The one-day visit United Arab Emirates’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) paid to Turkish capital Ankara last week is still the hottest topic on everyone’s lips. Even though the visit is being discussed in some circles through the lens of “Turkish politics,” what we really need to be poring over is Dubai’s sudden change of heart. Turkey, for its part, is marching on as it always has: by keeping all its options open and not closing any doors. To fully grasp why the UAE made a U-turn, we need an inside look into the Arab front.
In the Arab world, two countries, in particular, have been engaged in a perpetual rivalry: Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Even though Egypt could be deemed the “mother ship,” the Saudis, with the prestige afforded to them by the presence of hosting Mecca and Medina in their territory, strive to expand their spheres of influence in the Arab and Muslim world.
Egypt, both by hosting the Muslim Brotherhood, the most influential "Islamist" movement that the Muslim world has produced in the modern period, and by transforming into the cradle of Arab nationalism, which became legendary with the phenomenon of Jamal Abdul Nasir, boasts an extraordinary position.
What with it being the most populous country in the Arab world, holding the Suez Canal in the palm of its hand, boasting the strongest army of the Arab world, it being a versatile bridge between Africa and the Middle East, and the strategic advantages provided by the Nile River, it seems that Egypt can do no wrong.
The Saudis, in response to Egypt’s God-given crown jewels, developed an oil-based economic partnership with Gulf countries, in addition to the spiritual advantages afforded by the Haramayn, and tried to be a trailblazer for certain countries in the Arab-Muslim world. The devastating war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in the territory of Yemen between 1962 and 1970 would become one of the deadliest stages of their rivalry.
When the turbulence called the “Arab Spring” started rocking the Middle East, every last one of these states was caught unawares. Old rivalries and disputes aside, they focused on maintaining the status quo and established order. Within this scope, a policy based on keeping the Muslim Brotherhood and other movements that drew inspiration from them at bay as much as possible was adopted. However, internal rivalry was still alive and kicking. As a matter of fact, constant disagreements and differences of opinion on almost every issue often surfaced or were brought up.
Nowhere left to go?
For example, when, in 2017, the decision was made to sever all ties with Doha, two pivotal Gulf countries stayed out of the whole shebang: Kuwait and Oman. When the blockade finally ended with the same lightning speed that it had started, the surprising rapprochement that developed between Saudi Arabia and Qatar could not be instated at the same magnitude between Doha and Dubai. Furthermore, even though the Kingdom and Cairo closely cooperated during the 2013 coup d’état, they preferred to keep their distance in the period that would follow. With Saudi and Qatar’s make-up, the UAE decided to cozy up to Turkey once more as the Iran factor became the elephant in the middle of this web of equations. Qatar, the UAE, and Egypt have never taken the gloves off and bared their claws against Iran as Saudi Arabia has. To add fuel to the fire, Iran has been unconditionally supporting the Houthis in their occupation of Yemeni capital Sana’a, while the UAE and Saudi Arabia have serious disputes and a toxic rivalry when it comes to Yemen.
In addition to the kerfuffle on the Arab front, one has to factor in the chaos unfolding on the other side of the water, in the U.S. capital, Washington. If Trump had managed to get re-elected, a whole other kettle of fish would have been awaiting us in the Middle East. The election of Joe Biden, a Democrat candidate, and his wholly clueless reign of presidency has further enhanced “Turkey’s value” when it comes to the internal conflicts in the Arab world.
As I said at the beginning, Turkey has always been perfectly aware that Muslim countries digging each other’s graves only served to weaken us all, and that a hostile policy was certainly helping no one.
The gains each side will yield in the new era now depend on the power of persuasion and the cards they hold up their sleeves.