Turkey’s relations with Saudi Arabia improve, but tensions with the UAE remain

Turkey’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has warmed in recent months but this has yet to extend to the United Arab Emirates, where a diplomatic chill remains.   

Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of the geopolitical risk consultancy Gulf State Analytics in Washington D.C, said that part of the impetus behind Ankara and Riyadh’s rapprochement is the arrival of new United States President Joe Biden.

“The Biden presidency has certainly been a force that has brought Saudi Arabia and Turkey to a better relationship,” Cafiero told Ahval in a recent podcast.

Initial first steps to decrease tensions began in the waning days of President Donald Trump’s administration. The former president was a strong ally of both the Turkish and Saudi leaderships, allowing them to engage boldly in the Middle East despite opposition from a furious U.S. Congress.

This began to change after Biden defeated Trump in November and the cover provided by the White House evaporated. In his nearly three months in office, Biden has repeatedly criticised Turkey as well as Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses. 

However, Cafiero cautioned that, regardless of improvements in Turkish-Saudi relations, there remains significant differences over a range of issues.

Earlier this week, Turkey was reported to be preparing a complaint to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) against Saudi Arabia over an informal trade boycott that has been going on since last October. In addition, Riyadh was revealed to have shut down a number of Turkish schools operating in Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities, around the time the boycott began.

At the same time, Saudi Arabia is set to co-produce models of the Turkish Karayel-SU armed drone, showcasing a new area of cooperation to have emerged recently. Turkey, which saw interest in its armed drones spike after their success against Russia-made systems in Nagorno-Karabakh and elsewhere over the last 12 months, has been keen to market its system to new buyers. And the Gulf state appears ready to meet that demand.

In many ways, relations with Turkey are a poster-child for Saudi Arabia hedging against any shifts in U.S policy that could take place under Biden. Cafiero posits that it is unlikely the Saudi-U.S. defence relationship change radically, but says Riyadh is still looking to diversify in any case, even buying armaments from Turkey “notwithstanding disagreements between Riyadh and Ankara”.

But even as Turkish-Saudi relations slowly warm, relations with the UAE remain frosty at best.

In recent years, the UAE has competed fiercely with Turkey in something of a cold war that extended across the Middle East, Africa and into the eastern Mediterranean. For Abu Dhabi, Ankara’s promotion of political Islam is anathema. And Turkey’s support for Qatar in 2017 after the Saudi-led blockade has left Emirati officials embittered.

There were initial signs that the rivals could be heading towards detente. Former UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash said in January that his country “does not cherish any feud” with Turkey, and more recently Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed similar sentiments.

Asked whether a Turkey-UAE rapprochement was feasible, Cafiero said he was skeptical.

 “Of all the Arab states who have had problems with Ankara, in my opinion the UAE is going to be the last one that overcomes its problems with Turkey,” he said.

Cafiero explained that the “rigid opposition” of the UAE leadership to Turkey’s support for political Islamists, especially those tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, is too much for Abu Dhabi to stomach.

To that end, he added that, unless Turkey was to drop this policy, he believes any reconciliation with the UAE is further away than with Saudi Arabia. Instead, their competition has hit a pause for now but flashpoints, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, where the UAE has allied itself with Turkish rivals like France and Greece, could flare up again.

“Abu Dhabi’s interest in putting a check on Turkey and trying to counter its might in the Mediterranean is certainly an interest the Emiratis have,” Cafiero said.