Ties between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are getting back on track as a truce between the two countries has calmed tensions after a yearslong rift, officials and diplomats say.
But with ongoing political differences, the two countries are expected to focus on building economic ties and deescalating, rather than resolving, an ideological rift that has drawn a faultline through the Middle East.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the UAE’s de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ), spoke by phone last week following contact between intelligence and government officials.
The two discussed their countries’ relations and regional issues and reviewed what was reported to be prospects of reinforcing the bilateral ties.
Erdoğan, who a year ago said Turkey could cut diplomatic relations with Abu Dhabi after it set up ties with Israel, also discussed UAE investments in Turkey with Abu Dhabi’s national security adviser.
UAE national security advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s trip was the highest-level public visit by an Emirati official to Turkey in years.
“The UAE is interested in exploring prospects of reinforcing ties,” an Emirati official told Reuters Monday, pointing to trade and investment opportunities in transportation, health and energy.
Following the meeting, Erdoğan had said that the two countries have made progress in improving relations, which could lead to significant UAE investment in Turkey.
A week after, Abu Dhabi conglomerate International Holding said it was seeking investment opportunities in Turkey in sectors including health care, industrial and food processing.
The talks follow earlier efforts by Turkey to ease tensions with UAE allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with a delegation from Cairo having arrived in the capital Ankara on Tuesday. Those contacts have so far yielded little, but some see the UAE track moving more swiftly.
“It’s going very fast,” said a diplomat in the Gulf. “Faster than many people thought it would. They have turned the page.”
A senior Turkish official described Erdoğan’s call last week with Sheikh Mohammed as a significant move toward overcoming disputes which have plagued their relations, saying the two countries could work together in the Middle East.
“But first there will be steps taken in terms of the economy,” the official said. Other issues “are not agreed, but a desire was formed (to tackle) the large part of these problems.”
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday there were “positive steps in the normalization process” and positive momentum in Turkey’s discussions with the UAE and that ties could come back on track if the momentum was maintained.
Çavuşoğlu told private broadcaster NTV relations between the two countries could be normalized if there are reciprocal steps and conditions are right.
The minister said his country was taking “positive steps” to improve relations as Turkish and Egyptian officials were holding a second round of talks in Ankara.
“Our friends at the ministry are meeting (Egyptian officials),” he noted. “If we decide together after the meetings, we will take the necessary mutual steps to appoint an ambassador.”
Egypt and Turkey have not shared ambassadors since 2013, when relations worsened following the coup that overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“There is no lasting friendship or enmity in international relations,” said Çavuşoğlu.
The two countries have seen their ties affected by regional tensions, including the conflict in Libya, where the UAE and Turkey have backed opposing sides in recent years.
Turkey last year accused the UAE of bringing chaos to the Middle East through its interventions in Libya and Yemen, while the UAE and several other countries criticized Turkey’s military actions.
Relations hit an all-time low when Erdoğan said that Ankara could suspend diplomatic ties with the Abu Dhabi administration after the UAE-Israel deal.
Turkey also sided with Qatar in a Gulf dispute, putting it at odds with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, while Turkish support last year helped Libya’s U.N.-backed government in Tripoli drive back UAE-supported forces trying to seize the capital.
In Somalia, Turkey and the UAE have competed for influence. In Syria, Turkey still supports fighters opposed to the Bashar Assad regime while the UAE, which once backed the opposition fighting the regime, has opened an embassy in Damascus.
Turkish officials and Gulf diplomats say both countries recognize their geopolitical tensions came at an economic price, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The cost of strained ties is not sustainable in the region when it comes to Turkey, the UAE and Saudi Arabia,” a second Turkish official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The departure of U.S. President Donald Trump removed a leader who emboldened their rival regional interventions.
Although no agreement has been announced on investments, the two countries already have an economic platform to build on.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, which maintains an unofficial boycott of Turkish exports, the UAE says it remains Turkey’s largest regional trading partner. Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth funds have also made significant recent investments in Turkey’s online grocer Getir and e-commerce platform Trendyol.
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