In the years preceding the pandemic, flights between Dubai and Istanbul were so busy that it was one of Turkish Airlines’ most profitable routes. The two cities framed the Middle East, with Istanbul its geographic gateway to the West, and Dubai to the East. When Covid-19 halted these flows, stalling commerce, tourism and personal visits, the distance between these great regional hubs was made wider, and for travellers, the Middle East seemed less intimate.
In truth, however, the distance between Turkey and the UAE had been growing for some time. In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings a decade ago, the two countries took different approaches and views on the region. Whereas many Arab states had viewed the uprisings with extreme caution, as they watched extremist groups seek to seize the moment, for Turkey they appeared to represent an opportunity.
The differences created political divisions and ruffled feathers in several Arab capitals, from Tripoli to Baghdad. A decade on, it is time to heal rifts in the region and find ways to work together towards stability and more prosperity.
The visit of Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, to Turkey on Wednesday marked an important moment. It was Sheikh Mohamed’s first official visit to the country in nearly 10 years, and comes after recent high-level contacts between Emirati and Turkish officials.
The pandemic has offered many lessons for the Middle East, but the most important is that the region is in need of more collaboration that can cut across politics. In the case of Turkey and the UAE, what transcends politics is of significant value. The UAE is Ankara’s largest regional trading partner, and Emirati trade and investment in Turkey has grown considerably in recent years. From 2019 to 2020, UAE exports to Turkey increased by more than 110 per cent and total trade increased by 21 per cent. Dubai is a financial hub for Turkish businesses, and the UAE home to thousands of Turks, including families who have been settled there for generations.
All of this was at the core of meetings between Turkish and Emirati officials on Wednesday. One outcome of the talks was the UAE’s establishment of a $10 billion fund to support investments in Turkey, including in the key areas of energy, health and food.
Importantly, the discussions also covered some of the larger issues at stake, such as regional co-operation on major global challenges. From combatting Covid-19 to collective action on climate change, regional solutions are needed. As Dr Sultan Al Jaber, the UAE Minister of Industry and Advanced Technology said, Turkey and the UAE “aim to forge partnerships to address global challenges together, like climate change, energy, food and water security”.
Dr Al Jaber also described the UAE and Turkey as “natural partners”, given the scale of potential co-operation between them. There will be more to resolve in order to bring that partnership into full force, but the hard work is being done now. Those efforts will set the stage for Turkey and the UAE to come out of the turbulence of the pandemic with a larger sense of shared priorities. That would be a long-term benefit not only for Emirati-Turkish relations, but for the region as a whole.