Pundits have framed the landmark decision between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel to establish diplomatic relations as a step toward countering Iranian influence in the region. Indeed, this is the reason why U.S. President Donald Trump and his Iran-phobic administration have rejoiced at the prospect of an Emirati-Israeli entente in the Middle East. While this argument to a great extent is true, the move was actually made against Turkey as much as Iran, perhaps even more so. The Emiratis are often cautious about their relations with Tehran, and this new deal is no exception. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might be gleeful that he has acquired yet another ally in his fight against Iran’s presence in the region, the Emiratis would likely disagree.
The UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, commenting on the accord between his government and Israel in a recent interview, expressly stated that the deal was not meant as a message to Iran while urging diplomatic engagement with Tehran to solve bilateral disputes. Gargash’s comments echo the widely accepted sentiment in Abu Dhabi, which recently held high-level talks with Iranian officials and aided the country during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, Dubai remains the gateway for access to Iranian markets, all the while evading U.S. sanctions on the regime in Tehran.
An asymmetric alliance
Such caution is not exercised by the UAE in their relationship with Turkey. Not a day goes by that the same Anwar Gargash tweets about Turkey’s allegedly imperialistic ambitions in the region, accusing Turkey of meddling in Arab affairs. This is why it is unsurprising that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vocally criticized the deal between Tel Aviv and Abu Dhabi, threatening to recall the Turkish ambassador in Abu Dhabi or even downgrade diplomatic relations. Turkish officials are aware of the group that Turkey confronts in the region, and the UAE is their spokesperson.
An asymmetric alliance of countries that share the common goal of limiting Turkey’s influence in the region has been brewing for some time. The heralding of existing clandestine ties between these two countries only goes to show that the alliance is now solidified. Israel and the UAE, alongside Egypt, Greece, Saudi Arabia and France, all share the goal of confining Turkey’s reach in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. In the past few weeks, these countries have experienced a flurry of diplomatic talks, with foreign ministers calling one another in panic in the wake of assertive moves by Turkey to secure its sovereign rights in the Mediterranean Sea.
Egypt’s maritime delimitation deal with Greece, Israel’s sudden outburst for support of the Greek position against Turkey in the Mediterranean and constant telephone traffic between the Gulf and Athens must all be considered in the same scope as the accord between the UAE and Israel. The way that this deal is being presented as a gift to the Palestinian people, as Israel has agreed to for the time being suspending settlement activities, is also a direct challenge to Turkey’s championship of the Palestinian cause.
While most Arab governments lack the capacity and initiative to genuinely uphold the Palestinian cause, Turkey has been committed to it over the past decade. Most recently, Ankara sent a large amount of medical aid to Palestinians in the wake of the pandemic. The transfer was facilitated through negotiations with Israelis, who also received medical supplies from Turkey. Yes, Turkey does negotiate and maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, but unlike the UAE, it does not do it to advance some grand geopolitical strategy. Turkey’s relations with Israel produce favorable results for the Palestinians, as Turkey negotiates on their behalf, all the while enjoying mass support from the Palestinian people.
How will Turkey respond
Turkey’s hard power capabilities are enough of a deterrent to keep this brewing coalition at bay. These capabilities have been tested in Libya and have succeeded, and they shall succeed again in the Eastern Mediterranean. While military muscle surely counts in the standoff, Turkey will continue to employ a diplomatic strategy to keep this novel coalition at bay. The press release made by the Foreign Ministry in response to the deal made by the Emirates and Israel provides clues on how Turkey will work to maintain balance in the Middle Eastern geopolitical scene.
Comments from the Turkish Foreign Ministry specifically refer to the “unilateral” nature of this move and how it counteracts the Arab Peace Initiative that had been spearheaded by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and enacted by the Arab League. Mentioning Saudi Arabia and the peace process under the auspices of the Arab League is key to deciphering Turkish rationale regarding this step by the UAE. While the United States, based on recent comments made by Jared Kushner, a senior advisor to the president of the U.S., expects that Saudi Arabia will eventually have to normalize relations with Israel, this process will be gradual and strenuous. The kingdom’s monarch holds the title of custodian of the two holy mosques, and such a title demands a more nuanced approach to the Israelis.
As of yet, the Saudis have not officially responded to the deal, though they have hinted at endorsing it via media outlets close to Riyadh. While the government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) might be enthusiastic at the prospect of an eventual rapprochement with Israel, Saudi Arabia’s political context and multilayered power structure will make this difficult. Even the most ardent supporters of the rapprochement between the Gulf axis and Israel have their doubts about Saudi Arabia making a relationship with the Israeli public.
Here it is in Turkey’s interests to isolate the UAE from Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab world. Turkey’s official response makes great strides in this regard. While the UAE has fashioned itself as a leader of the Arab world and negotiator on behalf of the Palestinians, this is clearly not the case. Major Palestinian leaders, including Abbas himself, have denounced the deal and lashed out against the Emirati leadership. If Turkey is able to continue delegitimizing the UAE’s position in the Arab-Muslim world then the Emiratis will find that their hopes for regional leadership are futile.
*MSc comparative politics candidate at the London School of Economics