The wider regional background of the “East Med” affaire
Over the last decade, the deep transformations throughout the wider Mediterranean region have created new challenges that overlap with old crises. In fact, several multi-layered dynamics have turned the area into one of the world’s most volatile regions, whose geopolitical significance goes far beyond its geographical borders. An important variable is the natural gas discoveries in the Levantine Basin.
The Libyan crisis and the tensions in the Levantine Sea reflect the contemporary chaos in the wider region, in which the lack of clear fault lines and coherent political-military strategies have shaped a fragmented scenario into a new context of global competition. Against this background Turkey and Greece clash over natural gas and maritime borders, while other regional actors (from Israel to Egypt, and even to the Gulf monarchies – in particular the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) and international players (the United States, China and Russia) could get involved to varying degrees.
The signing of agreements between Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord led by Fayez al-Sarraj (November 2019), as well as those signed between Egypt and Greece (August 2020) on an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, reflect several levels (domestic, regional and international) of interests. In this regard, it is not surprising that Israel, Egypt and the Gulf monarchies are working to engineer a new way to cooperate informally between themselves and to contain other regional forces (such as the Turkish-Qatari axis and the Iranian front).
In particular, Turkey’s political will to expand its role in the region through intervention in conflict zones (such as Libya) or growing (geo)political interests (in the Eastern Mediterranean as well as in the Red Sea) is perceived by many as a dangerous factor and, particularly by Gulf countries and Egypt, as an “existential” threat to their international strategies.
From the Egyptian perspective, the greatest challenge for the country’s geopolitical ambitions is to transform the several factors of instability (the upheavals in Libya, the growing militarization and conflicting interests in the MENA region, and the rampant rivalry between Cairo and Ankara) into assets to expand its geostrategic potential in the neighborhood, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa. A competitive advantage is guaranteed by geography and the discovery of huge natural gas resources in the Egyptian offshore. In this regard, the Mediterranean becomes a natural hub between Europe and the Red Sea. Not surprisingly, in January 2020, Egypt inaugurated the Berenice military base, the country’s largest military facility on the Red Sea and one of the biggest in the MENA region.
Egypt’s return to the Red Sea is aimed at gaining a key role in the Eastern Mediterranean-Suez-Red Sea corridor.. At the same time, this new activism allows it to achieve a partial independence from the Saudi-Emirati duopoly. Finally, another crucial point in understanding the Egyptian vision is the political project to fight political Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood movements in Libya and across the region.
The Muslim Brotherhood groups are backed by Turkey and Qatar, proponents of political Islamist activism in the Greater Middle East – a vision that contrasts with Egypt-Gulf conservative perspectives (shared by Israel) of a regional strategic status quo aimed to marginalize the Turkish-Qatari axis. This means that Egypt aims to bolster itself as the principal actor in the management of gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean and to promote its role as “kingmaker” in Libya.
A similar assessment also applies to the Gulf countries. The political turmoil that has characterized North Africa and the Levantine states since 2011 has created both threats and opportunities for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as for Qatar and Iran. The Gulf players in the Mediterranean have interests that collide, but sometimes also intersect, both in the economic and in the political-military spheres.
Their presence along the Mediterranean littorals ensures them a strategic position for key international trade routes – particularly those that connect the transit of China’s New Silk Road – or for international crises such as the Libyan and Yemeni conflicts. In particular, safeguarding economic security where numerous vessels are carrying goods and oil between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean is a shared vital interest. Trade and energy security interests need to be protected from the region’s security threats posed by Jihadist movements and rebel groups, but also by assertive regional competitors like Turkey and Qatar.
The UAE relies on diplomacy based on trade and infrastructures (also known as “the geopolitics of ports”) and on the adoption of an interventionist maritime policy, driven by the need to protect its economic and commercial interests in the Afro-Asian area. Moreover, like Egypt, the UAE takes issue with Turkey’s support for Muslin Brotherhood movements in Libya and in the wider region. Conversely, in cooperation with Turkey, Qatar is operating in that area to break through the diplomatic isolation imposed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and pragmatically to pursue its own geopolitical and economic interests.
In this context, the Gulf powers consider the Mediterranean space as an extension of maritime corridors linking Europe to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and as such crucial for global trade and energy routes, to secure them not only from transnational risk factors (terrorism and piracy), but also, above all, from the assertive foreign policy strategies of other rival powers committed to pursuing their own national interests. For this reason, the UAE has tried in particular to enlarge the anti-Turkey/Qatar front to Egypt, to European countries (such as France, Cyprus and Greece) and to Israel.
The latter, in particular, has rethought its geopolitical interests in the Mediterranean since the 2000s, after the discovery and development of rich gas reserves that made Tel Aviv energy self-sufficient, with a significant geostrategic interest aimed at transforming the country into an energy gas supplier in the region. This factor was a genuine game changer that has allowed Israel to expand its international cooperation and military diplomacy in the wider Mediterranean, from the Levant to North Africa (with Egypt in particular, but also by strengthening informal cooperation with Morocco) and to European shores (Greece, Cyprus and, to a lesser extent, Italy).
As in the case of Egypt and the UAE, Israel’s geostrategic proximity to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal places the country at the center of Chinese interests. Also for these reasons, Beijing has invested massively in upgrades to the ports in Haifa and Ashdod, as well as in the Med-Red railway between Elat and Ashdod. This fundamental shift in Israeli foreign policy gave it the potential to reinforce its relations with regional actors, promote its full integration into new regional dynamics and forge a security framework against regional threats posed by Iran and Turkey.
The creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), a regional cooperation platform for developing the natural gas fields in the Mediterranean area strongly supported by Egypt and Israel, is aimed to reduce the importance of Turkey’s Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline (TANAP) and Turkish Stream pipelines, as well as to marginalize Ankara from gas exploitation investment projects in the Eastern Mediterranean. At the same time, the EMGF is working with France, the United States and the UAE to create a geopolitical hub that excludes Turkey. However, an anti-Turkish-centric vision cannot be the only variable in this strategy.
In fact, these countries are trying to bind their regional strategies to the US’ sphere of geostrategic interests, at the same time building a parallel security system that connects the Mediterranean space with Western Asia and Eastern Africa. From a US perspective, it may be necessary, going forward, to build a Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA, also known as the “Arab NATO”). This concept could become a well-defined military and security architecture to protect both US and Middle Eastern interests against other powers’ growing leverage in the region (Turkey, Qatar, Iran, but also international players as China and Russia).
In conclusion, the conflicting power interests in the Mediterranean space reflect a shifting balance of power for the region as a whole. From this perspective, the outcome of the Libyan conflict and the rising tensions in the Levantine Basin could have a fundamental impact on the idea of a comprehensive regional architecture in the new evolving Mediterranean.