How easily does foreign policy change? The United Arab Emirates (henceforth UAE) is well known for its proactive foreign policy; a policy of intervening in regional and civil conflicts in the Greater Middle East and the Horn of Africa. At the same time, this small yet wealthy Gulf State has sought to increase its economic and political footprint in various regions such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Indian Subcontinent via new partnerships and investments.
For almost a decade, UAE policy towards the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and other regions was primarily focused on its undeclared war against Political Islam and the rivalry with Erdoğan’s Turkey. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey provided political, financial, and, on several occasions, military or paramilitary support to political parties and armed groups associated with the Muslim Brethren and other Islamist forces. However, in late 2021, Abu Dhabi and Ankara decided to reconcile, transforming their intense rivalry into a partnership of sorts. The UAE – Turkey rapprochement appears to have impacted not only the UAE’s policy toward Ankara but also its stance vis-à-vis Turkey’s allies and adversaries.
In this article, I will not delve into UAE foreign policy in general. Instead, I will focus on the transformation of the Emirati foreign policy doctrine, which began in late 2021 and gained momentum following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The UAE has transitioned from being a junior partner of the US to aspiring to become a major independent regional actor. Abu Dhabi has also reevaluated its approach to Iran while enhancing its relations with Russia and China. Despite the continued significance of UAE’s relationship with the US, China, and Russia, I will concentrate on Emirati-Turkish relations and their impact on UAE foreign policy concerning Turkey’s allies and adversaries.
Let us revisit the intensity of the Emirati–Turkish rivalry. Traditionally, Turkey and the UAE maintained friendly relations as commercial partners of Muslim heritage with close ties to the US. Everything changed, however, after the Arab Uprising of 2011-2012. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist factions in states where the regime was overthrown (such as Egypt and Tunisia) or in states experiencing civil conflict (like Syria, Libya, and Yemen), changed the regional policies of both the UAE and Turkey; the Emiratis became involved in armed conflicts and supported regime changes in countries ruled by forces affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. In contrast, Turkey supported the Muslim Brethren and its affiliates.
The UAE – Turkey relations: from conflict to partnership
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) )-led coalition, represented mainly by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, perceived the domination of Islamist forces in MENA as a potential threat to the two monarchies, particularly due to the republican orientation of the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2013, the Al-Islah party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s representative in the UAE, was accused of plotting a coup against the state with the support of Egypt’s Muslim Brethren-led government. This marked a turning point in Emirati policy towards the Brotherhood and its patrons, namely Morsi’s Egypt, Qatar, and Turkey. Additionally, both Riyadh and Abu Dhabi viewed the expanding Turkish-Qatari influence in MENA as a threat to their geopolitical presence in the region. Tensions between the UAE and Turkey escalated to the point where Abu Dhabi accused Ankara of destabilizing the region and supporting terrorism, while Ankara accused Abu Dhabi of supporting the 2016 Turkish coup attempt and collaborating with terrorists.
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, state collapse in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, Turkish military expansion in MENA, as well as anti-Saudi and anti-UAE propaganda by Qatari and pro-Turkey media intensified the rivalry between the Turkish-Qatari axis and the Saudi-Emirati coalition.
In 2013, the Saudi/UAE-backed General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, led by Mohamed Morsi, thus destroying Egypt’s pro-Turkish regime and exacerbating tensions between Ankara and Abu Dhabi. In 2017, the Saudis, Emiratis, and their allies cut ties with Qatar due to its relationship with Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other radical Islamist groups, and imposed a blockade and sanctions on the Qatari State. Turkey responded by establishing a military base in Qatar. Moreover, in 2019, the pro-Saudi/UAE Sudanese Armed Forces toppled Omar al-Bashir, who sought to develop a strategic relationship with Turkey and whose party (the National Congress) was an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, in Syria, the UAE supported the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), one of Turkey’s main foes in the war-torn country, and later normalized relations and supported the Assad regime in an attempt to counter Turkey’s expansion in the Mashriq region. Turkey even threatened to suspend diplomatic ties and recall its ambassador from Abu Dhabi over the Abraham Accords in 2020. Most recently, the Emiratis supported Tunisian President Kais Saied’s decision to dissolve the parliament and dismiss the government led by the pro-Turkish and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda party.
The most significant battleground of the Turkey-UAE proxy conflict was Libya. The UAE, along with its close ally Egypt, provided political, financial, and military support to the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Khalifa Haftar, who aimed to capture the Libyan capital of Tripoli and overthrow the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) under Fayez al-Sarraj. The Emiratis supplied the LNA with military equipment and mercenaries from Sudan and neighboring Chad. Turkey, in response, supported its Libyan allies by establishing a military presence in northwestern Libya and bolstering the pro-Turkish forces with mercenaries from rebel-controlled Syria and Somalia. The tip-top of the Turkish – Emirati confrontation over Libya was the 2020 Battle of Tripoli when Haftar’s forces, with the support and active involvement of the UAE, attempted to seize the Libyan capital and dismantle the pro-Turkish government which successfully repelled the offensive due to Turkey’s intervention.
Changes began to unfold in 2021. A number of developments contributed to the gradual reconciliation between Ankara and Abu Dhabi. In particular, the normalization of GCC-Qatar relations, the decline of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the Biden administration’s Middle East policy, Turkey’s economic issues, and the developments in Libya brought the two sides closer. In addition, both states started following a different foreign policy approach: Turkey returned to its ‘zero problems’ policy and engaged in reconciliation processes with states such as the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Armenia. The UAE decided to address its issues with Iran and Turkey while focusing on its emerging rivalry with Saudi Arabia for regional hegemony.
In this context, UAE’s de facto leader Mohamed bin Zayed visited Ankara in November 2021 and signed a $10bn-worth agreement with Turkish President Erdoğan. This agreement was followed by several other deals encompassing trade, investments, energy, and transportation. In May 2022, the two states signed an agreement on defense industry cooperation, while in November the UAE received its first Bayraktar TB2 drones from Turkey. Meanwhile, both Ankara and Abu Dhabi expressed their support for the new Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU), against the rival Sirte-based Government of National Stability under Fathi Bashagha. Today, the two countries continue enhancing their relations, with the most recent example being the $50bn worth of agreements signed in July 2023.
The Turkish–Emirati proxy conflict also impacted Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy in other regions. In order to counter Turkey’s expansion in the wider region, the UAE began collaborating with Ankara’s rivals and opposing its allies. As already mentioned, this rivalry affected UAE relations with Qatar, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. In addition, the geopolitical conflict with Turkey strained relations with Ankara’s key partners, such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Azerbaijan while bringing the UAE closer to Greece, Cyprus, India, Armenia, and the unrecognized entity of Somaliland, all of which oppose Turkey’s and its allies’ policies. However, it’s important to note that the rivalry with Turkey was not the sole factor behind the Emirati expansion in regions like the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Caucasus. These regions hold vital geopolitical and geoeconomic importance.
The Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean
The UAE significantly upgraded its relationship with Greece and Cyprus, which are Turkey’s main strategic opponents in the region. Abu Dhabi initiated coordination of its foreign policy with Athens and signed several agreements focusing on cooperation in areas such as investments, energy, and, notably, defense. Athens aligned with the UAE in supporting Khalifa Haftar in Libya, primarily due to the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding concerning (contested) maritime borders between Ankara and Tripoli. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi supported the efforts of Greece, Cyprus, and Armenia to obstruct Turkey’s candidacy for the presidency of the U.N. General Assembly. The Emiratis endorsed energy projects that would bypass Turkey, like the EastMed pipeline, as well as initiatives that excluded Turkey, such as the EastMed Gas Forum. Furthermore, Greece and the UAE agreed on mutual defense assistance, and Emirati forces participated in joint drills with Greece, Cyprus, and other regional powers on several occasions.
Presently, the UAE continues its cooperation with Greece, which has also initiated negotiations with Turkey to resolve bilateral issues. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that the UAE is not a strategic ally that would actively support Greece in the event of a Greek-Turkish confrontation, as some Greeks may have mistakenly believed. Just a few years ago, the UAE participated in joint military exercises organized by Greece and was contemplating the delivery of F-16 jets to the Hellenic Air Force. In 2020, no Greek or Cypriot anticipated that the UAE would purchase Turkish UAVs or participate in the Anatolian Eagle-2023 Training organized by Turkey with the involvement of powers such as Qatar, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan. Furthermore, despite Greece’s significance, Turkey remains a more important destination for Emirati investments due to its larger landmass, population, and status as an energy and trade hub.
The UAE attempted to engage with Armenia. Since the mid-2010s, the UAE has been working to support Armenia’s struggling economy through investments. Furthermore, in April 2019, the Emirate of Abu Dhabi announced that it is considering acknowledging the Armenian Genocide. During the 2020 Armenia – Azerbaijan war in Nagorno-Karabakh, then-Armenian President Armen Sarkissian was invited to deliver a speech on the Emirati–Saudi Arabian TV channel Al Arabiya. Many analysts believed that this interview indicated Emirati indirect support for Armenia against Azerbaijan, in an armed conflict where Turkey was directly involved. Indeed, following the interview, Sarkissian visited the UAE and met with Mohammed bin Zayed to discuss bilateral cooperation between the countries.
However, the Turkish–Amirati reconciliation allowed the UAE to approach Azerbaijan. The result was the signing of several deals that eventually led to increased Emirati investments in crucial sectors of the Azerbaijani economy, particularly in energy. The most notable example is the acquisition of a stake in the Absheron Azerbaijani gas field by the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company in August 2023. Earlier in January, Baku thanked the UAE, among others, for supporting Azerbaijan by rejecting France’s statement in the U.N. Security Council regarding the alarming situation in the Lachin corridor, the road linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh that was sealed by Azerbaijan leading to the isolation of the Armenians of Karabakh. A few days later, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev visited the UAE, and during his meeting with Mohamed bin Zayed, the latter congratulated Azerbaijan on the “successes and victories achieved under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev,” a statement that contradicted the Emirati position during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Despite the renewed UAE –Azerbaijan partnership, Abu Dhabi continues to cooperate with Yerevan. In 2022 for instance, non-oil trade between the UAE and Armenia witnessed a growth rate of 673% compared to 2021. The UAE is also an important investor in renewable energy. Furthermore, in February 2023, the two countries discussed the prospects of developing military and military-technical cooperation and signed an agreement on cyber security cooperation.
The Horn of Africa
While both Turkey and the UAE supported the Ethiopian government in its war against the rebels in the northern province of Tigray, they competed with each other in Somalia. The latter has forged an alliance with Turkey and has allowed the construction of a large Turkish military base close to the capital city of Mogadishu. Somalia also refused to sever ties with Doha following the GCC-Qatar rift in 2017. In response, the UAE halted the training of the Somali army and further developed relations with Somaliland, a self-proclaimed republic in northwestern Somalia. The UAE was the first Arab country to send a diplomat to Hargeisa, the capital city of Somaliland. Moreover, the two sides agreed to establish an Emirati naval base in the unrecognized country. In return, the UAE would train Somaliland’s forces. However, the UAE eventually canceled the construction of the military base in Berbera, the main port city of Somaliland.
The UAE eventually reconciled with Somalia, following its reconciliation with Turkey. The Abu Dhabi – Mogadishu rapprochement was also a result of the change of leadership in Somalia, however. In any case, in January 2023, the UAE and Somalia signed an agreement on military and security cooperation as well as on combating terrorism. Two months later, it was announced that the UAE is planning to construct a new military base in the southern Somalian port city of Kismayo. Furthermore, it seems that the UAE attempted to mediate between Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the leader of Jubaland (a member state of the Federal Republic of Somalia) Ahmed Madobe, who had ties with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Ethiopian government’s main adversary during the civil war of 2020-2022.
Nevertheless, the cooperation between Somalia and the UAE did not deter the Emiratis from maintaining their presence in the breakaway Republic of Somaliland; at the time of the announcement of the plan for an Emirati base in Somalia, the Dubai-based terminal operator DP World launched the development of a new edible oil terminal at the Port of Berbera. DP World had already established its presence in the Port of Bosaso in Putland, a region loyal to the Somali federal government. The Emiratis also provide military assistance and training to the local forces of Putland. In July 2023, Somaliland accused UAE-trained troops of attacking the Sool region, where the Somaliland forces have been fighting, since February, against the Dhulbahante clan, which seeks reintegration of the region into the Federal Republic of Somalia as the Khatumo State.
The Indian Subcontinent
Lastly, the UAE increased its contacts with India, despite its traditionally friendly relations with Pakistan, a Muslim country and an important trade and energy partner of the Emirates, yet a close strategic ally and defense partner of Turkey. The UAE has initiated aid programs to Pakistan over the years, most notably the UAE Pakistan Assistance Program and is one of the largest contributors to Pakistan in terms of foreign direct investment. Moreover, the two countries cooperated in the defense sector and the UAE is home to the second-largest Pakistani diaspora community in the Gulf. Despite the historically friendly relations, Islamabad refused to support the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and remained neutral in the 2017 Qatar – GCC crisis. In the meantime, the Pakistani government continued to support Turkey’s regional policies and strengthen military ties with Ankara.
In response, the UAE abandoned its pro-Pakistan stance and started cooperating with India, Pakistan’s main adversary. In 2019, when India revoked Kashmir’s special status and imposed a security lockdown in that region, the UAE referred to this development as New Delhi’s internal matter and refused to condemn the Indian government. It also awarded India’s premier Narendra Modi with the country’s highest civilian award – the Order of Zayed – and later it started investing in Indian-controlled Kashmir, becoming the first foreign investor in the region. Pakistan also criticized the UAE’s decision to normalize relations with Israel in August 2020. Two months later, the UAE banned work visas for Pakistani nationals citing the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite these tensions, the UAE did not stop being one of Pakistan’s leading trade partners and investors. In 2021, relations began to improve, and the two sides are now discussing investments, trade, and military and defense cooperation. The UAE is also interested in investing in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which is part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Furthermore, the UAE has effectively become one of the main mediators between India and Pakistan. Abu Dhabi has not stopped working with the Indians. India is one of the top three trading partners of the UAE and the two countries have also started cooperating in other fields, such as defence and logistics. Moreover, the Indian and Emirati navies carried out a military exercise in August 2023 in an effort to boost maritime security bilateral cooperation.
The Turkish-Emirati proxy conflict had far-reaching implications for Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy, extending beyond the MENA region. In response to Turkey’s expansion in various regions, the UAE strategically aligned itself with Ankara’s rivals and distanced itself from its allies. This rivalry had profound effects on UAE’s relationships with countries such as Qatar, Egypt, Syria, and Libya, but also with Turkey’s non-Middle Eastern partners, like Pakistan, Somalia, and Azerbaijan, despite their traditionally friendly relations with Abu Dhabi.
The UAE’s pursuit of partnerships with Greece, Cyprus, India, Armenia, and Somaliland – all opposing Turkey and its allies – illustrates the multifaceted nature of the UAE’s foreign policy strategy. This intricate web of alliances and rivalries reflects the UAE’s efforts to safeguard its interests, counterbalance Turkish influence and isolate Turkey which was portrayed as a geopolitical opponent backing the Muslim Brotherhood – an enemy of the UAE and its monarchy.
Cooperation with Israel following the Abraham Accords did not prevent the UAE from normalizing relations with Iran and intensifying talks with Syria’s Assad. Similarly, reconciliation with Turkey and its allies did not hinder the Emiratis from maintaining their cooperation with Athens, New Delhi, Nicosia, Yerevan, and Hargeisa. Greece, an EU member state and the gateway to Europe holds, alongside Cyprus, strategic importance for the UAE’s presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Their strategic partnership with Israel, another key Emirati ally, is also significant. India, as an emerging global giant, plays a crucial role in the UAE’s strategic objectives, including economic diversification and reducing dependence on hydrocarbons. The India-Arab-Med corridor is another important project for the Emiratis. The same goes for Pakistan, however. Pakistan is important for another reason too: for its strategic partnership with China, a key UAE partner, but also for its involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Regarding Armenia, this small Caucasus country presents an attractive investment destination, particularly in new technologies and renewable energy, both important sectors for Emirati investments. Azerbaijan’s importance lies in its energy projects and its position in the Middle Corridor of BRI. Somaliland secures Emirati presence in the Horn of Africa and Bab-el-Mandeb, the strategic link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea through the Red Sea. Somalia serves the same purpose, but instability there prevents the UAE from abandoning its projects in the unrecognized Republic of Somaliland.
The UAE, driven by regional ambitions, leveraged the conflict with Turkey as a catalyst to increase its influence in MENA and beyond. The emerging partnership with Turkey now allows the UAE to further expand its presence and redefine its relations with Ankara’s partners. While the rivalry with Turkey was just one factor influencing Emirati expansion into regions like the Balkans, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Caucasus, it is essential to acknowledge the impact of this intense proxy conflict on Abu Dhabi’s relations with Ankara’s allies and opponents.