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The Turkish-Emirati Rapprochement and Its Repercussions on the Region
The UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Zayed went to Ankara where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in atmosphere described by both sides as positive and fraternal.
Although the move was seen as a sudden turn for Abu Dhabi, observers of the changes in the Middle East can read the details of the causes that led to it.

Eva J. KOULOURIOTIS

13/12/2021 Region: Middle East Topic: Various

During a sensitive and important diplomatic visit, UAE Prime Minister Mohammed bin Zayed arrived in Ankara where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in atmosphere described by both sides as positive and fraternal. The meeting was preceded by diplomatic and economic preparations by both sides, as well as the surprise visit of Emirati National Security Adviser Tahnoun bin Zayed to Ankara about two months ago, which paved the way for diplomatic and economic communication between the two countries.

Although the move was seen as a sudden turn for Abu Dhabi, observers of the changes in the Middle East can read the details of the causes that led to it, most notably Biden's arrival at the White House. This was followed by UAE support for the Al-Ula conference, which ended four years of illegal siege of the state of Qatar, Ankara's most important ally in the Gulf. So, despite the importance of the Emirati step, it is too early and illogical to interpret this visit as the prelude to an Emirati-Turkish alliance in an area known to be politically unstable and with volatile alliances. As observers, however, we can see how the most important files in the region may be affected in the light of this convergence and what are the scenarios for the future of this convergence.

First of all, it should be emphasised that this visit focused on the economic aspect between the two countries. The first results were the signing of agreements between them that promote cooperation in technology investments, tourism and seaports, as well as in the defence industry. The UAE announced the creation of a $ 10 billion investment fund in Turkey. Considering the depth of the level of political differences between the two countries it is a logical step to choose the economy as the ground for rebuilding trust between them and then try to reach an agreement on political issues that concern both and in which they have influence. Given the forthcoming date of the Libyan presidential election, the Libyan file will have an important place at the Turkey-UAE negotiating table.

Despite the apparent calm in the current situation in Libya and the political movements led by Europe, the tension that will follow in the near future can be seen. As it is known, Turkey, which intervened militarily in the Libyan file at the official request of the legitimate government of Tripoli, has a say in it. On the other side of the conflict, Abu Dhabi supports General Khalifa Haftar and Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh.

With the closing of the candidacies for the presidency of Libya and the announcement of the names of the candidates, it is noted that we are facing a calm before the storm. Despite the cessation of hostilities over the past two years, this period has not brought about fundamental changes in the form of alliances and military and tibal influence on the ground. General Haftar's militias (Libyan and non-Libyan mercenaries) continue to control eastern Libya without showing any change or desire to accept change.

On the other hand, the interim government in Tripoli continues to have limited influence in the Libyan west given the presence of tribal militias who refuse to surrender their weapons and fear a break in the ceasefire and a setback after the presidential election.

In this situation, Libyan politicians are standing in front of the polls with their finger on the trigger, so any Turkey-UAE rapprochement could have a direct impact on Libya's future. Therefore, the timing of Mohammed bin Zayed's visit to Ankara, exactly one month before the election date, is of particular importance.

Both Abu Dhabi and Ankara see a military solution as a stalemate that will only drain the two sides without a winner, turning Libya to an additional financial burden on their shoulders. A Libyan personality on which both sides will agree, and which will safeguard their interests may be the best choice and the ideal scenario for both. Ankara is able to persuade its allies in Tripoli for this solution, as Abu Dhabi has strong influence in eastern Libya to persuade it to accept it.

International players, led by Europeans, are already pushing for a political solution to end illegal immigration off the Libyan coast and return Libya to the oil and gas market, which is very important for Europe. Çavuşoğlu's visit to Abu Dhabi in the middle of this month will be a prelude to a new turning point on the Libyan scene, starting with the delay of the election date for a few more months until the two sides can transfer their wishes to the ground. From this meeting it is possible that the conflicts in the eastern Mediterranean will not be absent.

As for the eastern Mediterranean, we can say that the two issues of tension in the Aegean and the maritime border between Egypt and Turkey will be part of any negotiation or agreement between the two sides. Despite the breaking of the ice between Cairo and Ankara in late 2020 and the discussions that erupted between the two sides, including the issue of the maritime border, Libya and the media tension between them, they did not bring anything new or restore relations between the two countries due to the lack of common ground and the negative atmosphere that then prevailed between Ankara and Abu Dhabi due to the significant influence of the Emirati lobby in Cairo. Therefore, any kind of Emirati-Turkish rapprochement will positively affect Turkish-Egyptian relations and may push for reconciliation on the issue of maritime borders, which Athens and Nicosia will be watching.

Greek media have chosen to ignore Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince visit to Ankara despite its importance to Athens's interests and the close rapprochement in Greek-UAE relations, which reflects a kind of concern on the one hand and a desire by the Greek government not to read it hastily. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis waited about ten days to contact Mohammed bin Zayed after his visit to Ankara, during which the two sides reaffirmed the depth of relations and the need to raise the level of investment co-operation between the two countries.

What the Greek side does not want to say is that Athens, which took advantage of the tension between Ankara on the one hand and Abu Dhabi, Riyadh and Cairo on the other to develop its diplomatic relations with these countries and to sign military agreements with them (a joint defence agreement with Abu Dhabi, the transfer of the Patriot missile systems to Saudi Arabia and the demarcation of the maritime border with Cairo). These agreements would not have been completed with this flexibility if it were not for the tension between these countries and Ankara. Consequently, the Greek government is not optimistic about the Emirati-Turkish rapprochement and the Turkish-Egyptian negotiations that may arise and will not satisfy Athens in the eastern Mediterranean and will deprive Greece of the much-needed investments from the Gulf countries given the chronic economic crisis that plagues it.

Undoubtedly, both Abu Dhabi and Ankara have significant weight in the Middle East and have recently expanded their influence to include Africa and Central Asia, given the declining US presence in the region and its focus on the Iranian nuclear file. The two countries want to exploit the American vacuum to reap strategic, economic, and geopolitical benefits that will support their aspirations in the region and increase their international influence. In this vision, the search for common denominators may be a more successful way than clashing. The first test will be in Libya and its success will extend to other issues in the eastern Mediterranean and beyond.