April was a busy month in the Mediterranean, particularly for the countries currently witnessing the birth pangs of a new strategic relationship: Greece, Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Cyprus.
First, Israel and Greece signed their biggest ever defense procurement deal. The $1.65 billion contract includes the establishment and operation of a training center by Israeli defense contractor Elbit Systems for the Hellenic Air Force, over a 22-year period. Then, during the same week in April, Israeli fighter jets flew alongside Emirati, Greek and Cypriot aircraft as part of a multinational military exercise. Though it was not the first time that Israeli and Emirati pilots have flown with one another, it does mark a rare public display of military cooperation between the two countries following last year’s landmark normalization agreement. The third major event was Cyprus’ hosting of a high-level meeting of top diplomats from Israel, the UAE and Greece. The UAE sent Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, to join the meeting with Israel’s Foreign Minister Gadi Ashkenazi, his Cypriot counterpart Nikos Christodoulides, and Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias. Israel’s Foreign Minister Ashkenazi called the gathering a sign of “the changing face of the Middle East”.
The Israeli-Greek-Emirati-Cypriot relationship is a new one. In fact, Greece only established full diplomatic ties with Israel in 1990. Until then, Greece was staunchly pro-Palestinian and even hosted numerous Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leaders during the 1970s and 1980s. Israel’s relations with Cyprus were not any better. During the 1980s and 1990s, Cyprus was anxious over Israel’s (then) close defense relationship with Turkey, its perceived archenemy. Finally, Israel and the United Arab Emirates only recognized one another and established full diplomatic ties in 2020. So what brings them together now?
There seems to be a convergence of three major interests that brings these states together.
Ideological differences. The first is their common perception of Turkey as a regional threat. The 2011 Arab Spring gave rise to a new dynamic in cross-Mediterranean relations whereby Turkey and Qatar supported pro-democratic revolutions, while Gulf monarchies and Middle Eastern military juntas (and Israel) preferred maintaining the status quo. For Abu Dhabi and Cairo, Ankara and its ally Doha pose a threat to the regional order that Gulf monarchies have tried to shape. As for Greece – due to its geographical proximity and history of antagonism with Turkey – it worries it is in the crosshairs of Turkish regional ambitions. The two countries have mostly sparred about the flow of migrants across the Greek-Turkish border and their decades long maritime disputes in the Aegean Sea. In other words, Turkey’s historical issues with Greece and its post-Arab Spring issues with the UAE have united Greece and UAE against Turkey. Israel joined the club because of its deteriorated ties with Turkey following the killing of Turkish activists abroad the Mavi Marmara in 2010.
Gas exploration. The discovery of gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean over the past years has brought Greece, Israel and Cyprus together in a tripartite alliance. When Turkey sent its research vessels to drill for oil and gas, tensions erupted between Greece and Turkey over maritime borders and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, sparking a military build-up. In January 2020, Cyprus, Greece and Israel signed an agreement for the construction of the Eastern Mediterranean pipeline, which aims to transfer between 9 and 12 billion cubic meters of gas a year from Israel and Cyprus to Greece and other EU states. Turkey was conspicuously left out of the equation. When constructed and fully operational, the East Med pipeline may also cost Qatar — a strategic ally of Turkey and a rival of the UAE — approximately half of its European gas market. This UAE backed project also allowed the Emiratis to irk Turkey and strengthen their connection with EU countries that share common concerns over Turkey, such as France, Greece, and Cyprus.
Military cooperation. The inking of the recent defense deal between Greece and Israel demonstrates how Israel can showcase and sell its latest military equipment and defense know-how to Mediterranean states, after having lost Turkey as a lucrative market. Due to Israel’s small land area, its fighter pilots mostly practice flying over the sea. Hence, the Greek landscape becomes very useful to Israeli fighter pilots for target practice and dog fights over a terrain that closely resembles Syria or even Iran. In fact, flying back and forth from Israel to Greece is roughly the same distance as from Israel to Iran, and hence gives Israeli fighter pilots an opportunity to practice long distance flights along civilian air routes. Greece is also useful to Israel as a way of practicing against the Russian S-300 air defense system used not only by the Greek army, but also Iran and Syria. As for the UAE, its defense cooperation with Greece is very important for two sectors- namely, increasing UAE investments in Greece’s defense industry and in strengthening cooperation between the two countries in intelligence sharing, most notably regarding Turkey.
The geopolitical links between Mediterranean states and Gulf monarchies show no signs of abating despite their relative newness. Following the breakdown of ties with Turkey, Israel cultivated close ties with Turkey’s rivals in the region, primarily Greece and Cyprus. On the other hand, Greece’s traditionally close relations with Egypt, Syria, Libya and the Palestinians are being shifted towards Israel and the UAE. Once frosty, Athens and Tel Aviv are now cooperating more closely than ever. The UAE joining Israel, Cyprus and Greece gave rise to an alliance born out of an interest in placing checks on Turkey and in equal distribution of hydrocarbons. It is now clear that all these countries view their partnership as a bulwark against what they perceive as ‘Turkish expansionism’ in the Mediterranean.
The recent agreement in Cyprus strengthens the growing Abu Dhabi-Athens-Nicosia-Tel Aviv partnership, but also means that Europe is becoming increasingly enmeshed in Middle Eastern rivalries and geopolitical strife. This could mean that the geopolitical border between Europe and the Middle East will become ever more blurred.