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"Arab NATO" Must not be Exploited to Isolate Turkey in the East Med

On his first foreign trip as US President, Donald Trump has recently concluded visits to Saudi Arabia and Israel that herald a new formation in the strategic architecture of the Middle East, a broad coalition of regional actors engaged in coordinated action to oppose the expansion of Iranian hegemony. However, Turkey’s position in this coalition remains unclear. In addition to Turkey’s significant bilateral trade and energy relationship with Iran, Ankara will be wary of the roles played by Egypt and its close partner the United Arab Emirates (UAE) who have been competing with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. While the coalition potentially provides Turkey a framework in which to reset its strained relations with these and other nations in the region, a shift in policy orientation will be required by all sides.

On May 21st at the self-designated Arab-Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, President Trump met with the leaders of several Arab and Muslim-majority nations to discuss the creation of what has been dubbed “Arab NATO,” a coalition of mostly Arab, Sunni-majority nations designed to thwart militarily the advance of Iranian dominance in the Middle East. Featured prominently together with the US president were summit host Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi. Quite significantly, the summit concluded with the Riyadh Declaration in which the participants affirmed their support for a joint force of 34,000 troops to operate in Iraq and Syria.

During the subsequent Israeli leg of his trip, the President Trump intimated that this anti-Iranian coalition could form the basis for a new set of relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors, where a partial normalization of relations with many of the heretofore recalcitrant Arab nations in the coalition would occur in conjunction with concrete progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The president’s intimations were unnecessary as his unprecedented direct flight from Saudi Arabia to Israel sent an unmistakable signal of the shape of things to come.

Trump intimated that an anti-Iranian coalition could form the basis for a new set of relationships between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

However, a danger exists for Turkey that its Sunni Arab regional rivals will be tempted to leverage their coalition participation to advance their influence in the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of Turkey’s interests. Events during the two months prior to the Riyadh Declaration have shown some alarming signs.

At the beginning of April 2017, combat pilots from the UAE made history by flying alongside their Israeli counterparts in a joint air force exercise hosted by Greece. Since the UAE and Israel have no formal diplomatic ties, the event is a stunning indication of the often-rumored developing relations between the two states. While significant on its own, the UAE’s participation in joint exercises with Greece and Israel is just one sign of Abu Dhabi’s expanding involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean that could help tilt the balance of power in the region. 

As a strong strategic partner of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government, the UAE’s developing relationships with Israel, Greece, and Cyprus ultimately serve to enhance Cairo’s role in the Eastern Mediterranean, potentially at the expense of Turkey.  Egypt-Turkey relations turned acrimonious in 2013 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s excoriated then General Sisi’s ousting of President Mohammed Morsi. Relations between Turkey and Egypt have remained distant ever since. A rebounding Egypt has been seeking to advance its regional position through its newfound natural gas resources and a strengthening of ties with other Eastern Mediterranean neighbors, particularly Greece and Cyprus. The UAE’s engagement with Israel, Greece, and Cyprus augments Egypt’s own efforts, further impacting Turkey’s regional energy diplomacy and its options concerning the Cyprus issue.

On March 27nd, the Hellenic Air force began hosting Iniohos 2017, an 11-day, multi-national joint air force exercise. While including the US and Italy, the UAE and Israel’s participation in the complex air operations is noteworthy. Two weeks prior to the exercise, Israel and Greece formally renewed their military relations, expanding upon their 2015 milestone of signing a status of forces agreement (SOFA). Israel’s participation in Iniohos 2017 reflects the new effort by Greece and Israel to promote deeper air force cooperation.

A danger exists for Turkey that its Sunni Arab regional rivals will be tempted to leverage their coalition participation to advance their influence in the Eastern Mediterranean at the expense of Turkey’s interests.

Concurrent with the UAE’s participation in Greece’s Iniohos with Israel, the UAE hosted a major joint military exercise with Egypt. The joint exercise named Zayed 2 included ground, naval, and air forces from the two nations, as well as marine units drilling beach landing operations. 

Earlier in March, Egypt conducted a joint search and rescue exercise with the Greek-dominated Republic of Cyprus off Cyprus’s southern coast. Such modest exercises often serve as the precursors to larger future joint military exercises, as has been the case with the Israel-Cyprus annual exercise Onisilos-Gideon.  Just a week after the Egypt-Cyprus exercise, Israel and Cyprus conducted Onisilos-Gideon 2017. The three-day exercise was the largest and most complex since Israel and Cyprus inaugurated annual joint exercises in 2014. The expanded Onisilos-Gideon 2017 comes after the February 2016 signing of SOFA agreement between Cyprus and Israel. Aside from the US, the only nations with which Israel has signed such an agreement are Greece and Cyprus.

For its part, the UAE has increased its engagement with Cyprus.  Abu Dhabi raised the level of its diplomatic relations with the Greek Cypriot government on the ethnically-split island by opening an embassy in Nicosia 10 months ago. The UAE has also developed a significant position in the Cypriot economy with the Dubai-based marine terminals company, DP World, having been awarded two concession agreements for Cyprus’ Limassol port. 

Additionally, the UAE is seeking a role in the development of Cyprus’ offshore natural gas industry which is now already linked to Egypt since the Republic of Cyprus agreed to transport gas to Egypt from its Aphrodite natural gas field in Block 12 of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone. Cyprus’ Block 11 is situated just six kilometers from Egypt’s own massive Zohr natural gas field discovered in 2015 by the Italian energy giant Eni. Block 11’s geological similarities with Zohr indicate the possibility of significant natural gas deposits. On 7 March 2017, the French energy major Total sold 50 percent of its stake in Block 11 to Eni increasing the likelihood that drilling will commence in June despite warnings from the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus and Turkey to the Greek-majority government in Nicosia to refrain from taking further unilateral action with regard to the island’s hydrocarbon resources.

For Cairo, Cypriot gas supplies are critical to turning Egypt into the Eastern Mediterranean region’s clearing house for the export of natural gas. Supplies from Cyprus combined with supplies from Israel and/or new finds off Egypt’s coast could supply Egypt’s now dormant liquefied natural gas (LNG) plants, transforming Egypt into a major transport node for the export of natural gas to Europe.  On March 27nd, BP announced new gas find in Egypt’s Damietta concession and more new finds are expected to be announced by Egypt later in the year.

For Cairo, Cypriot gas supplies are critical to turning Egypt into the Eastern Mediterranean region’s clearinghouse for the export of natural gas.

Parallel to Turkey’s relations with Israel, Turkey had frosty relations with the UAE until 2016, when reconciliation was formalized during Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s visit to Abu Dhabi and the subsequent return of the UAE’s ambassador to Ankara. It would behoove all the nations of the Eastern Mediterranean to devise a comprehensive region-wide arrangement for natural gas exports that would include equitable terms for Turkish Cypriots and an export role for Turkey to transport natural gas from Israel and Cyprus to the European Union markets via its Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline. As it has succeeded in its successful rapprochement with Israel, Ankara might encourage the UAE to play a constructive role toward this end through deeper engagement with Abu Dhabi.

Ultimately, the isolation of Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean would have a de-stabilizing effect that would not serve the long-term interests of any nation in the region.  As Egypt rises, and as its Arab Gulf partners like the UAE play a larger role in the Eastern Mediterranean, Israeli policy should endeavor to ensure that its relations remain carefully balanced between Ankara and Cairo.  For its part, Saudi Arabia, which created a joint Strategic Cooperation Council with Turkey in December 2015, is even better positioned to facilitate Turkey’s incorporation into the coalition in a manner commensurate with Turkey’s capabilities and appropriate to its interests.

The coalition’s strategic objectives align with Turkey’s over-arching geopolitical concerns in the Middle East, as enunciated by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he put the world on notice two year’s ago about Ankara’s opposition to Tehran’s interventions in the Middle East. “Iran is trying to dominate the region,” Erdoğan told the international news channel France 24 on March 26, 2015, “Could this be allowed? This has begun annoying us, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This is really not tolerable and Iran has to see this.”[1] 

Still, the nature of Turkey’s participation in the coalition remains an open question that will require a new diplomacy in Ankara as well as in capitals across the region. The stability of the Eastern Mediterranean may depend on it.



[1] Humeyra Pamuk, “Turkey's Erdogan says can't tolerate Iran bid to dominate Middle East,” Reuters, 26 March 2015,


Michaël Tanchum
Michaël Tanchum

Dr. Michaël Tanchum teaches international relations of the Middle East and North Africa at the University of Navarra, Spain and is a Senior Fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies (AIES). He also holds fellow positions at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, the Hebrew University, Israel, and at the Centre for Strategic Policy Implementation at Başkent University in Ankara, Turkey (Başkent-SAM). Follow Michaël Tanchum: @michaeltanchum 


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