New Alliances Link Gulf States to the Eastern Mediterranean

New economic and security alliances are emerging in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean, tying Arab states to Greece, Cyprus and Israel, with potentially transformative effects on both regions. The relationships are based on rapidly converging interests — among them, tensions between these countries and regional powers Iran and Turkey — and undergirded by energy and security partnerships.

The new alliances represent geopolitical and economic realities that have changed a great deal since the end of the Cold War, which had for decades formed the basis of regional alignments. More recently, the overthrow of dictators from Iraq to Libya, coupled with diminishing American appetite for involvement in the Middle East, led to a power vacuum that Iran and Turkey have sought to fill.  

This in turn has prompted countries in the region to band together in ways previously thought impossible — or unnecessary. The threat of Iran helped the UAE and Bahrain overcome their longstanding hostility toward Israel, leading to the Abraham Accords. Greece is not in the same neighborhood as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but the three countries share a wariness of Turkish ambitions in their respective backyards, and are seeking closer security ties. Emirati and Saudi jets have joined Greek military drills.

Aside from multinational military exercises, there have also been multilateral diplomatic gatherings, such as the Philia Forum in Athens last month, attended by Greece, Israel, Cyprus, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE. And then there are economic arrangements, such as the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, which brings together Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, along with Italy and France.

For the U.S. and Europe, these groupings represent new opportunities as well as new challenges. Cooperation between Israel and Arab states, for instance, may reduce the security burden on American shoulders, but their combined opposition to a nuclear accommodation with Iran will also greatly complicate President Joe Biden’s efforts to resume diplomacy with the Islamic Republic.

The Europeans — and especially the French — will be glad to share the policing of the Eastern Mediterranean against Turkish expansion. They will also welcome gas supplies that reduce their dependence on Russia and pipelines running through Turkey. But some European leaders, mindful of last summer’s collision between a Greek and Turkish warship, will also worry about maritime feuds getting out of hand.

For their part, Iran and Turkey have responded very differently to the new alliances. The regime in Tehran seems to be doubling down on its hostility to Israel and the Gulf Arab states, and on its longstanding strategy of using proxy militias — in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen — to attack them. But Turkey is taking a more conciliatory approach.

In recent weeks, the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled an interest in mending fences with the Arab world, most notably with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. This outreach has been interpreted as a reaction to a change of guard in the White House, but it is also informed by the growing cooperation among of Ankara’s rivals.

There are also economic reasons for Erdogan’s outreach to Egypt: His foreign minister has said Turkey is keen to make a boundary agreement on the maritime zones claimed by the two countries in the Eastern Mediterranean.

In turn, the Saudis and Emiratis have signaled they are open to better relations with the Turks, but the sticking points between the two sides — such as Erdogan’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the wider Turco-Saudi contest for influence in the Muslim world — will be hard to reconcile.

For the foreseeable future, the new alliances are likely to grow deeper and stronger.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Seth J. Frantzman covers Middle East affairs for the Jerusalem Post. He is the author of "After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East" and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.

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