Global confrontation between Turkey and the UAE

Ali Hajizade

Editor’s column


Previously, I touched upon the issue of “unexpected love between Abu Dhabi and Yerevan” in my Telegram channel and also devoted one of my columns to this issue.

However, I see that some people, who are not aware of the processes taking place in the Middle East, have a problem with tracing a cause-and-effect relationship.

In order to understand what connects Abu Dhabi and Yerevan, it is necessary to look more broadly at the processes taking place in the region and the processes that took place before the rapprochement between the UAE and Armenia began. When I say “more broadly”, I mean to cover it as broadly as is possible in one article, as the topic I’m touching upon actually deserves a decent-sized book.

Until the Arab Spring, the UAE was not an active participant in geopolitical processes in the Greater Middle East, and was in close alliance with the United States and Saudi Arabia. However, over time, divergence of views emerged with neighbors such as Qatar, as well as important partners, such as the Barack Obama administration. Against this background, the UAE began to play a more active role in the region, at times overtaking its “big brother” Saudi Arabia in terms of activity and ambition.

The UAE played an important role in staging a military coup in Egypt, as a result of which Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi came to power. The Emirates spent plenty of money to buy the loyalty of some Egyptian media outlets, as well as politicians and public figures.

The coup in Egypt was another turning point between the UAE on one side, and Turkey and Qatar on the other (Doha and Ankara supported the ousted president, representative of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Morsi).
Following the coup, Saudi Arabia and the UAE donated billions of dollars to support Egypt amid the political and economic crisis.

In the crisis between Qatar and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) + Egypt, in civil wars in Libya, Syria, and in the struggle for influence in Somalia, Turkey and the UAE found themselves on opposite sides of the barricades.

The crisis between Abu Dhabi and Ankara aggravated even more after the failed coup attempt in Turkey. According to a widespread opinion in Turkey, the UAE provided financial support to the organizers of the coup d’etat.
The UAE authorities managed to take the confrontation with Turkey to a personal level, helping personal enemies of Erdogan. For the UAE, a Turkish military base in Qatar and support of the Muslim Brotherhood by Turkey and Qatar are perhaps the main irritants.

As a result of all these processes, the UAE developed a strategy for a global confrontation with Turkey. Before moving on to this strategy, I would like to briefly touch upon the operational capabilities of the UAE.

As is known, UAE citizens are a minority in their own country; for example, in the Emirate of Dubai, UAE citizens make up only 15-16% of the total population. This situation causes certain concerns for the authorities of the Emirates, and though they developed containment mechanisms, any mechanism fails, sooner or later.

In addition, the operational capabilities of the UAE intelligence services are incomparable with those of their Turkish counterparts. Turkish intelligence is much older than the UAE itself.

The strength and training level of the UAE army can also not be compared with those of the Turkish army. Accordingly, choices the Emirates have in the global confrontation with Turkey are not great. The Emirates cannot get engaged in an open military confrontation with Turkey, as it would lead to their quick and disgraceful defeat. Therefore, Abu Dhabi is forced to resort to the help of mercenaries, gray intermediaries and proxy forces, lavishly injecting its petrodollars into them. International experience suggests that this is not the best way for a global confrontation or spreading influence, but the UAE simply has no other option.

If we analyze the actions of the UAE, two main tracks stand out, which are a “conventional response” and an “unconventional response”, i.e. the UAE can support legitimate governments of countries that also have problems with Turkey (Greece, Cyprus, Armenia) or cooperate with terrorist organizations (support for Kurdish organizations associated with the PKK in northern Syria and Iraq or rebels (Libya, Somalia). In a rage of anti-Turkish activity, Abu Dhabi is even willing to cooperate with the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In a rage of anti-Turkish activity, Abu Dhabi is even willing to cooperate with the regime of Bashar al-Assad by offering Assad substantial financial and military support. To support all of its situational allies (and you can’t call them anything else), the UAE developed an international grey arms supply scheme. The beneficiaries of this scheme are a number of states and groups in the Middle East and Africa, and, for some time now, the former Soviet Republic of Armenia (which, quite recently, lost a war to Turkey’s closest ally, Azerbaijan). The scheme works as follows: the UAE purchases inexpensive weapons from countries which have a weak control over the arms trade (Russia, China, North Korea), and then, using a pre-created logistics infrastructure, delivers the weapons to their destination. For some time now, the UAE has added Armenia to the list of members of its anti-Turkish coalition. Armenia is considered valuable because it borders on Turkey and is at war with Turkey’s closest ally Azerbaijan. However, geographical proximity does little in terms of operational capabilities, since Armenia does not control its borders (they are guarded by Russian border troops). Even though the weapons supplied by the UAE were used in Karabakh, these supplies could not affect the outcome of hostilities.

It is noteworthy that while some Arab media in the Gulf region wrote “about airplanes loaded with weapons headed to Azerbaijan”, planes with “gray weapons” from the UAE flew to Armenia.

However, one should not assume that the UAE uses gray schemes for procurement and delivery of weapons only for its allies from the anti-Turkish coalition. Separatists from South Yemen are also beneficiaries of this scheme. Although the UAE together with Saudi Arabia seemingly fought against the Houthis in Yemen, the UAE actually
used this conflict to split Yemen and create a controlled entity in the south of the country. So the UAE and Saudi Arabia are practically in conflict with each other in Yemen through proxy forces.

As a result of the UAE’s activity, the country now controls a number of armed groups in Yemen, which relieves Abu Dhabi of necessity for a direct military presence in Yemen. In addition, in 2018 the UAE ensured a military presence on the strategically important Yemeni island of Socotra with a surprise landing of its armed forces.

When analyzing the UAE’s motley allies, which cost billions of dollars annually to maintain (including Russia’s infamous private military company Wagner, affiliated with the Russian Ministry of Defense, which has been receiving substantial sums from the UAE for some time now a pattern emerges – the UAE rely almost everywhere on a weak link.

The way things are going, the day is not far off when the UAE and Turkey will have to confront each other without involvement of the proxy forces, and it may not necessarily be in the Persian Gulf, as in the world of hybrid wars geographic locality is not really important.

Recently, however, there has been a little hope for a normalization of relations between Turkey and the UAE. I understand that there are a lot of disagreements and contradictions between the two countries, but the hybrid war between Ankara and Abu Dhabi cannot go on forever.

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