UAE pushing for Arab-European alliance to curtail Turkish encroachment

European countries, including France, Greece and Cyprus, feel threatened by Turkey using Libya to extend its hold on gas-rich regional waters in violation of international law. As a result, the regional disputes plaguing the Middle East and North Africa have become European problems, despite the confusion that dominates the positions of the major countries on the continent such as France and Germany in curbing Turkish expansion.

Europe has become more inclined to ally with Arab countries, most of which are working hard to stop Turkish military intervention in Syria and Libya. Countries such as Italy and France viewed the moves by Egypt and the UAE as important and necessary to bestow an Arab legitimacy to the alliance against Turkey.

A statement issued last month by the foreign ministers of France, Greece, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt clarified their concerns about the illegal Turkish moves in the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Cyprus and its territorial waters, which constitutes a clear violation of international law in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But the most important feature of the statement is the emphasis placed on the strategic importance of strengthening and intensifying political consultations among the five countries. The ministers praised the results of the Cairo meeting of January 8 to enhance security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean, in a move that may pave the way for greater coordination that would take individual initiatives and automatic reactions to new developments to the level of continuous coordination through permanent structures, whether between the European Union and the Arab League, or through a joint structure that would be established by agreement between the partner countries.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have important cards to encourage Europe to accelerate the process of establishing this alliance with them. They have worked hard to encircle and counter the influence of political Islam in various places, including Egypt and Sudan, and by interfering in Yemen, they have succeeded in protecting international navigation in the Red Sea, as well as establish better cooperation with the countries of the Horn of Africa to ensure greater safety.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh contributed to making Turkey lose its foothold on the shores of the Red Sea on the Sudanese island of Suakin, by backing the transitional government in Sudan that came on the ruins of the Turkey-and-Qatar-backed regime of Omar al-Bashir.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia also participated in financing the African force that France formed from the armed forces of the Sahel states to counter the activities of militant groups in the Sahel region.

All of these elements confirm the existence of a strong base for a future alliance capable of securing the interests of the various parties involved.

This emerging alliance by necessity between Mediterranean Arab and European countries may eventually encourage other countries concerned about Turkish expansion to join it. This could include Israel, for example, which does not hide its frustration with developments in Libya, and with Turkey and Russia starting a race for influence in the Mediterranean and moving from mere threats to actual implementation of permanent bases. Ankara and Moscow were taking advantage of inefficient European monitoring activities embodied by the Sofia mission of 2015, and more recently by the IRINI process (2020).

The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an Israeli research centre, warned that “given that Israel’s ties with Turkey have been highly problematic and relations with Russia remain delicate, Jerusalem needs to prepare for the possibility of a continuing and even growing regional influence of both, especially in light of Washington’s continued reluctance to assume a more active diplomatic or military role (in the region).”

Libya scholar Wolfram Lacher said; “Now that the catastrophic consequences of European inaction are evident and Haftar no longer has a chance to seize power, a (European) policy shift is both possible and indispensable.”

“Two key goals should guide European policies: first, safeguard Libya’s unity; second, counter Russian influence in Libya as a matter of priority. The U.S. shares both goals,” he said.

For this to succeed, Lacher pointed out that the Europeans will not be able to act in unison unless “the French position shifts away from its relative tolerance for Russia and adversarial stance towards Turkey,” warning that “countering Russia would not only help thwart the threat posed by Moscow but also prevent Turkey and Russia from carving up Libya into spheres of influence, if not separate states.”

Latcher concluded that, “in parallel, Western states should finally push their interests in a stable Libya more strongly when engaging with Haftar’s other foreign supporters, particularly Egypt and the UAE, to dissuade them from further cooperation with Russia.”

Observers pointed out that the fact that Arab countries opted to develop relations with Russia was a natural reaction to the stances of the United States and Europe in recent years, whether in connection to their relationship with Iran, which did not take into account Arab national security concerns, or in connection to their support of the so-called Arab Spring revolutions, which in some countries ended up causing unstable conditions providing fertile ground for Islamist groups.

The UAE’s determination, backed by Saudi Arabia, to stymie Turkey is part of its assertive global campaign to confront Islamist groups and the countries that support them, such as Turkey and Qatar. What the Europeans do not yet realise is that the chaos in Libya is caused by the activities of these groups and their efforts to control the fate of countries that witnessed protests in 2011, at a time when Western countries such as the United States and Britain were giving the green light to these groups in a way that ended up turning the "spring" promises in affected Arab countries into a freezing winter.

The UAE is receiving political support from Egypt, whose president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in a popular uprising that overthrew the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. With Egypt still suffering from the legacy of that era, both at the security and economic levels, the Egyptian president and government are more inclined to take more radical positions towards the chaos created by Islamists in Libya for fear that it would feed terrorist activities on Egyptian soil.

James Dorsey, an expert on Middle East issues, believes that Turkey’s participation in the wars in Libya and Syria has fuelled Emirati efforts to bring Europe and the United States to its side in its conflict with Turkey and beyond with political Islam-affiliated groups.

Dorsey pointed out in a recent article on his blog that the UAE is banking on Turkey's strained relations with its allies in NATO, Europe and the United States, due to a host of issues, including Turkish military intervention in Libya, the fate of millions of Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey, and Ankara's relationship with Moscow and its purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-missile defence system.

The UAE had pinned great hopes on the speedy launch of the planned East Med pipeline that would have transported natural gas from Israeli, Cypriot and Lebanese fields via Greece to Italy. This pipeline threatened to replace up to half of Qatari exports to Europe with gas from the Eastern Mediterranean.

The $7 billion, 2,200-kilometre-long pipeline project was put on hold because of the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of energy prices.

Observers say that the Arab-backed UAE move to impede a permanent Turkish presence in Libya and the southern Mediterranean represents a golden opportunity for the Europeans to break with the “wait and see” strategy they have maintained since the Cold War and with the expectation that the United States would solve their problems.

The Libyan crisis would have provided an opportunity for the Europeans, at least the Mediterranean countries, to move more effectively and uniformly, because the Turkish-Russian presence in their southern borders directly threatens their national security, whether from terrorism, arms trafficking or human trafficking.

Major Karl Wiest, a US Africa Command spokesman, said that a Russian-Turkish detente in Libya, the richest nation in Africa and home to the world’s 10th-largest oil reserves, would have far-reaching consequences for the United States and Europe.

“It is possible that when the smoke clears in Libya, Russia has basing access on Europe’s southern flank, and potentially long-range systems as well,” Wiest said. He added that over the last seven years, Russia has sold almost $9 billion in arms to its African partners, making it the top arms supplier to the continent.