How Gulf reconciliation could impact the Eastern Mediterranean

How Gulf reconciliation could impact the Eastern Mediterranean
Analysis: Fault lines in the Gulf crisis have long played out in the Eastern Mediterranean, but that could be set to change.
5 min read
20 January, 2021
The Al-Ula summit may be the beginning of a de-escalation. [Getty]
The arrival of Qatar's emir in Saudi Arabia earlier this month for the Gulf summit, and his warm reception by the kingdom's crown prince, was a historic moment. 

The visit came in the wake of goodwill gestures to reopen borders and resume air travel as part of ending the four-year blockade on Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain.

Ending the Gulf crisis will open a new political page in the Middle East, with the impact likely to be felt far beyond the region, including in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

The reconciliation was preceded by other positive steps that included seeing a potential thaw in ties between Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It began with Riyadh sending humanitarian aid to Ankara following the deadly earthquake in Izmir, and was followed by a meeting of the two countries' foreign ministers on the sidelines of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Niger.

Most important, however, was King Salman's outreach to Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan before the November G20 summit in Riyadh, during which they discussed improving bilateral ties and resolving tensions. All of these regional changes will have an impact on the Eastern Mediterranean, in particular the tensions between Greece and Turkey.

Since the four countries announced their blockade of Qatar in the summer of 2017, relations between them and Athens and Ankara have shifted and changed. Turkey chose to support Doha financially, diplomatically and militarily, and the blockading countries chose to support both Nicosia and Athens on the basis of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'.

Ending the Gulf crisis will open a new political page in the Middle East, with the impact likely to be felt beyond the region, including in the Eastern Mediterranean

As a result, reciprocal visits between the blockading countries and Cyprus increased, accompanied by statements in support of the Greek Cypriot position against Ankara. With the assumption of power in Greece by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greek relations with these countries also entered a new phase.

Athens chose to support the stance of Egypt and the UAE in Libya, welcoming General Khalifa Haftar at the end of 2019. Athens also signed an agreement with Cairo on the partial demarcation of the maritime border between the two countries, a move that angered Turkey.  

Read more: How the GCC reconciliation deal could
reshape the region's power balance

In November, Athens and Abu Dhabi signed a military cooperation agreement which includes a clause of mutual defence assistance between the two countries, the first of its kind that Greece has agreed to with a country outside NATO. This approach by Athens with the blockading countries, and their dissonance with Turkey, could well change following the Al-Ula summit.

The Saudi-Turkey and Saudi-Qatari rapprochement could push Riyadh to be more moderate in its relations with Athens and Nicosia. Statements by Riyadh in support of Athens' positions on its maritime rights and those hostile to Ankara may change significantly, becoming more conciliatory regarding Greek-Turkish ties or even becoming closer to Turkish positions. 

However, Athens' biggest concern is whether Turkey-UAE relations will return to the level they were before 2017, a fear subtly alluded to in the Greek foreign minister's telephone conversation with his Emirati counterpart after the Al-Ula summit. So what could happen if Abu Dhabi chooses to reconcile with Ankara?

The UAE can play an important role in reducing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, as the level of cooperation between Abu Dhabi and Athens can enable it to influence Greece on many of its points of disagreement with Ankara.

The blockading countries chose to support both Nicosia and Athens on the basis of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend'

Any UAE-Turkey rapprochement may be a reason for Athens and Ankara to be at the negotiating table mediated by the Emiratis on a new basis; that of mutual friends. It could also be a spark for ending and resolving decades-long disputes and could be reflected in other areas of disagreement such as Cyprus and Libya. Such an optimistic scenario, however, will depend on Abu Dhabi's foreign policy strategy in the near future.

From another point of view, Turkey-UAE and Saudi-Turkey rapprochement, even if cautious, would at least reduce tensions between Turkey and Athens, as Abu Dhabi played an important role in tensions by supporting Athens in the militarisation of the Aegean with its participation in military exercises over the previous months.

Read more: Biden and the Eastern Mediterranean:
Greek optimism, Turkish caution

A position of neutrality by the UAE with regard to what is happening in the Eastern Mediterranean could lower the temperature of its waters. After Trump, and with Biden's presence in the White House, regional calm is overdue. 

Ultimately, Joe Biden's victory in US presidential elections played a key role in the outcome of the Al-Ula summit and the shuffling of political cards across many countries in the region.

The Saudi-Turkish rapprochement can be read in the context of the incoming presidency of Biden, who has reservations about the leadership of both countries.  Indeed, it was also Trump's desire to deprive Biden of any political victory regarding Gulf reconciliation that accelerated the resolution of the crisis.

In a time of global tension and in light of the Covid-19 crisis and the subsequent economic fallout, any political reconciliation is welcome. The Al-Ula summit may be the beginning of a de-escalation in the Gulf, but also regionally. 

Yet in policymaking, optimism always has its limits. The Al-Ula summit may have a positive impact, but its warm breeze may not blow across the Gulf. The disharmony between the UAE and Turkey, and Emirati consensus with Greece, may remain the same, ultimately leading to more tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean in 2021. 

Eva J. Koulouriotis is a political analyst specialising in the Middle East

Follow her on Twitter: @evacool_