01.10.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Turkey and the UAE Vie for Shaping a New Middle East


While the UAE-Israel and Bahrain-Israel deals, called the Abraham Accords, have certainly changed Israel’s position in the Middle East, and triggered a new politics of blocs whereby the self-styled regional leaders and those with ambitions to become leaders are coming closer to like-minded states, the struggle for power and re-shaping the Middle East post Abraham Accords is nowhere more pronounced and dangerous than between Turkey, which is riding the Ottoman horse under Erdogan, and the UAE, which is increasingly looking into the future as the sole regional power. This is evident from how the UAE is already in talks with the US over the purchase of F-35 jets, bidding to upgrade its military power to tilt the balance of power to its favour, giving it an edge not only over its rivals, but also erstwhile friends so that it can present itself in strong enough terms to dominate and shape the Middle East.

The struggle for power will, as it stands, probably spiral out of the Middle East into Africa as well, engulfing the MENA. While Turkey, given its sore relations with Israel, could never have hoped to resolve Palestine-Israel conflict, all it can do now is to use the issue to its advantage and present itself as the ‘leader of the oppressed.’

And, while Turley and the UAE have ideological conflict as well over the particular brand of (political) Islam that they follow, both countries are also already engaged in a conflict in Libya. The Palestinian question has only added to the multiple fields where both countries will be competing. Already, the UAE, calling Turkey a ‘foreign power’ (since Turkey is a non-Arab country), has accused it of establishing a ‘colonial rule’ of the Ottoman era.

Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed said “foreign powers” were trying to restore “their domination and colonial rule” over the Arab world, adding further that “the tensions in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and other states are all related to blatant interference in Arab affairs made by states [Turkey] that incite strife and discord, or that have historical delusions of restoring their domination and colonial rule [re-establishing Ottoman empire] over the Arab region and the Horn of Africa. The result has been brutal wars.” Pointing Turkey directly, the UAE diplomat said that Turkey’s action in Libya had “undermined efforts to reach a peaceful solution and destabilized the entire region”.

The UAE, sensing Turkey’s own sore relations with the US, has also offered to transfer the US military base in Turkey to the UAE. This offer, although not officially acknowledged yet, does show growing Emirati ambition to place its strategic interests in ways that would allow it to get closer to the US “deep state” and thus become a regional ringleader. The UAE’s growing appetite for power also comes against the backdrop of a progressive Saudi decline. While Saudi decline doesn’t make the UAE and Saudi rivals, it does make the UAE a logical contender for power from within the Arab world against contenders from within the non-Arab world.

The US, under the Trump administration, does not appear to have any problems whatsoever with dealing with the UAE as a new regional leader. The US president Trump has already said he has “no problem” in selling F-35 jets to the UAE. Importantly enough, the UAE will be buying F-35s, notwithstanding Israel’s reservations, at a time when the same US president has thrown Turkey out of the F-35 program, indicating their intention to forge ties with the UAE, making it the new major non-NATO ally.

While Turkey’s exit from F-35 program may be due to its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, a crucial reason for its sore relations with the US and Israel remains Erdogan regime’s ideologically motivated support for the Palestine cause and its consequent close relations with Hamas as well. Turkey’s stand is very much a reflection of Erdogan’s Islamist agenda and his dream to ‘make Turkey great again,’ This is indeed the reason why the Erdogan regime continues to sponsor TV series, being premiered and watched worldwide, that promote and glorify Ottoman era and its legacy.

Pushing for recreating the same glory, Turkey has chosen to contest its NATO allies, France and Greece, in the Mediterranean, triggering a crisis within the organization that had originally wanted to make Turkey and Israel bulwarks against Soviet expansion into the Middle East. The equation today has obviously changed, making Turkey the prime contender against Israel and its new friends in the region.

Turkey, as it stands, will be increasingly deploying its Muslim Brotherhood ideology to establish its tentacles across MENA. At the same time, the Abraham Accords are also most likely to change the equation of Turkey-Israel relations as well. These Accords are going to open up new vistas of trade and transit routes for Israeli citizens, a development that will inevitably leave an impact on Turkey-Israel relations (howsoever fragile they might be), pushing Turkey further towards Iran, probably make it even join its “axis of resistance.” How Turkey’s own Islamist agenda will actually come into play and relate to Iran’s axis remains to be seen.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.