DUBAI – As excited as the leaders of the United Arab Emirates are about the newly signed Abraham Accords with Israel, Bahrain, Sudan and the United States, they are thinking about more than normalization and increased trade.
In a wide-ranging, hour-long interview at his home in Dubai on Tuesday, UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash told me that the UAE is deeply concerned about a rising axis between Iran, Turkey, Russia and Qatar.
Tomorrow, I will share Gargash’s views on the specific threat posed by Iran.
Today, I want to focus on something very interesting and important that is not getting nearly enough attention in Washington or other major capitals – the gravity of the threat posed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Technically, Erdogan is a NATO member, and thus ostensibly an ally of the U.S. and other western powers.
However, in recent years, Erdogan has taken Turkey in a very different, dark and dangerous direction.
“Erdogan is the most important Turkish leader in 100 years,” Gargash told me.
“He has already served longer than [Kemal] Ataturk,” the founder of the modern Turkish Republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the Islamic caliphate at the end of World War I, Gargash said.
He said that Erdogan is doing everything he can do undo the moderate, pro-Western, pro-freedom model that Ataturk and his team created.
Erdogan is driven by political Islamism, Gargash said, and “neo Ottomanism,” and has sent Turkish military forces into a stunning range of countries.
Among them: Syria, northern Iraq, the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Qatar, Libya and Somalia.
Gargash said Turkish forces are “overstretched,” but warned that we are seeing the extent to which Erdogan would go to dramatically expand Turkish power projection and influence, particularly in the Arab world.
Conceding Erdogan has “personal charisma,” Gargash told me that this political magnetism cannot be passed onto Erdogan’s party, providing some hope for Turkey to become moderate again after Erdogan is gone.
But how long will that take?
Here are some key excerpts from our conversation.
ROSENBERG: What are Erdogan’s objectives?
GARGASH: Under Erdogan, Turkey is hearkening back to old imperialist pipe dreams. The Ottoman Empire was great once, then it declined and the Turkish people want to remember its splendor. Previous empires struggle to be “just” a nation state….Erdogan is driven by political Islamism. His party are political Islamists. He his feeding his crowd red meat [by attacking the Abraham Accords and the UAE in particular.]….Erdogan is also an all-powerful executive president…who is pursuing neo-Ottomanism.
ROSENBERG: Is it fair to say that Erdogan is trying to pull together all Muslim Brotherhood and Sunni political Islamist groups and individuals to see him as the leader?
GARGASH: I think you have to think that there are three parts here. Number one, Erdogan is a political Islamist. Second, he is also a Turkish nationalist. You know, he’s not working that another country will lead political Islam – it’s all about Turkey. And the third part is that he is a realist, opportunist politician. And the relationship with Israel here, for example, when he criticized the Abrahamic Accords, and I mean for God’s sake, he has an FTA [Free Trade Agreement] with Israel. He’s got 550,000 Israelis who visited Turkey in 2019 as tourists. He has an embassy in Israel. Israel has an embassy and consulate in Turkey. They’ve got $3 billion – I think that’s the figure – of [annual] trade. So, when you criticize something that you have already done or are doing and continuing and you use it, this is opportunism.
ROSENBERG: “Opportunism” is a nice way of putting it. Isn’t it hypocrisy?
GARGASH: It is hypocrisy….But I think the main issue is this: Institutions continue, but does a leader’s influence and charisma continue? I think that will be an issue that we have to look at.
ROSENBERG: It looks like what we are beginning to see is Iran, Turkey, Russia – and Qatar, playing both sides, but leaning towards that team – forming an eastern axis. At the same time, it seems like we are also watching what I think is an American-Sunni Arab-Israeli alliance that seems to be forming for multiple reasons, but partly to oppose the Iranian-Turkish-Russia-Qatari axis. These are two fronts that are forming, and there is the risk of a clash. Is that a reasonable way to look at the trajectory of the events?
GARGASH: I think we have to start looking at that slightly differently. We have to start looking at it by emphasizing our project [the Abraham Accords]. And our project should be about stability and prosperity and peace. I think if we can show that there is an alternative in the region, and that alternative is a practical alternative of prosperity, stability and peace – you know, one that addresses the young demographics, addresses practical issues, jobs and improving lives, etcetera – then we can offer a different way forward. And I think we can do that. I don’t think that we should actually label countries. But we should create, I think, alternatives.
So, clearly, this is why I am interested, and I always say that I do really hope that the Israelis look at the Abrahamic Accords as a strategic endeavor, not transactional. And because it should be bigger than the UAE and Israel. It should be about the success of the model. And if the success of the model is there, then I think a lot of positive cultural, economic and futuristic byproducts are going to come out of it.
The Middle East has been for 40 years mired in conflict. And I think it is more useful for us to come and say that rather than accept that the current axis [Russia-Iran-Turkey-Qatar] is going to be there forever is to think of a different model. [We need] to come and say, “No, you know, we’re going to work for stability, security, prosperity, and if you want to join us you are most welcome.” I think that’s the idea, basically. And it should be an open club.
Erdogan is not going to be in Turkey forever. If we are successful in implementing the Abrahamic Accords, and there is political solution between the Palestinians and Israelis, and we are creating more free trade at a time where you will see Israeli tourists and Israeli doctors here [in the UAE], and doctors working here – I mean, this was unheard of, but suddenly you will have people, not only Israelis, it’s also about Palestinians and Arab Israelis who would come here because they have a language advantage, they will come and work, they will see different things. I think there is a lot of potential, and I think this is why we need to work at it. It’s not only about, are we going to reach that $4 billion to $5 billion of trade? I think it’s about creating a new region, in my opinion.
So yes, I accept that the new axes today are the ones that you have identified.
But I think we should go beyond axes and we should be able to welcome anybody who wants to see a region that’s more stable and more prosperous. I think we need to think in that way as we move forward.
Read part 1 of my interview with Gargash here.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.