Are Iran and Egypt on a Path to Entente?
A thaw with Egypt may help an economically besieged Iranian government rattled by popular protests boost its regional standing.
As long as Turkey is seen as an aspiring hegemon it will face opposition from many neighbors.
A set of alliances developing across the eastern Mediterranean is increasingly drawing in countries as far afield as the Gulf Arab states. It broadly pits a coalition of Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, backed by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and France, against a smaller but more unified axis of Turkey, Qatar, and the Libyan Government of National Accord in Tripoli and its associated militias. Russia and several European countries, including Germany, ostensibly play balancing roles, at times intervening to aid one side or the other. Emerging from a battle over the control of the eastern Mediterranean’s copious natural gas, this contest has expanded to incorporate a complex set of interlocking economic, ideological, and strategic interests and is becoming a significant factor in the balance of power in the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Europe. Gulf Arab countries, while geographically distant from the eastern Mediterranean, are emerging as important players in this new matrix of alliances because their own economic, political, and strategic interests are directly affected and because of security concerns.
The linchpin was the 2009 discovery of major new gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean and the subsequent competition to control its exploitation and distribution. Over the past decade, competition to control access to and exploitation of about 122 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves – roughly equivalent to 21 billion barrels of oil – has been growing. Despite a global glut of natural gas, demand remains high. Following a period of remarkable growth, it accounts for over 20% of total global energy consumption and the International Energy Agency predicts annual demand growth of more than 1.5% in coming years.
The eastern Mediterranean gas reserves represent a potentially significant part of the global supply and hence a vast economic windfall for those who control them. Countries that have not been major participants in global energy markets stand to enter the field, including Turkey, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and Lebanon. Egypt, Libya, and Jordan are also potential players, and the Balkans and Eastern Europe potential beneficiaries. For much of Europe, this new source of gas could help provide alternatives to dependence on Russian supplies, although Russian companies have been participating in the early exploitation process through agreements with Israel, Syria, and the Palestinian Authority, among others.
Greece, Israel, and Cyprus formed a coalition beginning in 2011 to jointly pursue their claims and head off potential Turkish domination since all three share suspicion of Ankara’s hegemonic regional intentions. This has been augmented by a similar Greek and Cypriot alliance with Egypt also with an eye to containing Turkish ambitions. In January 2019, the largest bloc started to emerge when energy ministers from Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority gathered in Cairo to consider the formation of an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to serve as an umbrella for their vision of how to manage competing claims to these resources and protect their interests. At its most ambitious, these plans foresee an OPEC-like natural gas consortium. Along with major plans for new underwater pipelines, especially the EastMed pipeline, such developments could transform regional economic and strategic relations.
This new set of interlocking alliances centered around Greece and Cyprus is primarily aimed at offsetting Turkey’s growing regional power. It may prove to be, in effect, the first major test of Turkey’s potential to act as a regional superpower in the eastern Mediterranean. Ankara appears to have identified controlling most of this resource as an assertion of its growing independence from Washington and NATO, as well as its military and economic clout, and aims to ensure that it is the big winner economically and strategically. Turkish analysts have repeatedly accused Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Cyprus of pursuing an anti-Turkish agenda and trying to rope in smaller states such as Lebanon and Jordan to isolate Ankara.
Of the countries in the opposing alliance, some are concerned they might lose out on the race to exploit natural gas, but many also fear the rise of Turkey as a hegemonic force. Others, like Greece and Cyprus, are also motivated by long-standing territorial disputes and historical antagonism. For some members of this loose alliance, notably Egypt and Israel, another significant concern is Turkey’s role as the key patron and supporter of Sunni Islamism, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. For others being drawn into this standoff, including France, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, this ideological dispute with Turkey is a significant factor in defining their involvement. On the other hand, for Qatar and Libya’s Government of National Accord, shared sympathy with the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamists is an important factor in drawing them into Turkey’s sphere of influence.
Turkey’s emerging role as a regional power, especially its championing of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar organizations in the Arab world, has been a growing issue for Gulf Arab states. Indeed, relations with Ankara have been among the sharpest issues dividing Turkey’s close ally Qatar from its Gulf neighbors that are boycotting it – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, along with Egypt. This has led to a growth in relations, including military ties, between many of the countries opposing Turkish power; for example, Greece is deploying Patriot missile batteries to defend potential targets in Saudi Arabia.
Turkey’s concerted push back against all these efforts to contain its influence, particularly regarding natural gas, has focused on an initiative with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in Libya, which is also heavily supported by Qatar. Turkey and the Government of National Accord have moved to effectively block the EastMed pipeline that is planned to run from Israeli and Cypriot offshore waters to the Greek island of Crete, onward to the Greek mainland, and, via Italy, into the European Union’s gas network. But Turkey and the Government of National Accord on November 27, 2019 claimed an exclusive economic zone running from southern Turkey’s Mediterranean coast to Libya’s northeastern Mediterranean shores. This would not only cut a huge swath across much of the eastern Mediterranean basin, it would also effectively cut Israel and Cyprus off from Crete, rendering the proposed pipeline impossible.
Greece and Cyprus are particularly enraged over the move, which they insist violates the international law of the sea and is null and void. But others, such as Egypt and Israel, are also deeply concerned over the breadth and audacity of Ankara’s maritime claims. For Gulf Arab countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which do not have a direct stake in the natural gas competition, the Turkish move has heightened existing concerns about Ankara’s regional intentions and willingness to use its military and economic might to impose its will on its neighbors. For the UAE and Egypt, which support Libyan forces opposing the Islamist-backed and U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord for ideological and strategic reasons, the move also threatens to bolster the military, political, and economic fortunes of the Tripoli-based government.
Italy, which has an agreement with the Government of National Accord designed to limit African migration to Europe, largely supports the Tripoli-based government, while France, far more concerned about violent extremism than African migration, has tended to side with the Libyan National Army forces under the control of General Khalifa Hifter and his Benghazi-based rival government. Turkey has taken over from Qatar as the Government of National Accord’s primary backer and has launched a direct intervention with Turkish expeditionary forces on behalf of the Tripoli-based regime. Ankara has already lost its own troops in the conflict and has dispatched some 2,000 additional fighters, mostly Syrian Turkmen, drawn from the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad Division militia in Syria. Egypt, the UAE, Russia, and France, on the other hand, all provide significant support to Hifter’s forces. Saudi Arabia, too, is getting increasingly drawn into the Libyan battle, both diplomatically and militarily, with Riyadh reportedly helping to finance Kremlin-linked Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group fighting alongside Hifter’s forces. France has angrily accused Turkey of intervening in Libya and attempting to bully its neighbors over the natural gas pipeline dispute, saying it would send naval vessels to buttress Greece. For its part, Turkey has blamed France for the continued instability in Libya.
This complex set of loose, but coalescing, alliances is spreading far afield and manifesting in diplomatic competition between Turkey and the UAE in North Africa, in particular, through competing high-level diplomatic trips to Tunisia and Algeria by Turkish and Emirati leaders.
Tunisia is a key potential swing player in the Sunni Muslim ideological dispute over Islamism, with a political equation roughly split between secular nationalists and reform-minded and relatively moderate Islamists. It is also strategically located in the center of the Mediterranean and closer to Europe than any other North African country. Yet Tunisia has endeavored to maintain a position of neutrality in the various disputes roiling the Arab and Muslim world, particularly between pro- and anti-Islamist camps, and to avoid being sucked into the conflict in Libya, which is the epicenter of this ongoing competition.
On December 25, 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a surprise visit to consult with Tunisian President Kais Saied, ostensibly regarding a potential cease-fire in Libya. However, the visit came only weeks after the announcement of the Turkish-Government of National Accord claim to have established a vast, exclusive economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean. There is almost no doubt that one of Erdogan’s goals was to enlist at least some degree of Tunisian support for Ankara’s policies in Libya and, more broadly, its sweeping maritime and economic claims. There is no evidence he received any, however. A few weeks later, on January 29, UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan paid his own visit to Saied, ostensibly to boost bilateral ties but almost certainly with an eye to at least maintaining Tunisian neutrality, if not outright support, for the UAE, and more broadly anti-Turkish, agenda. Tunisia appears to have thus far avoided being drawn into favoring one side over the other, a position most Tunisian parties appear to strongly support.
On January 26, as part of a broader African trip, Erdogan, accompanied by a high-level business delegation, visited Algeria and its new president, Abdelmadjid Tebboune. Again, the Turkish agenda was ostensibly focused on the Libyan conflict and bilateral trade. However, again, there is little doubt that Turkey was looking for Algerian backing for its allies in Tripoli and also, at the very least, neutrality regarding its Mediterranean claims. Once again, Abdullah bin Zayed was hot on his heels, visiting Tebboune the next day. Predictably, bilateral trade was the ostensible focus of the talks, but there is almost no doubt that the UAE was seeking to counter Turkish overtures both regarding the conflict in Libya and the closely related Turkish economic agreement with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Like Tunisia, however, Algeria appears determined to keep out of both disputes.
Gulf-Turkish competition in North Africa is nothing new. Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and Turkey on the other have found themselves on opposite sides of political issues in numerous countries such as Egypt and Tunisia since at least the onset of the Arab Spring protests at the end of 2010. However, diplomatic efforts by both camps to win over neutral governments in Algiers and Tunis, among others, regarding the Libyan and natural gas disputes – or at least to prevent the other side from doing so – have intensified. That’s yet another indication that the natural gas dispute, and the fluid but interlocking alliances it has spawned, is increasingly manifesting in unexpected places.
The significance of these alliances emerging is complex, and often subtle, but plainly an increasingly relevant factor for countries as distant as France and the UAE. Yet these alliances intensify as the aperture narrows toward disputes specifically pertaining to the control, exploitation, and distribution of natural gas. There is little reason to doubt the long-term relevance and viability of the Greek and Cypriot alliances with Israel and Egypt, or their continued focus on Turkey, over the issue of natural gas. This competition is likely to continue until a sustainable manner to regulate the exploitation of these major resources is determined. Whether these two closely related but separate blocs centered on Greece and Cyprus can be brought more formally together, or other powers such as Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, and even Italy can be added to a regional natural gas consortium that is essentially an anti-Turkish eastern Mediterranean alliance, remains to be determined. However, Turkey’s determination to use its power to dominate this new resource is as likely to persist as its rivals’ commitment to denying Ankara that authority.
That competition over the eastern Mediterranean natural gas reserves is quantifiable and boils down to power based on money. The kind of ideological and strategic imperatives that draw Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the one hand and France, Italy, and Russia on the other hand into the mix are far more amorphous and subject to change. For example, it is by no means certain that Erdogan and his Islamist Justice and Development Party will remain in power in Turkey over the long run. Should Ankara develop a different foreign policy orientation, especially ideologically with regard to Sunni Islamists, or even largely turn its attention back toward Europe and the West, alarm about Turkish intentions in some Gulf countries would diminish. A more cooperative, less assertive Turkey could even potentially join with the countries assembled for an Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum to create an eastern Mediterranean trading zone.
However, in the short term, all the elements that have compelled the parties to the eastern Mediterranean natural gas competition to develop local alliances that are increasingly melding with other strategic, diplomatic, and political contests appears likely to continue. At the heart of the issue is Turkey’s growing antagonism with most of its neighbors. As long as Ankara remains a budding would-be regional economic and political hegemon with a strongly pro-Islamist orientation, it is likely to face continued and even increasing opposition from many of its neighbors. And that means that disputes arising over narrow issues such as natural gas reserves will continue to take on far broader significance.
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