Flanked by horsemen from the Turkish gendarme, Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ), the crown prince of the wealthy Gulf state of Abu Dhabi, arrived in a limousine at President Erdogan’s palace on Wednesday. As the rain poured down in Ankara, the photo opportunity took place under a lean-to, which had the same neo-Ottoman style as the rest of the colossal palace.
It was a historic moment: MbZ’s first visit to Turkey since 2012. It was there that the leaders of the two countries, which became arch-rivals after the Arab Spring and face each other across the region. At its core, the conflict revolves around Turkish support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which MbZ sees as the greatest threat to his regime and that of befriended autocrats.
“Turkey has been barred from economic cooperation with the second largest Arab economy in recent years,” said Christopher Davidson, a Durham University academic who has written several books on the Gulf countries. “This had major negative consequences, such as for Turkish migrant workers in the Emirates and Emirati investments in Turkey.”
Erdogan’s popularity is eroding
The visit came at an opportune moment for Erdogan. After the historic devaluation of the lira, which fell 15 percent against the dollar on Tuesday, he could use some positive economic news. Sources around the president expressed the hope in advance that a multi-billion dollar injection from the United Arab Emirates could revive Turkey’s faltering economy.
Indeed, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority announced on Wednesday 10 billion dollars (8.9 billion euros) in investments in Turkey, including in health care, financial technology and other sectors. Due to the fall of the lira, Turkey is now very cheap. The currency recovered 7 percent against the dollar after the investment announcement. In addition, Turkey and the Emirates opened a direct transport link without overland import duties via Iran earlier this month.
Due to the poor economic situation in Turkey, Erdogan seems more willing to compromise. The fall of the lira, which has fallen 40 percent in value over the past eight months, is eroding Erdogan’s popularity ahead of the 2023 elections. So he is trying to lift Turkey out of international isolation in view of foreign investment.
For example, Erdogan is less tolerant of Arab opposition channels based in Istanbul. Several Egyptian broadcasters, including some from the Muslim Brotherhood, have been pressured to adjust their programs and lessen their criticism of President Sisi. It seemed to be a signal that Erdogan is ready to distance himself from the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It is a worrying time for the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Davidson. “Qatar no longer offers a safe haven after the deal with the Emirates to end the blockade. Erdogan could also expel the Muslim Brothers from the country. Dissidents from the Emirates have moved to London as a precaution. But the Muslim Brotherhood has always shown a lot of resilience.”
The rapprochement with Turkey does not come out of the blue. It fits in with the new pacifist course that MbZ has embarked on, which is more focused on regional stability and economic development. He previously normalized relations with Israel, ended the economic blockade on Qatar, and strengthened ties with Iran, with which he was also engaged in a regional power struggle.
The new course is prompted by the fact that the Americans are increasingly withdrawing their hands from the Middle East. Davidson: “The chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan was the last straw. The Emirates realized: we are dealing with a post-American order. And Turkey is the largest economy and the largest military power in the region.”
Also read: Tiny Abu Dhabi has big ambitions on the world stage
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 25, 2021
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