Gulf monarchies’ interest in the eastern Mediterranean has been growing steadily in the past few years, bringing the rivalries between them ever closer to the heart of Europe. One of the major intra-Gulf fault lines in the region’s wider geopolitics is over the role of political Islam movements – which are supported by Qatar and Turkey but opposed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This reflects a fundamental battle to shape the wider regional order. Today, the eastern Mediterranean is one of the unlikely corners where this contest is playing out.
Since 2011, Qatar has worked closely with Turkey to back Islamist groups and support revolutionary forces close to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, including those in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have, in contrast, strongly opposed these groups, seeing them as a threat to their regional influence. The most critical blow to the Qatari-Turkish front was the replacement in 2013 of a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated government in Egypt with an anti-Islamist, military-led leadership supported by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The ascension of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in 2015 gave new impetus and assertiveness to the Saudi-UAE alliance to suppress the regional influence of their opponents. This fault line grew during the 2017 Gulf crisis, in which Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt placed a blockade on Qatar. In response, Turkey deployed forces to Doha in defence of the Qatari emir, bringing these two players even closer together.
In many respects, the Turkey-UAE dimension of this confrontation has now emerged as the key fault line. Abu Dhabi sees Ankara as its principal regional opponent. Turkey, for its part, attributes the 2016 attempted coup against its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Emirati designs.
Riyadh also has its own set of problems with Ankara – and vice versa. The clearest manifestation of this hostility took place following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. That episode was followed by a coordinated international political pressure campaign as Ankara strategically leaked information pointing to Mohammad bin Salman’s direct responsibility for the crime. But this campaign failed to sideline the crown prince. Riyadh has since doubled down on the Emirati-led anti-Turkey strategy. In early 2020 – as the kingdom faced the monumental challenges posed by the covid-19 pandemic, the spectacular collapse of oil prices, and the economic recession triggered by both events – Riyadh moved quickly to block all major Turkish news outlets in Saudi Arabia, accusing Ankara of trying to exploit this sensitive period to launch an information war against its leadership. While Riyadh increasingly prioritises domestic challenges and the Yemen war, it is the UAE that is at the forefront of the strategy against Turkey.
All these tensions are evident in the eastern Mediterranean, from Syria, to Libya, to energy geopolitics around the proposed EastMed gas pipeline. As Turkey has become more assertive in north-eastern Syria and Libya, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have escalated their own involvement. Saudi Arabia and the UAE both condemned Turkey’s military operations in Afrin in 2018 and north-eastern Syria in 2019. The Emiratis and the Saudis even worked to strengthen relations with Turkey’s key rivals in northern Syria, the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. They did so by increasing their coordination at the military level and providing financial assistance and supplies. The UAE has also recently taken the significant step of re-engaging with Bashar al-Assad, under the pretext of coronavirus-related humanitarian diplomacy. This has strengthened Assad’s ability to resist growing Turkish influence in the north of the country.
Meanwhile, the Emiratis – and, to a lesser extent, the Saudis – have also increased their support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in Libya, seeing his victory in the country as key to preventing the consolidation of an Islamist-leaning, pro-Turkish Libya. Ankara has provided similar support to the United Nations-recognised Libyan government in Tripoli. For several years, Qatar has also supported the Tripoli government. Qatar has significantly lowered its international profile since the Gulf crisis began but, behind the scenes, it still provides crucial support to Turkish policies and activities. As Haftar gradually cemented his relationship with Assad – perhaps following a quiet Emirati push to do so – the Libya and Syria crises became interconnected. Today, both sides in the Libya conflict employ pro- and anti-Assad Syrian mercenaries, highlighting the links between the two wars.
These regional tensions have recently begun to affect European geopolitics. The anti-Turkish regional front has found common purpose with a number of European capitals that take issue with Ankara. France has strengthened its ties with the UAE, as both seek to frustrate Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean. The same objective is also bringing Saudi Arabia and the UAE closer to Greece and Cyprus than ever before. As relations between Turkey and Greece soured over drilling rights around Cyprus, Saudi and Emirati diplomatic engagement with Athens and Nicosia grew. Since 2017, the UAE has participated in a Greek-led annual military drill, Iniochos – which also includes the United States, Israel, and, since 2018, Cyprus and Italy, with Egypt participating as an observer.
In recent times, leading diplomats have engaged in hectic rounds of diplomacy, racing back and forth between eastern Mediterranean states and the Gulf. In September 2019, then Saudi minister of foreign affairs Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz al-Assaf visited Cyprus, where he declared Saudi support for Cypriot sovereignty against claims of autonomy from the Ankara-backed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Reciprocating a visit paid by Emirati minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, Cypriot foreign minister Nikos Christodoulides participated in the Sir Bani Yas Forum in November 2019 and in the first-ever UAE-Greece-Cyprus trilateral meeting. Christodoulides then travelled to Riyadh the following January to meet King Salman. Greek foreign minister Nikos Dendias met King Salman in Riyadh in December 2019 and hosted Saudi minister for foreign affairs Prince Faisal bin Farhan in Greece in early 2020. In February, it was the turn of Greeks prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who met King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in Abu Dhabi. Saudi Arabia has vowed to step up investment in Greece and Cyprus, while the UAE already has its eye on coastal assets for its ambitious maritime corridor, designed to connect the country with the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Following the September 2019 attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities, attributed to Iran, Greece agreed to deploy its Patriot missile-defence systems to the kingdom, together with 130 troops.
In November 2019, Turkey signed a deal with Libya’s Tripoli government demarcating new maritime borders between the two countries that cut through Greek territorial waters. This move – which formed part of Turkey’s response to being cut out of the EastMed gas project – is likely to deepen the fault line. Greece, Israel, and Cyprus signed the agreement on the project with the aim of bringing gas from the eastern Mediterranean to Europe, bypassing Turkey. But the deal also links eastern Mediterranean issues to Middle Eastern geopolitics. The UAE has been one of the most vocal supporters of the EastMed deal: if the agreement is implemented in full, Qatar could lose up to half its European market, while the UAE could build on this momentum to strengthen the anti-Turkish alliance. The covid-19 pandemic and the collapse in energy prices have both drained liquidity and made the EastMed pipeline and gas less attractive than they once were. However, Europeans should make no mistake: Abu Dhabi remains committed to consolidating its EastMed alignments and translating them into a political framework for working on regional dynamics – as shown by its decision to join Cyprus, Egypt, France, and Greece in adopting the May 2020 declaration. Like other Gulf monarchies, the UAE increasingly sees the Mediterranean as a neighbourhood that does not belong only to Europe.
This article has been republished with permission from the European Council on Foreign Relations.