Turkey serious about improving ties with UAE, says new ambassador

Turkey's new ambassador Can Dizdar sits down with The National's Taimur Khan to discuss Turkey's role in regional stability and his optimism about better trade and economic ties with the UAE.

The new Turkish ambassador to the UAE, Can Dizdar, at his office in the Turkey embassy in Abu Dhabi on November 28, 2016. Delores Johnson / The National
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ABU DHABI // As ties between Turkey and the UAE grow increasingly warm, Ankara’s new ambassador — formerly the most senior Middle East official in the Turkish foreign ministry — says his appointment shows his country is serious about improving bilateral ties.

"That is my mission here," Ambassador Can Dizdar, who began his tenure in October, told The National. "I want to increase the pace, and achieve our objectives sooner rather than later."

After the 2011 uprisings, ties between Turkey and the UAE faltered over opposing strategic positions on the role of Islamist political parties. Relations grew colder in 2013 when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi — who was backed by Ankara — was removed, a move supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The UAE did not have an ambassador stationed in Ankara reportedly since late 2013, and trade between the two countries dipped.

UAE-Turkey optimism

But the relationship has begun to improve. Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, came to Abu Dhabi in April – the first Turkish official to visit the UAE since 2013.

The UAE sent a new envoy to Turkey in May, and foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed travelled to Ankara for talks with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in October.

Talks between Sheikh Abdullah and Mr Erdogan were “very productive and fruitful, and helpful in terms of dispersing certain thoughts and questions in our minds — I’m talking mutually”, Mr Dizdar said. “So I think we have much more reason today to be more optimistic for the period ahead.”

Another key step in the positive momentum was the GCC designating the Hizmet movement of the US-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen as a terrorist group. Mr Erdogan has blamed his former ally Mr Gulen of orchestrating the failed military coup against him in July.

“It was very important, very well received in Ankara,” Mr Dizdar said. “In this we are grateful to our UAE friends and it shows that this mutual trust is growing between the two countries.”

A number of other geopolitical developments have paved the way for the UAE-Turkey detente. The continuing turmoil in the region and a desire shared by Gulf countries and Turkey to balance Iran’s growing clout, have brought their interests into greater alignment.

Policy shift

According to analysts, the replacement of former Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who was closely associated with Turkey's aggressive ambitions, marked the beginning of a shift in its Middle East foreign policy. "Turkey is seeking a more pragmatic, low-profile and rational policy in the region," said Jana Jabbour, a researcher at Centre de Recherches Internationales in Paris and the author of the forthcoming book, Building a Rising Power Diplomacy: The Case of Turkey in the Middle East.

Ankara is seeking to mend ties with Russia and reconcile with the Syrian regime it has backed rebels to fight, to focus on preventing an independent Kurdistan in Syria, Ms Jabbour said. It is also working to draw a line under its damaged ties with Cairo, with mediation from the UAE and Saudi Arabia, she added.

A potential modulation in support for Brotherhood groups by Turkey may also have contributed to the improvement in ties with the UAE.

“When I was in Istanbul last June and I interviewed Egyptian MBs in exile there, they were scared that Ankara is changing its policy and that they will be kicked out of the country soon,” Ms Jabbour said. “Not only are they no longer receiving any support from the Turks, but the media channels and businesses they established in Istanbul have been closed by the government.”

Economic opportunities

The priority of non-energy economic diversification for GCC countries in the era of low oil prices, as well as Turkey’s own economic troubles, have also given the relationship a significant economic basis, and one that Mr Dizdar said will be the “backbone” of relations with the UAE, and lead to wider cooperation.

“Turkish investors are looking for opportunities in the UAE, and vice versa,” Mr Dizdar added. “Of course the UAE is a great investor in the world markets and of course we have an interest to attract the UAE investors in Turkey.”

For most Gulf countries, expanding their industrial bases, particularly in defence, are key components of their economic plans, and Turkey could play a greater role in the future.

“You cannot cooperate on the defence industry without military cooperation, so these two should go hand in hand in an ideal world,” he said.

The two countries are planning to convene a bilateral joint economic commission to explore where to expand trade ties, Mr Dizdar added.

Turkey’s exports to the UAE fell from over $8 billion (Dh29.4bn) in 2012 to $4.6bn in 2014, while imports from the UAE fell from $5.3bn in 2013 to $2bn in 2015, according to Turkish government figures.

Even with a dip in exports to the UAE since 2013, it is still Turkey’s largest trading partner in the region after Iraq. With its exports declining and tourism numbers dwindling, Turkey will look to Gulf countries to improve both.

“The non-oil trade volume stood at about $7.4bn in 2015, including the free zones, compared to $4.2bn in the first half of this year,” UAE Minister of Economy Sultan bin Saeed Al Mansouri said in November. “This gives a clear indication of possibility of moving this relationship to a higher coordination and partnership level,” the minister said.

Middle East security

Gulf states view Turkey as an important partner in stabilising the region, primarily through defeating ISIL and other extremists and in countering Iranian influence in Arab countries. “The current instability keeps us away from our objectives so we need to close ranks and put our minds together to create a stable and secure environment,” Mr Dizdar said. “The security of the Gulf holds the key to the security of the entire Middle East” and there “is no lack of will in Turkey to contribute as much as we can to the security of the UAE and the entire Gulf”.

In northern Iraq, the UAE has reportedly worked to bolster ties with the Turkish-allied Kurdistan Regional Government, and Mr Dizdar said “there is substantial ground for cooperation” in Iraq as well as Syria.

Ankara and Abu Dhabi have supported opposing political rivals in Libya, but Mr Dizdar said he hoped “all of us together should encourage the parties to come together and follow one single road towards the future”.

Turkey has also given diplomatic and political support to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Mr Dizdar said Turkey supports the UN Security Council resolutions and the legitimacy of the government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi. “We are completely on the same page with the UAE and Saudi Arabia on this,” he said. “But of course to stop the armed conflict in Yemen you need to find a solution which everyone feels comfortable with.”

He added that Turkey opposes in principle any sort of partition between north and south Yemen because it would only “change the nature of the conflict. If the circumstances dictate such a thing then we need to look at the environment and the period ahead. But of course that would not be our preference.”