The geopolitical deck of cards within the Middle East is being shuffled once more. This time, it’s UAE’s powerful National Security Advisor, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who is making the moves. After a breakthrough visit to Turkey on August 18, he was in Qatar on August 26 to fix fences. the 2 visits might be seen as a part of a newly-crafted Emirati approach to scale back the points of friction within the region and switch the main target on economic development and prosperity because the official narrative from Abu Dhabi goes. Or they might spell a belated recognition that the game with Ankara and Doha had gone well past its best-by-date and a reset was overdue.
But first, a touch of perspective is so as.
Sheikh Tahnoun’s visit to Ankara was the primary high-level contact between UAE and Turkey since April 2016 when the secretary of state Çavuşoğlu visited Abu Dhabi in an unsuccessful plan to build bridges. the 2 countries had found themselves on opposite sides of the ‘Arab Spring’, with Turkey (and Qatar) showing a marked preference for the increase of Islamist movements just like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader candidate who was elected President of Egypt in 2012, became a lightning rod of sorts. Qatar provided on the brink of US $ 8 billion to support his fledgling government while Turkey offered strong diplomatic and political support.
Sheikh Tahnoun’s visit to Ankara was the primary high-level contact between UAE and Turkey since April 2016 when the secretary of state Çavuşoğlu visited Abu Dhabi in an unsuccessful plan to build bridges.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, saw the holier-than-thou approach of the Brotherhood as an emerging threat that had to be nipped within the bud. They provided active support to Egypt’s powerful defense and security establishment, which had refused to return to terms with the very fact that Brotherhood figures that had been incarcerated for years were now calling the shots. I used to be witness to the dramatic events within the first week of July 2013 when the military ‘responded’ to massive ‘spontaneous’ protests in Cairo and toppled Morsi. Turkey and Qatar bitterly blamed Abu Dhabi for the coup that brought Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi into power in Cairo. He became an in depth ally of the Emiratis and Saudis while Istanbul and Doha became a refuge for those Brotherhood leaders who could find how to go away from Egypt. Round 1 of the proxy battle had clearly gone to Abu Dhabi and Riyadh and therefore the Emiratis could claim quiet satisfaction that they had turned back the incipient tide of political Islam.
Or so they thought. Qatar, however, had other cards up its sleeve and it found an often- willing partner in President Erdoğan’s ambition to revive a number of Turkey’s lost pre-eminence within the Islamic world. The battlegrounds shifted from Iraq to Syria and from Egypt to Libya as Ankara and Doha often coordinated their moves to thwart the ambitions of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Qatar’s Al Jazeera TV was a very important force-multiplier in these battles, it’s widespread following on the Arab street making it a potent platform for disaffected voices. These included figures like Youssef al Qaradawi, the Doha-based Egyptian cleric and Muslim Brotherhood ideologue who continued to deliver rousing sermons on Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel.
The UAE and Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, saw the holier-than-thou approach of the Brotherhood as an emerging threat that had to be nipped within the bud.
The contradictions eventually became overlarge to be managed behind the largely illusory veil of Gulf unity and on 5 June 2017, I used to be among the diplomats invited to the ministry in Abu Dhabi for a special briefing by then Minister of State Dr Anwar Gargash. We were told that UAE, alongside Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt had decided to interrupt diplomatic ties with Qatar and impose a group of economic and travel-related sanctions. the target, as articulated at the time, was to discipline a recalcitrant regime that was used to interfere within the affairs of its neighbors. a group of 13 hard-to-fulfill conditions was also subsequently outlined to form the purpose of specific grievances that Doha must address before it might be readmitted to the fold.
That decision to isolate Qatar didn’t work too well. Turkey offered military support to Doha, alternate supply lines came up to bypass Jebel Ali in Dubai and therefore the stalemate was becoming a fact of life. Nobody was proud of it, least of all the Americans who wanted the Gulf to face united against Iran. Several other factors were also at play and without going into all the gory details, let it suffice that these coalesced within the Al Ula summit in Saudi Arabia on 5 January 2021, which formally ended the dispute between the Quartet and Doha. Saudi Arabia and Egypt were the primaries off the mark, moving quickly to revive diplomatic ties and take away all sanctions. The rift with UAE would take longer to heal.
And that’s where the visits of Sheikh Tahnoun to Ankara and Doha are so significant. For the simplest part of the last decade, Turkey and Qatar preferred to throw their weight behind ‘Islamist’ forces while Abu Dhabi stood behind the (only relatively) more secular proxies like Gen. Khalifa Haftar in Libya. there have been no winners, though some treasuries definitely emerged somewhat poorer from the conflict. A decline in oil prices and therefore the debilitating economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region became catalysts for a review of the established order. With UAE preparing to host the postponed Dubai Expo 2020 and Qatar preparing for FIFA 2022, the rationale for burying the hatchet was increasingly evident.
The battlegrounds shifted from Iraq to Syria and from Egypt to Libya as Ankara and Doha often coordinated their moves to thwart the ambitions of Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.
No surprise, then, that the message beginning of the 2 visits may be a specialize in investment, economic development, and prosperity. Gargash called Sheikh Tahnoun’s meeting with President Erdoğan ‘historic and positive’ while Erdoğan told the press that he had discussed specific areas where UAE could invest in Turkey. that ought to go down well during a country whose political ambition has stayed far before its economic capacity during a previous couple of years. About the meeting with Sheikh Tamim in Doha, he tweeted that the visit was about “building bridges of co-operation and prosperity with siblings and friends“. He said the meeting was an example of a “key pillar of Emirati policy” in which they were “turning the page of disagreement and searching to a positive future.” it’s likely that the 2 sides will restore full diplomatic ties soon.
So that’s that? Or is it the tip of the iceberg? The Biden administration’s determination to tug out of Afghanistan by August 31 is, perhaps, the elephant within the room. Having provided a base to many Taliban leaders and hosted the talks between the US and Mullah Baradar and his compatriots, the Qataris feel they need a robust hand. Turkey, which also has close ties with Pakistan, believes that it can wield a degree of influence during a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan albeit its offer to require a charge of security at Kabul airport was unceremoniously turned down. But the Turkey-Qatar axis, working in tandem with Pakistan, could end up being a crucial point of reference to the new Taliban regime.
Having provided a base to many Taliban leaders and hosted the talks between the US and Mullah Baradar and his compatriots, the Qataris feel they need a robust hand.
Sheikh Tahnoun, known for his pragmatic approach, would remember this emerging reality. He also wouldn’t have forgotten that the UAE ambassador to Kabul and five other diplomats from his mission were killed in an explosion at the governor’s guest house in Kandahar in January 2017. The Emirati diplomats were in Kandahar to review a humanitarian Red Crescent project that they were funding. The Taliban denied responsibility for the attack, but it had been widely believed to possess been administered by a Pakistan-based outfit. Sometime, somewhere, those scores would be settled.
Former Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, meanwhile, has positioned himself in UAE where he and his family are being hosted on humanitarian grounds. Normalization of ties between UAE, Turkey, and Qatar, thus, has the potential to make a replacement dynamic within the region.