28.04.2021 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

On the Middle East’s New “Strategic Axis”

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The ‘Cyprus meeting’ of officials from Israeli, the UAE, Greece and Cyprus highlights the ‘changing’ Middle East. While the US has, ever since Trump’s defeat and Joe Biden’s arrival into the White House, seemingly taken a step back from pushing the Gulf and Arab states for signing The Abraham Accords, the pact still continue to shape the Middle Eastern geo-political landscape in a significant way. In many ways, the meeting in Cyprus and the presence of both Israel and the UAE is an unmistakeable evidence of how the landscape has been changing ever since the Accords. In many ways, the new security paradigm being operationalised aims to establish the UAE and Israel as the new power wielders in the region. The fact that all participants of this meeting have a history of ‘bad’ relations with Turkey, another claimant to regional domination, speaks volumes about how old geo-political rivalries will be played on a ‘new’ geo-political platform.

While Iran remains on the agenda of every meeting and summit that involves Israel and the UAE, Gulf states have recently become increasingly conscious of Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence and reach at the expense of its rival states. Its moves in Syria and Libya and its support for Qatar during Saudi blockade show that Turkey tends to move quickly to fill any ‘vacuum’ that becomes available during geo-political upheavals, and that it uses such a scenario to further its ‘neo-Ottoman’ ambitions as well.

As a recent report of European Council on Foreign Relations noted that Turkey, in 2020, has largely

emerged as a more significant rival than other regional players – such as Iran, which the UAE saw as having been weakened by both covid-19 and sanctions under the Trump administration’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign.Both the public discourse and the media narrative in the UAE have embraced a hawkish anti-Turkey tone in recent years, an effort spearheaded by high-profile, influential Emiratis.

Turkey’s strong ties with Qatar have also forced the UAE into joining the ‘Cyprus grouping’ to prevent the two from positioning themselves at the heart of a region-wide Islamist network spearheaded by the Muslim Brotherhood to stir political uprisings within the UAE and other Gulf monarchies to weak them from within. Such a scenario would weaken the Gulf monarchies, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, from within and allow rival states – Turkey – to expand their influence.

Therefore, the UAE’s inclusion in what was called a “new strategic axis” in 2016 when it was originally founded showcases how the axis is now stretching itself from from the shores of the Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean and Europe.

The fact that the UAE isn’t the only country that has diverging interests vis-à-vis Turkey means that other countries in the “axis”, such as Greece and Cyprus, with similar diverging interests vis-à-vis Turkey stand to benefit from it immensely.

As it stands, Israel and Greece have already signed their biggest ever defence procurement deal. The agreement includes a US$1.65 billion contract for the establishment and operation of a training centre for the Hellenic Air Force by Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems (ESLT.TA) over a 22-year period.

The agreement between Israel and Greece follows an earlier “strategic partnership” agreement signed between the UAE and Greece in November 2020. While the agreement does strengthen the growing Abu Dhabi-Athens partnership, it also means that Europe is becoming increasingly enmeshed in Gulf rivalries and Middle Eastern geopolitical strife. As it stands, the most notable clauses of the partnership are those on foreign policy and defense, which seem directly related to consolidating Greek-Emirati cooperation against their common antagonist, Turkey.

Again, with an eye on Turkey, the UAE, since 2017, has been participating 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. This is in addition to the fact that the UAE has also been extending its full support for Cypriot sovereignty against claims of autonomy from the Ankara-backed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Accordingly, the UAE was not reluctant to join Cyprus, Greece, France and Egypt in taking a joint stand against Turkey’s forays into the East Mediterranean. The May 2020 joint declaration “condemned the escalation of Turkey’s violations of the Greek national airspace, including over flights of inhabited areas and territorial waters in violation of International Law. Furthermore, the Ministers condemned the instrumentalization of civilians by Turkey in an attempt to illegally cross Greek land borders as well as its continued support for illegal crossings of Greek sea boundaries.”

Targeting Turkey’s external adventures in Libya, the joint declaration also “strongly condemned Turkey’s military interference in Libya, and urged Turkey to fully respect the UN arms embargo, and to stop the influx of foreign fighters from Syria to Libya. These developments constitute a threat to the stability of Libya’s neighbours in Africa as well as in Europe.”

There is, therefore, no gainsaying that the Greek, Israel and Emirati interests are increasingly converging with a focus on the ‘containment’ of Turkey’s expansionist ‘neo-Ottoman’ ambitions. ‘

For Tukey, the worrying sign is that this “axis” has the US support as well. Besides the fact that many in Ankara believe that the US is shifting its alliance with Turkey to Greece with a view to making the later its major security and defense partner in the Mediterranean — which is also why the US is providing Greece with high-tech weapons of war — the US has already reportedly cleared the sale of F-35s to the UAE as well.

The new “strategic axis” has, therefore, let lose forces of fierce geo-political competition that is engulfing the Gulf and the Mediterranean alike. With Turkey already sensing a shift in the US policies, it will be interesting how Ankara counter-balances this “axis.” It could not only move to create a ‘counter-axis’ involving Qatar and Iran, but also engage more deeply with Russia to punish the US for its growing support for Greece and the UAE.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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