Restoring UAE-Turkey ties is about more than just investments

Ankara's outreach to a number of countries is a positive development for regional stability and prosperity

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last week. EPA
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Turkish citizens have taken to the streets in significant numbers in recent days to protest violence against women and to speak out against a persistent economic crisis driven by a steep decline in the lira. Some even called for the government to step down.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered a probe into the lira's fall and urged his people to hold fast as Turkey fights a war for economic independence against what he describes as the nefarious designs of foreign actors.

"We have not thought about this economic policy overnight and decided to apply in the morning,” Mr Erdogan said on Friday, addressing repeated calls for the central bank to reverse policy and implement an interest rate hike. “We’ve been preparing for this for 19 years.”

While the Turkish leader seems compelled to take an unwavering stance domestically in order to maintain a sense of invincibility among his base, he has over the past year become much more amenable internationally.

Consider Mr Erdogan's meeting last week with Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, who visited Turkey for the first time since 2012. The two countries disagreed for years on several key regional issues, but a shift began earlier this year after top officials spoke of seeing no hurdles to warmer ties.

Turkey heralded Sheikh Mohamed's arrival to the White Palace with an honour guard, the Emirati national anthem and a 21-gun salute. After the meeting, in which the two sides discussed bilateral and regional developments, the UAE announced a $10 billion fund to invest in Turkish energy, health care and food, plus investments in Turkish ports, finance and startups and a commitment to boost bilateral trade.

The lira, which has lost 40 per cent of its value since February, perked up in response to the news. However, this infusion of cash is not going to “save” the Turkish economy. Yet, it may do something even more meaningful: further encourage regional unity and solidify the shift in Ankara’s foreign policy positioning.

A handout photograph taken and relased by the Turkish Defence Ministery on July 9,2019 shows a Turkish Navy warship patroling next to Turkey's drilling ship "Fatih" dispatched towards the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus. - Turkey will "increase" its activities off Cyprus after the EU approved measures to punish Ankara for drilling operations in the eastern Mediterranean, the Turkish foreign minister said on July 16, 2019. (Photo by DEFENCE MINISTERY PRESS SERVICE / TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / TURKISH DEFENCE MINISTRY" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

A year to 18 months ago, Turkey seemed an international pariah, on the verge of war with Greece, opposing Gulf states in several regional disputes, the recipient of harsh US sanctions for purchasing Russian missile defences and facing further sanctions from the EU for its eastern Mediterranean aggressions.

This year, Turkey and Greece have held two rounds of talks to discuss lingering disputes and Mr Erdogan had a friendly meeting with US President Biden on the sidelines of the G20 last month. Just last week, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay met with the Saudi Trade Minister in Istanbul, signalling a further warming of ties between Ankara and the Gulf.

The Council of Europe is threatening to launch infringement proceedings against Ankara for its continued detention of philanthropist Osman Kavala, who was again refused release by a Turkish court on Friday. But Brussels seems to have taken sanctions off the table, at least for the moment, as Turkey has reduced its naval profile around Cyprus and the eastern Mediterranean.

What’s more, Ankara somehow maintains relatively friendly relations with warring foes Ukraine and Russia, and broached the possibility of detente with Armenia earlier this year while remaining closely aligned with Azerbaijan. Last week, Mr Erdogan became personally involved in securing the release of an Israeli couple detained while vacationing in Istanbul, then spoke on the phone with both Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog.

The Muslim Brotherhood has had Turkey's support for a number of years. AP Photo

As with Egypt, hurdles remain to full rapprochement with Israel, but there’s no question that Turkish ties with both have improved markedly in the past year, thanks in part to Ankara limiting the reach of Muslim Brotherhood-run news outlets. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi would like Ankara to extradite dozens of Muslim Brotherhood exiles living in Turkey, while Israel has urged Turkey to shutter Hamas offices in Istanbul and cut ties with the terror group.

In fact, nearly all of the states mentioned above have lingering complaints with Ankara, from its position on Syria to political prisoners such as Kavala, and from Aegean border claims to allegedly using refugees as a weapon. But rarely in international relations are points of contention erased in a flash. Committed diplomats are often required to hack away at a knotty problem behind closed doors for months, even years, before it can be massaged into mutual acceptability.

Improved Turkish ties with its neighbours and the West is a positive development for regional stability and prosperity

What matters at any given moment, then, is the direction of travel. And even though Mr Erdogan remains opposed to a domestic economic shift, to the apparent detriment of his popularity, it’s clear that since the darkest days of the pandemic last summer, Turkish foreign policy has sought to come in from the cold.

I first highlighted Ankara’s move to end its regional isolation back in January, and the friendly vibes have mostly continued in the interim. The reasons behind the shift are mostly immaterial.

The crucial development is that Turkey seems increasingly willing to re-join the international community. A decade ago, Ankara liked to boast of having “zero problems with neighbours", yet by 2013, prominent western outlets were arguing that Turkey suddenly had problems with all its neighbours and beyond.

Now Ankara might have found that elusive middle ground, where both sides can accept lingering issues of contention while maintaining productive ties. Turkey’s foes-turned-friends may doubt Mr Erdogan’s commitment to international norms and open relations. But there should be no doubt that improved Turkish ties with its neighbours and the West is a positive development for regional stability and prosperity, and for all those Turks taking to the streets in desperation.

Published: November 28, 2021, 2:00 PM