Biden administration will make no difference in Turkey-UAE rivalry - Hussein Ibish / Arab Gulf State Institute

The arrival of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is unlikely to change the ongoing competition between Turkey and its regional rivals in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Arab Gulf State Institute, told Ahval in a podcast interview.

The incoming United States administration weighs heavily in Ankara and the Gulf, all of whom had grown accustomed to President Donald Trump’s approach in foreign policy. These countries worked assiduously to build their ties with Trump himself, who repaid their efforts by protecting them from Congress and his own administration.

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Biden has taken some strong positions against Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East and the Mediterranean and has labelled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan an “autocrat” during the presidential primary season in 2019.  

Saudi Arabia, another of the countries particularly concerned about Biden, has fared no better with the former U.S. vice president. Following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident, in October 2018, Biden called the kingdom a “pariah state” during one of the Democratic Party’s primary debates. 

There are certain impulses that may guide Biden’s recently named foreign policy team for the region, especially towards Ankara and Riyadh, Ibish said. The immediate driver is taking a firmer line against the aggressive behaviour emanating from both countries that did not draw much concern from Trump, he said.

“On the one hand, these people are committed Democrats and share a dimmer view that developed during the Trump years on a range of undemocratic partners in the Middle East,” Ibish said, referring to Erdoğan and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. 

Some of the antipathy from the Democratic Party is shared across the aisle among Trump’s Republicans, Ibish said. The outgoing president went to lengths to defend bin Salman as well as Erdoğan from his own government, something unlikely to repeat itself with Biden.

Despite this animosity, there is a silver lining in Biden’s foreign policy, namely his focus on revitalising American alliances worldwide, Ibish said. To this end, Saudi Arabia may actually have an easier time being flexible with Washington than Turkey will, he said.

“Turkey is not dependent on the United States to defend its territory and interests. Turkey is a power in its own right,” Ibish said.

Although Saudi Arabia has more political, economic and security weaknesses that U.S. support compensates for, this dependence from Riyadh enables it to modify its positions closer to American ones, Ibish said. In comparison, Turkey’s pursuit of its own objectives in recent years under Erdoğan generates more resistance, he said.

“During the Erdoğan era, Turkey has turned into a power that is trying to reshape the Middle East a whole,” the senior fellow said.

Resistance to Turkey’s regional agenda has been a defining feature of foreign policies in the Gulf, namely those belonging to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. However, the kingdoms perceive the threat from Ankara differently.

The UAE is more actively opposed to Turkey’s ambitions and support for a brand of political Islam tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, a pan-Islamist political movement that operates networks of groups across the Middle East. It is partly for this reason that the Emirati government has waged what is in effect an ideological struggle against Ankara. 

For its part, Saudi Arabia has seen Turkey in terms that are more realpolitik based than ideological. That contributes to Riyadh’s ability to separately attempt some level of detente with Turkey in recent weeks through diplomatic contacts and statements. 

These policy differences are not new, but they are by no means fatal to the Gulf powers’ partnership, Ibish said. Even as the formation of the new U.S. leadership coincides with Saudi Arabia’s de-escalation with Turkey, the rivalry between the UAE and Turkey is likely to continue irrespective of these changes.

“My feeling is that this rivalry is likely to continue so long as the two powers (Turkey and the UAE) see themselves as the vanguard of rival poles: pro-Islamist and anti-Islamist,” said Ibish. “I think this is a very long-term struggle over the Middle East and the Arab world in particular in the coming decades.”