Turkey versus the UAE and Saudi Arabia – a growing rivalry | Analyst Picks| RiskMap 2021

Turkey | UAE | Saudi Arabia

Turkey versus the UAE and Saudi Arabia –
a growing rivalry

Victor Tricaud | Analyst

The mounting tensions of the last few years between Turkey on one hand and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other will come to a head in 2021. Abu Dhabi and Riyadh accuse Ankara of promoting political Islam across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and Turkey portrays itself as defending the democratic aspirations of the region’s peoples in the face of all eged Emirati and Saudi support for autocrats. The rivalry has already begun shaping regional geopolitics and has been playing out on multiple stages, from Qatar to Libya and into the Eastern Mediterranean and the Horn of Africa. Frictions have materialised from political and military standpoints, but increasingly they have become economic, with a growing potential to negatively affect the regional business environment.   

The competition for influence in MENA will increasingly impact regional trade, including as the two Gulf monarchies have sought to directly pressure Turkey’s ailing economy. At the end of 2020, Saudi businesses began an informal boycott of Turkish products, and Saudi customs reportedly hampered Turkish imports. Commercial competition in the region could also trigger significant trade relation realignments along either side of the rivalry. For example, the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s regional allies, including Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, could come under growing pressure to significantly downscale commercial ties with Turkey.  

Such economic disruptions will harm Turkish businesses in the region but could also increasingly harm international companies, particularly in the FMCG and durable consumer goods industry, which use regionally integrated supply chains. In addition, multinationals with regional offices in the UAE could find it increasingly difficult to manage operations in Turkey and vice versa. International companies operating in strategic sectors, such as the defence or technology industry, may also be required to “pick sides” more and more. The rivalry is also shaping up to extend beyond MENA. The two sides’ competition for influence in the Horn of Africa will likely expand to other sub-Saharan African states, including fast-growing consumer markets in West and East Africa. Similarly, the commercial interests of the two Gulf monarchies and Turkey could increasingly compete in Central Asian markets. The UAE will also continue to impede Turkey’s territorial ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean. There, the UAE will capitalise on increased tensions between Europe and Turkey, as well as on its brand-new relationship with Israel, to check Ankara’s expansionary claims on maritime territory.  


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