The past months have seen an unprecedented level of diplomatic engagement on the part of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Eastern Mediterranean, and specifically with Greece and Cyprus. To meaningfully explain their interest in the region, one has to look beyond the borders of both, towards Turkey, and factor in energy, security, foreign policy, and trade.
On September 11, then-Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-Assaf visited Cyprus and declared Saudi support for Cypriot sovereignty against the impingement of Turkey, which is the only country that recognizes the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Only a couple of months earlier, in June 2019, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, had also visited Nicosia with the declared purpose of consolidating seminal bilateral relations. The UAE has, of course, emerged as Saudi Arabia’s closest ally in the past few years, often sharing strategies and goals. The Cypriots reciprocated soon, as Nicosia’s Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides participated in the UAE’s Sir Bani Yas Forum in November 2019 and visited Riyadh, meeting with King Salman bin Abdulaziz himself, in January 2020.
Crucially, in Abu Dhabi Christodoulides was joined by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias as the two participated in the first ever UAE-Greek-Cyprus trilateral meeting. Dendias moved on to see King Salman in Riyadh in December 2019, and then received the new Saudi Minister for Foreign Affairs, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, in Greece at the end of January. On that occasion, Dendias declared that Greece-Saudi relations have gained a “special momentum.” On February 3, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis traveled to Riyadh, where he held talks with King Salman in the presence of most top Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Faisal bin Farhan, and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel Al-Jubeir. The following day, Mitsokasis met with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
There are several factors drawing Saudi and Emirati attention toward Cyprus and Greece. For one, after the September 2019 attacks against two Saudi Aramco facilities, which were attributed to Iran, Greece agreed to deploy Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems to the Kingdom, together with about 130 troops. Another significant element is the prospect of increasing the currently meager level of Saudi and Emirati investment in both Greece and Cyprus. During his visit to Riyadh, Mitsotakis met with Saudi Minister of Commerce and Investment Majid bin Abdullah Al Qasabi, who declared “we consider that Greece is a prime target for foreign investment by Saudi businesses.” No doubt Athens, which was strongly hit by the 2008 financial crisis, was pleased to hear that. Both Cyprus and Greece are strategically located for the UAE, as part of an ambitious maritime corridor connecting the UAE with the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and perhaps beyond. In 2016 Dubai’s DP World was awarded a twenty-five year concession to operate the multipurpose terminal of Limassol on the southern coast of Cyprus. Finally, improving their relations with Greece and Cyprus could provide the Saudis and Emiratis an opportunity to improve their relations with the European Union as a whole.
Arguably the single most important factor binding these four countries together is tension with Turkey. For Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, Ankara has been a proper rival since at least the 2011 Arab Spring, when the Turkish government joined Qatar in supporting revolutionary movements with ties to political Islam. However, the antagonism grew more rapidly following the ascension of King Salman and, especially, the appointment of Mohammed bin Salman as crown prince, when Riyadh became more assertive in confronting its rivals. The Turkish government attributes the 2016 attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Emirati designs. The 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul prompted Ankara to try to pressure and undermine Mohammed bin Salman internationally. As Turkey became more assertive in northeastern Syria and in Libya in 2019, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh saw a threat growing. But they also saw the opportunity to draw others into their camp.
In fact, the Turkish intervention in Libya is in some ways connected to a tense conundrum emerging in parallel in the Eastern Mediterranean. With the discoveries of seemingly large gas fields off the shores of Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, and Egypt, in 2019 Tel Aviv, Nicosia, and Athens agreed to the construction of a pipeline bringing this gas to mainland Europe via Cyprus and Greece. This new pipeline, EastMed, would basically cut Turkey out of the energy map of the region. Irritated, Turkey has reacted by claiming rights over part of Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone and occasionally interfering with exploration activities related to EastMed. Then in November 2019, ahead of small Turkish-backed deployments to Tripoli, Turkey signed a deal with the U.N.-recognized government of Libya, demarcating new maritime borders between the two countries that cut through the territorial waters of the Greek island of Crete.
That agreement effectively linked the EastMed crisis and the Libyan conflict, and has triggered this diplomatic whirlwind between Greece, Cyprus, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. This means that, in the near future, Gulf rivalries could resound more heavily in the Mediterranean and in the heart of Europe.