Israeli Air Force F-16 planes fly in formation over the Mediterranean Sea as seen from a Tel Aviv beach, April 23.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Combat pilots from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recently 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 oft-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 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 the region’s other large power –Turkey. Egypt-Turkey relations turned acrimonious in 2013 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’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 27, the Hellenic Air Force began hosting Iniohos 2017, an 11-day, multi-national joint air force exercise.
While including the United States and Italy, the UAE and Israel’s participation in the complex air operations is noteworthy. Two weeks ago, 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.
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 Cyprus off the latter’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 a 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 nine 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’s Limassol port.
Additionally, the UAE is seeking a role in the development of Cyprus’s offshore natural gas industry, which is now already linked to Egypt since Cyprus agreed to transport gas to Egypt from its Aphrodite natural gas field in Block 12 of Cyprus’s 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 March 7, 2017, the French energy major Total sold 50% 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 clearinghouse 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 27, 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.
Parallel to Turkey’s relations with Israel, Turkey had frosty relations with the UAE until 2016, when reconciliation was formalized during Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’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 destabilizing 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.
The author is a fellow in the Middle East and Asia Units at the Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.