of all these factors, even if the UAE surpasses Qatar in its economic ties with Turkey, its relations with Ankara are unlikely to reach the level of the Turkish-Qatari alliance with its deep personal ties and history of taking common positions in regional conflicts. The Turkish-Qatari relationship is a tested and mutually beneficial one that has proven its resilience in times of crisis. Moreover, Turkey has a military base in Qatar, which provides a strong institutional dimension to and foundation for the two countries’ security cooperation. While Turkey’s deepening relations with the UAE may not be welcomed by Qatar, in the new era of multiple alignments, Doha may not have the clout, or even the desire, to prevent Ankara from deepening its relations with Abu Dhabi.

Trump Presidency as the Wild Card

Washington largely has viewed the regional reconciliation efforts favorably, yet recent outbreaks of violence underscore the efforts’ inability to foster peace. Primarily orchestrated at elite levels, these reconciliatory endeavors have skirted around addressing fundamental problems plaguing the region, such as the Palestinian question, the prevalence of oppressive and dysfunctional states, and entrenched economic crises. However, events following October 7 have also revealed a widespread determination across the region to preserve the reconciliation achieved so far. Apart from Israel, all major actors in the region, as well as the United States, are working to contain the Gaza conflict, even as they disregard the shocking level of Palestinian deaths in Gaza. This reality demonstrates the significance of regional reconciliation for local actors and for American foreign policy objectives.

However, the prospect of former President Donald Trump returning to the White House in January 2025 looms as a wildcard. This is not because the Biden administration has made such substantial strides in promoting regional peace and stability, but because it is not certain how Saudi Arabia and the UAE would navigate reconciliation under a Trump presidency. Under Trump’s expected carte blanche, there is a risk of the United States reverting to aggressive and confrontational foreign policy in the Middle East, and there are questions about whether such US policies would solely target Iran or extend to Turkey and Qatar. The escalating tensions between Turkey and Iran suggest the possibility of Turkey aligning with aggressive postures against Iran.

Despite Turkey’s vested interests in maintaining reconciliation with Gulf countries and in deepening ties in the region, potential belligerence from Middle Eastern partners could force Turkey to respond in kind. Turkey’s history of swiftly abandoning reconciliatory efforts, as seen in the vicissitudes of its relations with Israel over recent decades, shows how its pragmatic approach is shaped by both domestic and regional dynamics. Ultimately, Turkey would not object to American efforts to help stabilize the region, by both confronting the fundamental structural problems plaguing US foreign policy and succeed in restraining actors from reverting to aggression and conflict.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.