On December 18, 1965 many Arab states voted for UN General Assembly Resolution 2077, which confirmed the sovereignty of the Greek-supported Cypriot government over the whole of Cyprus and described any intervention (namely “Turkish intervention”) on the island as illegal. After this diplomatic defeat, Ankara has increasingly come to realize the full extent of its isolation from its regional neighbors, as almost all Arab states voted against the Turkish argument opposing the adoption of the resolution.
Opposition to Turkey largely stems from Ankara’s regional policies, and in particular its relations with Israel. In order to pressure Turkey over these issues, Arab states have used several pressuring tactics over the years, including petroleum, Islamic solidarity, as well as the issue of Cyprus, which continues to be the most influential card that Arab states have been able to use against Turkey on the international stage.
In the years following the adoption of Resolution 2077 and despite Turkey’s overtures to its Arab regional neighbors, Greece retained the support of Arab countries at the UN, particularly that of Saudi Arabia and several members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which was founded in 1981. As Fred Halliday rightly notes, “history is not the answer: it is a necessary basis and gate-keeper,” so the historical context of Greek–Gulf relations is a necessary precursor to understanding the dynamics that shape their relationship today. Contrary to several other analyses, it will be argued here that the close relationship between Greece and certain Gulf countries is not a new phenomenon solely caused by Greek–Gulf relations with Turkey. Other factors leading to the strengthening of ties between the Gulf states and Greece include economic tourism projections and national visions of the future, strategic defense, Greece’s membership with the EU, and the declining US role in the region. Evangelos Venetis, a Greek scholar on Gulf affairs contends that the recently increased collaboration between Greece and several GCC states is part of the process of wider regional revisionism aimed at securing the mutual interests of stakeholder states.
As US regional dominance started declining, Gulf states found themselves at the center of a new balance of power in the Middle East and began to look for new allies. The developments in the years following the Arab uprisings of 2011 have laid the foundation for increasing cooperation between Greece and the Gulf states. These developments have led to the formation of new alliances and the growth of new enmities in the already volatile region, further revealing disagreements on issues of alliances and foreign policies within the GCC itself. In an analysis of the GCC dimension of the Greek–Turkish rivalry it is necessary to identify two blocs: that formed by Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, which maintains good relations with both Athens and Ankara; and that formed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain, which supports Greek policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and has tense relations with Turkey due to differing regional policies.
Amid tensions with Ankara, the Saudi–Emirati–Bahraini axis began cultivating closer ties with Greece and the Greek-supported Cypriot government as regional developments created space for the advancement of their mutual interests. With an increased frequency of high-level political meetings, defense pacts, and joint military exercises, Greek and Cypriot relations with this latter Gulf bloc has recently entered a new phase. In January 2020, Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides met with Saudi King Salman who promised to offer Cyprus all the support it needed in the Eastern Mediterranean. Riyadh’s support for Greece’s stance on the Cyprus issue and its condemnation of Ankara’s approach became the latest chapter in an extended dispute between Ankara and Riyadh.
Since the beginning of 2021, notable developments have taken place in the Greek–Saudi relationship. In March, Saudi fighter jets flew to the Greek island of Crete for Falcon Eye 1, a large-scale joint military exercise that was the first of its kind for the two air forces; Falcon Eye 2 took place a few months later. In April, Greece and Saudi Arabia signed a defense deal in which Greece lent a Patriot air defense system to the Arab country to help protect its critical infrastructure against drone and missile attacks, mainly from Houthi forces in Yemen. Greek–Saudi relations became even more tightly knit after the two countries agreed to a new cultural partnership and signed a cooperation agreement on sustainable coastal and marine tourism. These developments should be considered in light of a 2016 report claiming that Greek–Saudi relations were “anemic at best,” that official visits had been at a very low level, and that the Joint Ministerial Committee, of crucial importance for promoting such relations, had not met since 1999. Accordingly, the dynamic of the Greek–Saudi relationship has conspicuously changed since 2019.
The UAE, which has been at odds with Ankara since 2013, has also been strengthening its relations with Athens and Nicosia. The first-ever trilateral meeting between Cyprus, Greece, and the UAE took place in late 2019. A year later and in a historic meeting, Greece and the UAE signed a strategic partnership agreement on foreign policy and defense. Greece, which describes its relationship with the UAE as “strategic and … long-term,” hailed the deal as the most important agreement it had signed since the Second World War. As a result, the UAE did not hesitate to dispatch F-16 fighter jets to the Greek island of Crete in August 2020 when tensions rose over opposing Greek and Turkish claims to hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean. In January 2021 the UAE also signed a memorandum of understanding on defense and military cooperation with the Cypriot government.
In February 2021, Bahrain, alongside Saudi Arabia and the UAE, participated in a gathering in Athens called the “Philia Forum” (philia means friendship in Greek)—a meeting that caused an uneasiness in Ankara. Bahrain, which allies itself with the Saudi-Emirati axis in all regional issues, has also signed cooperation deals with Greece and Cyprus, the most recent being for the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates to facilitate travel for Bahraini citizens to Greece (as opposed to Turkey as a tourist destination). Meanwhile, Bahrain’s national carrier Gulf Air operated its inaugural flight to Greek island, Santorini in June, while the UAE’s Etihad Airways launched new seasonal routes to Greek islands in July. One of the aspects of the “Philia forum” was to strengthen Greek-Gulf relations in the domains of tourism, which is a critical source for Turkey’s GDP. Tensions between Turkey and some GCC member states pushes Gulf tourists to choose other destinations – a situation directly beneficial to Greece.
For these Gulf countries, Greece’s membership in the EU is crucial to their achieving stronger ties with Brussels. Greece may be considered a springboard for these Gulf countries to improve their relationship with the EU, which has established delegations in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to foster stronger EU–Gulf ties. In the international context, closer ties between Gulf and EU states comes at a time when US policy in the region is being reassessed following the uncertainty of the Trump presidency and the subsequent election of Joe Biden.
Moreover, the Gulf states, which are currently diversifying their policies domestically and abroad according to their various “Vision” plans for the future, consider closer ties with Greece key to their quest of extending their soft powers. Saudi Arabia embarking on a multi-billion dollar “cultural partnership” with Greece as part of its Vision 2030 is an example of this. The memorandum on cultural cooperation set to be signed later this year aims to increase trade between the two countries. The cultural and tourism sectors play a central role in Saudi Vision 2030 and those of other Gulf countries seeking to diversify their economies away from oil. Thus, the Greek–Gulf relationship is increasingly developing beyond the military dimension and is being extended into the cultural and tourism fields, giving way to a longer-term commitment unaffected by changes in the regional policies of Turkey or the United States.
In summary, Turkey is not the sole motivator in the evolving relationship between Greece and several Gulf countries. The strengthening of Greek–Gulf ties is occurring in the areas of the economy, defense, EU relations, and the declining US regional role; and, more generally, reflects regional countries’ attempts to pursue their own interests.