The Eastern Mediterranean: The UAE’s New Frontier
The Eastern Mediterranean has turned into a critical geopolitical space for the UAE’s efforts to contain Turkey. Developments in the area have allowed Abu Dhabi to establish new promising partnerships and consolidate already existing ones as the region attracts an increasing number of stakeholders. The Eastern Mediterranean, a hydrocarbon-rich basin connecting Europe’s shores to the Middle East, has historically been a geopolitically tense region. The United Arab Emirates (UAE)’s growing strategic interest in the area is motivated by two primary objectives. The first is to pursue economic and trade interests with key potential partners. The second is to contain Turkey’s regional rise. To contextualize, from 2011 onwards, tensions between Abu Dhabi and Ankara have steadily grown into a bitter rivalry being played out across the Middle East and the neighboring countries.
An Array of Partners in the Region
Recent developments in the Eastern Mediterranean are increasingly pitting Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, and France against Turkey’s Mediterranean ambitions. Such developments are providing Abu Dhabi with opportunities to enlist those states in a trans-regional Ankara-hostile front.
This was evident when Turkey deployed naval units to accompany its hydrocarbon exploration vessel operating in resource-rich waters claimed by both Athens and Ankara. Amidst heightened Greece-Turkey tensions, the UAE sent four F-16 fighter jets for the purpose of joint drills with Greece’s military forces.
The UAE has also accelerated bilateral diplomatic engagements with Cyprus, as the expansion of Turkish drilling activities in Cyprus’ Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ) has added fuel to simmering regional hostilities.
Through increasing cooperation with its new European allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Abu Dhabi hopes to dissuade Ankara’s increasingly assertive activities in the region while promoting its image in the European Union (EU). Both objectives have certainly contributed to its decision to host the first-ever UAE-Greece-Cyprus trilateral meeting.
Among influential EU countries, France has been the loudest voice criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and backing Athens and Nicosia against Ankara’s maritime ambitions. Notably, France’s energy giant, Total SA, retains important exploration rights in the EEZ of Cyprus, and Paris has demonstrated willingness to deploy important military assets to the region to deter Turkey. Such circumstances promote the consolidation of the UAE-France anti-Ankara cooperation, which is already strong on the Libya dossier.
The EastMed Pipeline and Israel
In January 2020, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel agreed to begin the construction of the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline, a project which—if completed—is estimated to satisfy some 10% of the total EU demand for liquefied natural gas (LNG). Greece, Cyprus, and Israel hope that Abu Dhabi could help to offset potential financial shortfalls in the project, caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
From the UAE perspective, the EastMed project presents the opportunity to reduce the importance of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), thus undermining Turkey’s current position as an LNG export hub.
The UAE and Israel have compatible interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Abraham Accords aim to further promote the development of bilateral ties in the energy sector. Israel’s ascension as a natural gas exporter presents the UAE with the opportunity to diversify its natural gas imports further away from Qatar, the world’s largest LNG exporter and Turkey’s closest ally. Abu Dhabi and its regional partners have been targeting Qatar with an ongoing diplomatic offensive. Furthermore, both Israel and the UAE share a common goal in working towards ambitious renewable energy objectives.
Beyond energy, the normalization of UAE-Israeli relations is expected to produce some 4 billion (USD) of annual bilateral trade within three to five years. This is because the UAE reversed its economic boycott of Israel and opened up the doors to commercial opportunities and cooperation in numerous sectors, including tourism, technology, and medicine. The joint bid by the UAE-based DP World and Israel’s DoverTower to develop the port of Haifa in northern Israel underscores the strong bilateral interest to expand trade and cooperate in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Libya and Syria: Mediterranean Battlegrounds
The UAE is also focusing on the conflict zones of Libya and Syria. Notably, the national waters of both countries are in or adjacent to the Eastern Mediterranean.
Since 2019, the Libyan National Army (LNA), led by renegade commander Khalifa Haftar, has been backed by the UAE, Egypt, France, and Russia in its struggle against the Tripoli-based UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), which is supported by Turkey and Qatar, among others. Turkey’s cooperation with the GNA goes beyond the military dimension and impacts ongoing disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean. Tripoli and Ankara signed a controversial maritime agreement, which aims to create an exclusive economic zone from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast coast, cutting through Athens’s internationally recognized EEZ and infuriating Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus.
Joint political and military support for Libya’s LNA has helped reinforce the current strong cooperation and synergy between Cairo and Abu Dhabi. The UAE has certainly been more overtly militarily active, having carried out airstrikes on behalf of Haftar’s forces. However, as recently as June 2020, Egypt’s President, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, was able to threaten Cairo’s military intervention in Libya against GNA and Turkish military forces, despite Egypt’s precarious economic situation, after being assured that Abu Dhabi was ready to finance such an operation.
The UAE’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with the Syrian government, marked by the reopening of Abu Dhabi’s embassy in Damascus in 2018, was largely driven by the hope to promote a stronger “Arab role” to counter Turkey’s expanding influence. Syria is an ideal candidate to join the UAE-led anti-Ankara front for at least two reasons.
First, the hostility between Turkey and Syria has escalated since March 2020, following a military confrontation between the two countries in Syria’s north-western Idlib province, the last remaining stronghold of Ankara-backed Syrian rebels. Second, Damascus and Abu Dhabi’s leadership share a strong hostility towards the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and MB-affiliated groups supported by Turkey across the Middle East.
Abu Dhabi’s rapprochement with Damascus also reflects the presence of future opportunities available to Emirati investors. Syrian and Emirati business delegations met in Abu Dhabi in January 2020 to discuss investments in “trade, infrastructure, and renewable energy sectors.” Although not officially organizing the aforementioned meeting, the UAE government has demonstrated its willingness to turn a blind eye to the pursuit of Emirati economic interests in Damascus. Nevertheless, these discussions are in their preliminary phase, with any real moves towards investments in Syria subject to new developments in the conflict and to Washington’s reaction. Under the 2019 Caesar Act the US can impose sanctions against parties cooperating with the Assad regime, which has been perpetrating gross human rights violations against its citizens.
Continued Mediterranean Focus
Looking ahead, the UAE’s foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean is expected to retain a marked Ankara-hostile focus, while pursuing trade and other economic interests. Arguably, Abu Dhabi could also aim to enlist other states with important stakes in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as Italy, or that are increasingly keen to confront Turkey, such as Saudi Arabia, to increase international support behind its regional agenda.
Antonino Occhiuto, based in Rome, completed his postgraduate studies in London at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he obtained a Master of Science (MSc) in International Politics, a course specifically focused on the Middle East and security and defence affairs. His main areas of research and specialisation are the relations between EU and GCC member states, internal political dynamics in the GCCs, Yemen and security in the Gulf. He contributes periodically with magazines and newspapers both in English and Italian and to the Italian Review of Geopolitics “Limes”. Antonino has already presented at high level forums including the EMSI conference in Nicosia (2018), IEMed’s EuroMeSCo conference in Barcelona (2019) and DGAP-organised forums in Berlin and Amman (2019). Antonino currently works as Analyst and Researcher at Gulf State Analytics (GSA).
Anastasia Chisholm is an MA student in Conflict, Security, and Development at King’s College, London and is an intern at Gulf State Analytics.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.