What a crown prince’s trip to Turkey tells us about the post-American Middle East

The rivalry between the UAE and Turkey has been played out on some of the region’s deadliest battlefields over the past decade, reshaping the Middle East. A detente between former enemies could have a similar transformational effect.

The roots of the recent feud go back to MBZ’s campaign to eradicate the conservative Muslim Brotherhood movement in the region. Erdogan, for his part, has been the strongest supporter of the Islamist group.

MBZ has long been a key supporter of the Egyptian military, which overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president – Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsy – in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2014 and then installed former General Abdel Fattah al -Sisi in the presidency. Sisi has chaired some of the repressive campaigns against the Muslim Brotherhood and political activists in modern Egyptian history.
In Libya, MBZ backed renegade General Khalifa Haftar in his bloody attempt to wrest power from the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood and backed by Erdogan.

But guns have since fallen relatively silent on many of the region’s loopholes, and its key players are now grappling with economies reeling from the combined effects of regional instability and the pandemic. Turkey is one of those countries that has struggled to keep its economy afloat in recent years, with its local currency falling to an all-time low last week.

By rekindling Ankara’s relationship with Abu Dhabi, Erdogan can hope to attract a host of investment from the oil-rich UAE, which could make the strongman a much-needed lifeline.

“(Erdogan) remained in power because of the economy. So a weaker economy before the 2023 election is definitely something he doesn’t want.” Yusuf Erim, analyst and editor of TRT World, told CNN. “And the Emiratis have the money to be able to boost the Turkish economy.”

In return, Abu Dhabi could ask for concessions on several regional hotspots, such as Libya, raising the specter of a game-changing counterpart.

Another factor behind the apparent rapprochement, analysts say, is skepticism about America’s engagement in the Middle East. As successive US presidents have refocused on Asia, many key regional leaders increasingly feel they need to fend for themselves more. The United Arab Emirates appear determined to lead the charge to make the neighborhood safer.

The country was once nicknamed Little Sparta due to a tough foreign policy that struck well above the size of its nearly 10 million (mostly foreign) inhabitants. For years he has intervened in a number of wars, clashing with Iran’s regional paramilitary partners in countries like Yemen, Syria and Iraq, alongside his campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Now he seems to want to be seen as the region’s main peacemaker.

“What drives all of this is an in-depth assessment of the role of the UAE in the region, an in-depth examination of the UAE’s regional influence that they have gained over the past decade and more,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdalla, a retired Emirati political science professor. . “The United Arab Emirates are trying to consolidate their regional influence and are now trying to project themselves as a peacemaker.”

“We have had enough of the instability and conflict and conflict of interest that no one has won. And if there has been a gain, it is very little.”

Since August 2020, the UAE has normalized relations with Israel, bridged a multi-year political divide with gas-rich Qatar, made a series of diplomatic overtures to the Iranian regional enemy, and led that charge in a regional campaign. aimed at reintegrating Syria into the Arab world, working to end the diplomatic isolation of President Bashar al-Assad for a decade.
MBZ’s encounter with Erdogan is the most high-profile encounter between former rivals to date. It follows a visit by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, MBZ’s brother, to Damascus earlier this month, the first since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The National Security Advisor , Sheikh Tahnoun ben Zayed, another brother of MBZ, is expected to visit. Tehran this week.

These meetings echo broader regional changes. Iraq appears to be emerging as a hub for rapprochements in the region, notably by negotiating talks between Saudi Arabia and its great regional rival, Iran. The scope of these talks is unclear, and points of friction around Iran-aligned armed groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen remain numerous. Yet leaders on both sides say they are keen to defuse a proxy war that has ravaged large swathes of the region.

Last week, the Arab Gulf countries issued a joint statement approving the resumption of negotiations to reinstate the Iran nuclear deal. Some of these countries were among the most vocal opponents of the pact when it was first concluded in 2015.

The main driver of detente, analysts say, is a perceived US disengagement from the region – a claim that US officials have repeatedly denied.

This photo released by the official Syrian news agency SANA, shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, speaking with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE's foreign minister, in Damascus, in Syria, Tuesday, November 9, 2021.

On Saturday at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Manama Dialogue – a major annual security conference in Bahrain – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he had encountered allies at a “level of angst that states -Unis are not really involved in this region ”.

“We remain committed to this region. We still have tens of thousands of troops in this region. We have significant capabilities here,” Austin said. “As someone who has fought here for a number of years, defending the interests of this region, let me assure you that we will not give up those interests in the future.”

But these assurances seem to fall on deaf ears. Conference attendees repeatedly questioned US officials about an apparent passivity in a region where they were once a robust interventionist force. A participant asked about the lack of retaliation following an explosion at a US base in al-Tanf, Syria, last month.

Brett McGurk, Middle East and North Africa coordinator at the White House National Security Council, hinted that the answer was a secret. “These topics you don’t always talk about openly and not all of the answers will be on CNN or something that’s going to explode,” McGurk told Manama on Sunday. “So ‘we didn’t do anything’ is not correct.”

Yet regional actors seem to have decided that they can no longer outsource their security to the United States, which already defended itself during Saddam Hussein’s 1991 invasion of Kuwait, but did nothing – at least publicly – in response to an attack on Saudi Oil Refineries in 2019 that halved the kingdom’s oil production.

Times are apparently changing.

“All of these countries are reformulating their policies and preparing for less engagement from the United States. They understand that they need to play a more proactive role with their neighbors,” Turkish analyst Erim said.

“It doesn’t matter (which US president) is in power right now, or who comes to power in 2024, many of the dynamics that drive this wave of rapprochement and warmer winds between these countries will still be in place.”

CNN’s Jomana Karadsheh and Mostafa Salem contributed reporting.

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