Rivals Turkey and UAE project power in the eastern Mediterranean

The rivalry between Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become even more bitter this week, after the UAE waded into a dispute over gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, and both sides seek to project their power in the region, Deutsche Welle said. 

Turkey reacted angrily to a joint statement released earlier this week by the UAE, France, Greece, Cyprus, and Egypt that accused Turkey of violating Cypriot waters and Greek airspace.

"If you are asking who is destabilising this region, who is bringing chaos, then we would say Abu Dhabi without any hesitation," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on Tuesday. "They are the force that unsettled Libya and destroyed Yemen."

Gönül Tol, head of the Turkey programme at the US-based Middle East Institute, told DW the UAE being directly involved in the eastern Mediterranean was “about the troubled relationship between the two countries and each country is just looking for ways to attack each other".

Greece, Cyprus and Israel joined forces several years ago to drill for natural gas in the region and to build a pipeline to Europe. 

But Turkey complained it had been denied its rights to gas exploration in the region, as the country disputes the sovereignty of Cyprus, which has been divided into Greek- and Turkish-speaking sides since Turkey invaded the northern third of the island in 1974 in response to a Greek Cypriot coup that sought unification with Greece.

Tensions escalated when Turkey signed a deal with one faction of Libya's two warring sides to set up shared maritime borders last November.

Turkey has aggressively pushed ahead with drilling off the coast of Cyprus since then. But with energy prices tanking, the gas exploration projects in the region are becoming increasingly economically unviable, Tol said.  

"That means from an energy point of view, what Turkey is doing now does not really make sense," Tol told DW. "I think what Turkey is doing there, and all other countries, including the UAE, is about projecting power."

Turkey and the UAE are also on opposing sides in Libya’s civil war. Turkey supports the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez Serraj, while UAE backs the forces of General Khalifa Haftar's self-styled Libyan National Army based in the east. 

The Turkish-Libyan maritime deal involved Turkey agreeing to send the GNA military aid. In return, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hoped for diplomatic support from Serraj in securing gas reserves, as well as blocking their rivals’ potential gas pipeline, DW said.

The joint statement released by the UAE and others this week condemned what it called "Turkey's military interference in Libya".

The animosity between Turkey and UAE is also fuelled by differences in political ideology. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is ideologically sympathetic to the political Islamist movement of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the UAE regards as a threat.

Tol told DW that, with Turkey facing an economic downturn, Erdoğan’s assertive stance in the region will likely grow. 

“[The] eastern Mediterranean remains one of the very few foreign policy spots that he can call on today to mobilise his base," Tol said.