Useful Enemies: How Turkey-UAE Rivalry is Remaking the MENA Region

Written by | Thursday, March 25th, 2021

Despite the asymmetry in their size, population, and military prowess, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are engaged in a decade-long feud that is reshuffling the geopolitical order in the Middle East and North Africa. The confrontation is not only feeding instability in areas that have an immediate impact on European interests, such as Libya and the Horn of Africa, but is also seeping into Europe itself, in the eastern Mediterranean. The rivalry is deepening Europe’s divisions, making it more difficult for the European Union and its member states to develop a cohesive policy on the Mediterranean.

Both Turkey and the UAE are eager to develop competing narratives on the supposedly ideological character of the conflict, and to find various platforms on which to present their competing visions for the region. But these efforts mask the true nature of the struggle. While the two countries have been on the opposite sides of nearly every regional conflict since 2011, it is debatable to what extent ideology – ‘moderate versus Islamist’ for Abu Dhabi, and ‘competitive democracy versus authoritarian monarchy’ for Ankara – shapes their rivalry. The dispute is complicated but, at its core, primarily involves a struggle for internal regime consolidation and regional influence.

Turkey has shown an affinity for Muslim Brotherhood parties in the past. Yet since the failure of the Arab uprisings of 2011 – and particularly since 2016 – Ankara has been pursuing a nationalist and revanchist course in its foreign policy. This policy has largely aimed to strengthen President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s domestic support, but it has also been marked by a naked desire for regional leadership. It is not about the spread of political Islam in and of itself. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi has presented itself as the torch-bearer for moderation against Islamist forces. Yet its strategy is focused on containing and confronting an assertive Turkey that it sees as a threat to its influence in the region.

Turkey and the UAE have engaged in a series of proxy political-military conflicts between the Horn of Africa and the eastern Mediterranean. Beyond this, their rivalry plays out in the halls of Washington and Brussels, the global media discourse, the energy industry, and, lately, ports and the high seas. Paradoxically, Turkish and Emirati leaders have benefited politically from the confrontation, using it to bolster their domestic and international positions. For the UAE, countering Turkey has opened the door to new alliances with Western actors, including European countries such as France and Greece, and has enhanced its position in Washington. For Ankara, its depiction of the UAE as intent on undermining Erdogan has provided fuel for the official narrative that outside forces are trying to sabotage a rising Turkey – a key theme in Turkish leaders’ explanations of foreign policy objectives to voters.

Regardless of its ideological character, the Turkish-Emirati feud has been damaging for Europe – exacerbating regional instability and dividing the EU as it attempts to reposition itself in a changing Middle East. For example, the Libyan conflict helped shift the rivalry between Turkey and the UAE closer to Europe’s southern border. As the two countries fed the Libyan war, France backed the Emirati-sponsored forces of General Khalifa Haftar and Italy aligned with Turkey by supporting the Government of National Accord (GNA). Similarly, by providing strong political and military support for Cyprus and Greece in their dispute with Turkey over maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean, the UAE has inflamed an already volatile situation and leveraged the enmity between Paris and Ankara – making it nearly impossible for the EU to develop a common policy on Turkey’s assertive posturing. These conflict dynamics have also affected NATO: Turkey’s veto has prevented the organisation from engaging in closer cooperation with the UAE and, therefore, strengthening its role in the Gulf.

The EU can prevent the Turkey-UAE conflict from destabilising European security and foreign policy. Europeans should not allow themselves to be sucked into the vortex of this regional feud, and should define their common interests. So far, Europe has been unable to determine or protect these interests in nearby conflicts that have provided an arena for Turkish-UAE rivalry, such as those in Libya, Syria, and the eastern Mediterranean. Europe should develop ideas to contain and manage the spillover effects of the conflict. Maintaining a relatively stable and constructive relationship with Turkey is a strategic imperative for Europe, for reasons that range from migration policy to trade. And the UAE is set to remain a critical player in the Mediterranean and the wider region – something that calls for strong European engagement. Europe should remain equidistant between the two countries.

Turkey and the UAE may one day decide to pursue a detente – or at least tone down the overt hostility in an effort to build new coalitions or, in Ankara’s case, break out of regional isolation. But Europe cannot afford to wait for the two countries to reconcile before setting its own course in its neighbourhood. It should proactively prepare for continued rivalry. It is not in the interests of the EU or its member states for the conflict to escalate across the Middle East and in their backyard. Europeans may not be able to resolve the Turkish-Emirati confrontation, but they can find ways to mitigate, manage, and contain the rivalry and its ripple effects – thereby preventing disputes between the EU and Turkey from being subsumed under, and heightened by, the rivalry as it plays out across the region.

All in all, the Turkish-Emirati rivalry is an intractable problem that now affects Europe’s internal dynamics. The conflict, which is more about geopolitics than ideology, helps both regimes extend their reach across the region and consolidate their domestic support. Turkey and the UAE have tried to promulgate their own narratives on the dispute in European capitals and Washington, highlighting their purported strengths and lobbying against the other side. In fact, both aim to extend their influence over Europe’s neighbourhood in a way that is deeply problematic for European interests. There are the five main recommendations for Europe’s approach to tackle the Turkey-UAE conflict: insulate Europe-Turkey relations from the Turkey-UAE rivalry; do not pick sides in Libya; invite Turkey into the EastMed Gas Forum; hold a Mediterranean conference; and use the NATO platform for deconfliction.

Ultimately, instead of using one actor to push back against the other – thereby linking European politics to regional conflicts and a zero-sum rivalry – Europeans should develop their own agency and independent strategy, and should look to manage the destabilising effects of this rivalry in the Mediterranean. If the EU wants to develop its strategic autonomy in its southern neighbourhood, it will need to create a European-owned deconfliction mechanism in the Mediterranean, proceed with the Berlin Process in Libya, and design a constructive new framework for its relationship with Turkey.

‘Useful Enemies: How the Turkey-UAE Rivalry is Remaking the Middle East’ – Policy Brief by Asli Ayd?nta?ba? and Cinzia Bianco – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.

The Policy Brief can be downloaded here

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