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ANALYSIS: Gulen becomes enemy of Gulf states, but Turkey-UAE rift endures

The GCC has ruled followers of Fetullah Gulen are 'terrorists', but Turkish analysts say UAE's involvement is reluctant and relations remain sour
An effigy of Fetullah Gulen in a square in Istanbul (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – There was an element of surprise when Gulf countries reached a unanimous decision to designate Turkey’s enemy number one as a terrorist. Although music to Ankara’s ears, Turkish analysts were wary of viewing it as a change of heart by arch Gulf foe the UAE – a key Gulf Cooperation Council state.

Instead they see the decision as a result of Saudi pressure on Abu Dhabi.

The six-member GCC last week became the first international organisation to designate Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen and his Hizmet (service) movement as terrorist.

Turkish authorities accuse Gulen and his followers of orchestrating a coup attempt on 15 July, which ended in failure but cost 240 lives.

Gulen, who has been based in the US since 1999, has rejected these accusations.

Large sections of pro-government Turkish media have also repeatedly hinted at foreign complicity in the coup attempt. Fingers have been mostly pointed at the US, but the UAE role has also been mentioned.

The GCC decision was welcomed by Ankara, which feels it has been both let down and misunderstood by the rest of the world, particularly its Western allies. It also hopes the decision will serve as a precedent for other international organisations.

Sections of pro-government media have repeatedly hinted at foreign complicity in the coup attempt. 

Turkish authorities took umbrage at the perceived fence-sitting of their western allies as the coup unfolded, followed by their calls for due process to be observed as the post-coup crackdown commenced.

Ankara has also failed to secure Gulen’s extradition from the US thus far.     

On Wednesday, Turkey’s foreign minister announced that the 57-member-strong Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had also designated the Gulen movement as terrorist. Egypt was the only country to abstain from voting.

Ankara vociferously opposed the overthrow of the democratically elected Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013 and remains a strong opponent of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s coup regime.  

Ankara has friendly relations with all GCC members except the Emirates, which has been one of the biggest backers of Sisi.

Turkish-Saudi ties, which were also strained after the overthrow of Morsi, were normalised after the death of Saudi King Abdullah in January 2015 and the accession to the throne of King Salman.

All efforts at facilitating a rapprochement between Turkey and the UAE failed however.

Bad blood and diplomatic barbs

The bad blood that divisions over Egypt created between Turkey and the UAE is to the extent that many Turkish officials – unofficially at least - accuse Abu Dhabi of working against Turkish interests on every international platform.

Muhittin Ataman, deputy coordinator and Gulf expert at the Ankara-based SETA Foundation think tank, said the GCC’s decision on Gulen should be welcomed but that the significance of the Saudi role in that decision should not be overlooked.

“The Saudis are very keen to keep Turkey happy at this moment especially since there is the risk of around $1 trillion of their money being appropriated by the US. Twisting Emirati arms to declare Gulen’s group as terrorist is easy for them,” Ataman told Middle East Eye.

In September, the US Congress overrode a veto by President Barack Obama and enabled the families of the victims of the 11 September attacks to sue the Saudi Arabian government.

“The Saudis fear that the US will not stop there and even allow their existence to be at risk. They also know that Turkey is unhappy with US policy involving Ankara’s interests. It is a case of my enemy’s enemy should be my friend,” said Ataman.

Another reason behind the GCC’s decision, according to Ataman, is that Gulf countries have no need for Gulen-funded schools unlike poorer African and Central Asian states.

He said Gulen’s “concocted version of Turkish Islam, which is anti-Arab, anti-Salafist and anti- Wahhabi” also meant that the movement wasn’t able to establish a strong foothold in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia.

It is a case of my enemy’s enemy should be my friend. 

Muhittin Ataman, SETA Foundation

Ali Semin, a Middle East expert at the Turkish Bilgesam strategic research centre, told MEE the GCC decision will certainly help improve Turkish-Emirati ties.

Relations between the UAE and Turkey have to improve because regional balances are at stake, he said. The Turkish-Egyptian relationship is crucial for the region and cannot remain ruptured forever.  

“The rift between the UAE and Turkey is not deep rooted. It started with the Arab Spring in general and peaked with the coup in Egypt," he said.

"The UAE finds Turkey’s backing for the Muslim Brotherhood to be unacceptable. But this state of affairs cannot continue with one topic directing the entire relationship."

Semin said as recently as 2008-2010 Abu Dhabi and Ankara had a very friendly relationship, with roughly $12 bn UAE direct foreign investment in Turkey during that period.

Regional developments make it necessary for the UAE to revise its current position on Turkey and look at future mutual interests, he said.

“Even the Saudis are scaling down their backing for Sisi. They have already reduced oil aid to him. And now with the strong Saudi backing given to the Turkish government after the coup attempt and the GCC decision to announce Gulen as a terrorist will help the UAE and Turkey to repair their relationship.”

Catalyst for change

Mustafa Guvenc, the chief coordinator at the Turkish-Arab relations centre, said the UAE-Turkish relationship was marred by propaganda and people pushing their own vested agendas.

He told MEE the GCC decision on Gulen was positive but that Turkey’s push to mend ties with Egypt would be the real catalyst in healing the UAE-Turkey rift.

“Propaganda is created that Turkey is an ardent and unconditional backer of the Muslim Brotherhood and this feeds into UAE fears. In reality this claim isn’t true at all. Turkey backs democratic movements and has no other special relationship with the brotherhood,” said Guvenc.

“Turkey is already improving its ties with Cairo and this will naturally help it fix its relations with the UAE as well,” he said.

According to Guvenc, the GCC decision on Gulen is key to dispelling suspicions about the alleged UAE role in the Turkish coup attempt.  

Ataman sees an element of irony in the GCC’s unanimous decision, especially since Turkish overtures to mend ties with the UAE have largely been ignored.

The UAE foreign minister embarked on an official – albeit relatively low-key – visit to Ankara just four days after the GCC declaration on 17 October. He was accompanied by the UAE ambassador to Ankara.

“The ambassador to Ankara hasn’t been in Turkey since 2013 as far as I know, even though he isn’t officially recalled. Then we have the Emirati designation of Gulen’s movement as terrorists but simultaneously they continue to prop up the Sisi regime, which fully supports Gulen and his group’s activities.”

In Ataman’s opinion, even though the UAE might not be eager to restore ties with Turkey it has to grasp the significance of the transition the region is going through and the need for regional states to form alliances.

“The establishment of a stability axis in the region is vital. The UAE needs to see that an alliance between Turkey and Gulf states is crucial for the sake of the region.”

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