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Turkey’s confrontational foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean

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Since August 2020, Turkey has been sending several drill ships to the Eastern Mediterranean, which raised diplomatic tensions in the area. The dispute started in July when Turkey put a naval alert informing that it was sending Oruc Reis research ship to carry out drilling operations close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo. Turkish and Greek officials have been holding technical meetings in Brussels since September 2020 to find a common ground on the issue. On the other hand, it has been said that in order to expand its drilling fleet, Turkey plans to acquire a fourth vessel from Norway soon. Therefore, the maritime border dispute does not seem to be resolved anytime soon.

The conflict between Greece, Cyprus and Turkey over the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) began in early 2000s and intensified with the discovery of natural resources in 2010. The Turkish expansionist Blue Homeland (“Mavi Vatan”) doctrine, which defines the country’s territorial waters, the EEZ and the continental shelf, is playing a part on the confrontation. It also emphasizes a naval superiority over the Republic of Cyprus and Greece. Turkey also justifies its actions on the Eastern Mediterranean as a way to reduce its energy dependency from other countries.

There are many Greek islands within the sight of the Turkish coast in Mediterranean and Aegean, which lead to a complex issue of territorial waters. Greek and Turkish interests on the Mediterranean have always confronted with each other, with Athens accusing Ankara to violate its continental shelf, while Ankara responds that islands far from the Greek coastline and closer to the Turkish one cannot have a continental shelf of their own. The exploration of the natural resources might seem like the main point of tensions in the Mediterranean, but the roots of the problem are deeper than it seems.

Turkey’s Cyprus question

After a Greek backed coup in Cyprus in 1974, Turkish military intervened and annexed a part of the island under the name of protection of interests of the Turkish Cypriots. Now there are two States in the island, the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). Over the years, Southern Cyprus, backed by Greece, got closer with  the EU and finally became a member state in 2004. Meanwhile, TRNC is only recognized by Turkey itself while the United Nations recognize it as territories belonging to the Republic of Cyprus that are occupied by the Turkish military.

Since 1974, there were several attempts at peacebuilding and reunification, the most famous of them known as the Annan Plan, but both sides never found a common ground, which led to the failure of the negotiations. Recently, the Turkish President Erdogan crossed out the possibility of a united federal Cyprus by accusing his Greek counterpart of being confrontational. He opted for a two-state solution as the only way to solve the conflict. Cyprus was also one of the main issues on the table for Turkish accession to the EU. Unless the problem is solved, Turkish membership does not seem likely, considering the Cypriot and Greek opposition inside the EU itself. Meanwhile, it seems like disagreements will continue and that the Cyprus question will isolate Turkey from the EU more and more.

Turkey’s isolation in the region

The prolonged talks, which resulted in the failure of the admission of Turkey to the EU, led Turkey to turn its back to the EU and to focus on being a strong, regional power. Now feeling isolated, Turkey is trying to assert its power throughout the neighboring territories. The recent involvements in the Caucasus and the MENA region support this argument.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s maritime accord with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) also created tensions with other regional powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, since they are the supporters of the Tobruk Government. The role of Egypt is actually an important point here, as it is also one of the interested parties on the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkish claims on the Mediterranean also threatens Egyptian efforts to become a regional hub for natural resources. The maritime boundary agreement between Greece and Egypt, signed in early August 2020, also agitated Turkey even more and caused the renewal of the exploration efforts.

Exclusion from the EU membership was followed by exclusion from the EastMed Gas Forum (EMGF) as well, thus leaving Turkey no choice but to act alone. Established as an international body on 16 January 2020, the EMGF brings together Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Palestine, with a possible future membership of France. The main reason for the exclusion of Turkey seems to be the US opposition to Ankara’s purchase of $400 missiles from Russia. Turkish politicians did not welcome this act well and interpreted it as a containment policy towards Turkey. The possibility of an Eastern Mediterranean pipeline through the EMFG member countries towards the European market, without including Turkey, is another concern of the government officials. They insist on the fact that they should be included to the Forum for the promotion of regional cooperation.

EU’s stance on the issue

The European Union should be careful to react since Turkey does not welcome very warmly the EU’s intervention on the issue of Eastern Mediterranean. Several arguments from Turkish officials were put forward: the EU cannot play a part on this issue since it involves one member state against a non-member one; it is not the EU’s competence to solve the maritime issues, but it is the one of the international courts; it is up to national governments to decide on border disputes.

On the spotlight of the recent events, the EU considers the application of further sanctions towards Turkey for unauthorized and illegal drilling efforts in the Mediterranean. An extensive report is expected to be delivered by EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell at the March summit. During his recent visit to Brussels, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu highlighted the fact that if the EU would resume the accession talks and avoid sanctions, Turkey would be interested to meet all the criteria. This and above-mentioned reactions by Turkish officials show an interest towards a closer cooperation with the EU, which could lead to the de-escalation of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean, if the EU members also show interest on the cooperation.

Unsurprisingly, EU member states had different reactions to Turkey’s recent efforts. During the peak of the confrontation, Berlin initiated mediation efforts between Ankara and Athens in August. On a video conference with her Turkish counter-part, German Chancellor Angela Merkel mentioned the importance of making progress in dialogue. She also talked about how she welcomed the recent developments and positive news in the Eastern Mediterranean.

On the other hand, Macron’s call for a Pax Mediterranea was successful, with a clear Egyptian opposition towards Ankara’s foreign policy and Italy’s endangered energy interests in Libya and Cyprus. Macron’s clear opposition towards Erdogan’s foreign policy is making the matters worse than it is. France already dispatched several warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to show its solidarity with Greece Opposite positions in the Libyan Civil War also play their part in the relations of the two countries. It seems like the confrontational national interests of France and Turkey in the region will prolong the Eastern Mediterranean crisis for now.

Conclusion

The resolution of the conflict heavily depends on the vis-a-vis relations of Greece and Turkey. The complexity of the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean demands some compromises. Both parties should be ready for some concessions if they want to find a peaceful solution and coexist in the Mediterranean. Otherwise, they will have to get ready for future confrontations, that will eventually emerge because of the proximity of Greek islands to the Turkish coast.

Turkish exclusion from the regional cooperation is also a problematic issue. The EMGF should include Turkey as a member state, since it is one of the stronger powers of the Mediterranean. Discussing energy related issues together with other countries such as Egypt, Greece and Cyprus on a common platform might also help to find a common ground on maritime borders.

EU’s mild approach towards the parties could be useful, but too much involvement is also risky since Turkey does not see EU’s involvement in the region as appropriate. What the EU can do is keep close cooperation with Turkey on a European scale. Introducing more sanctions would agitate Turkey even more, and rather than looking for a common ground, Turkey might become more violent and expansionist. Instead, by cooperating further, the EU could strengthen the mutual relations with Turkey and achieve some positive results.

Abbas Zeynalli is the MA Student of University of Bologna and the Research Fellow from Topchubashov Center, Azerbaijan. His areas of interest cover Middle East, Chinese foreign policy, South Caucasus and European integration.

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Middle East

The Changing Political Dynamics of the Middle East

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It is often said that the politics of the Middle East is as clear as mud. The fresh events that unfolded in the region indicate the significance of this assumption. The strict and hyper-strategic alliances that characterized the region during the Cold War are now vanishing as a new order seems to emerge that is much more hybrid, unpredictable, and pragmatic. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Middle Eastern states are keen on keeping their distance as they refuse to take sides. The dynamics were quite opposite in the Cold War era and during the unstable period that dominated the region afterward. The shift evident in the region today is thoroughly complex and complicated but it is different from the Cold War period.

The Middle East was a playground for the two dominant sides during the Cold War. It was subjected to major foreign invasions and large-scale conflicts. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 added further spices to the bitter Saudi-Iran rivalry and the race continued throughout the war. Unlike other parts of the world, the post-Cold War era was even further devastating for the Middle East as Arab Spring ignited some of the world’s deadliest conflicts. The wars in Yemen, Syria, and other countries portray the arch rivalry of global and regional players to dominate the region. However, today it seems that the major actors in all these conflicts are tired and fatigued. As the regional crisis meets dead ends, a new geo-political environment is emerging in the Middle East.

In the last few months, the two major powers, the United States and Russia have focused comprehensively on the Middle East as it is a major economic and strategic zone. The trilateral summit between Iran, Russia, and Turkey and the American-Arab summit held in Jeddah demonstrate the efforts. The summit in Jeddah signaled a divergence and lack of trust between the United States and its partners in the region. Unlike the previous talks, the environment lacked confidence and the actors could not agree on most of the views. It was more of a stage to blame each other as the Saudi Prince defended himself against the opprobrium of Biden by mentioning the war crimes committed by the United States in Iraq. Riyadh and Cairo also questioned the strategic competency and power of the United States given its humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. President Biden also tried to convince and pressurize Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt to cut off all ties with Russia and cease all cooperation. Although increasing oil production was agreed upon but no party indicated to stop dealing with Russia on trade and energy. More surprisingly, Israel, Washington’s closest ally in the region has also shown a diversion from following the orders of the United States. It is a tipping point in history where it seems that the United States has lost its hegemony in the Middle East, and it has become a client state of the Saudis. The events delivered a clear message that countries in the Middle East only want America’s aid and arms, not its advice.

In the same way, another important ally of the United States in the region, Turkey has been following a hybrid model for quite a time. The trilateral summit held in Tehran was a milestone in strengthening Turkey’s ties with Russia and Iran. Turkey has even proposed arms sales to Iran which shows a clear diversion from a major NATO member. Turkey has also turned towards Russia to attain the S-400 system after NATO refused to sell the air defense system. More importantly, Saudi Arabia has also shown the intention to get the system from Moscow. As is the case with other states, Iran is also keen on building good ties with China and Russia. The country is collaborating with the European nations to reestablish the Nuclear Deal on acceptable terms. Despite having disagreements over most of the issues, Iran and Saudi Arabia are involved in diplomatic talks to de-escalate the tensions in the region. MBS is looking for diplomatic accommodations with Iran to help the region in development through trade. While speaking with CNN, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said that they are hoping for a kind response from Iran in order to build a diplomatic solution. He favored giving incentives to Iran on the negotiations table to have a peaceful future in the region. UAE’s normalization of ties with the Assad regime in Syria and exit from the war in Yemen also indicate the concerns of the major powers in the region about the instability. It is indeed the beginning of a changing regional order in the Middle East where the Cold War model is evaporating.

In short, the changes undergoing in the Middle East do not look similar to the hyper and rigid order during the Cold War. More governments in the region are opting for hyper, hybrid, and pragmatic policies that favor their national interests and regional stability over the benefits of foreign powers. The Middle East is a powerhouse of the world and the shifting plates in the region would surely influence world politics. It is still unsure so make predictions about the future since the ongoing situation is very complicated and complex. The political dynamic of the Middle East is unpredictable and it will further complicate global affairs. What might come next is a mystery and where the next explosion would occur is a sheer guess.

To conclude, the world seems to be changing now as China is threatening the position of the United States and the resurgence of Russia is a clear challenge to the dominance of the United States. In such an uncertain environment, the Middle East is a center of gravity for the “haves” of the world. President Biden’s visit to the region and the trilateral talks between Russia, Iran, and Turkey mark the significance of dominating the region today. An evaluation of the recent events portrays that the rigid and hypersensitive environment of the Middle East is converting into a hybrid, pragmatic, and unpredictable domain. The divergence of the allies of the United States in the region from the dictated course and tilt towards Russia signals a tectonic shift. Iran’s involvement in the affairs is another point of importance to decide the future of the region. It is impossible to correctly predict the rapid changes in the Middle East, however, the years ahead are surely of vital significance.

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Winter sports in Saudi Arabia? An unproven concept except for the surveillance aspect

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Temperatures in north-western Saudi Arabia, on average, seldom, if ever, drop below eight degrees Celsius except in the 2,400-metre high Sarawat mountains, where snow falls at best occasionally. However, that hasn’t prevented Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from envisioning Saudi Arabia as competing for winter sports tourism.

The kingdom would do so by including winter sports in Mr. Bin Salman’s US$500 billion Neom fantasia, a futuristic new city and tourism destination along the Red Sea in a mostly unpopulated part of the kingdom.

In the latest mind-boggling Neom-related announcement, Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee said it was bidding to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in the city, essentially still a project on paper that has a science-fiction feel to it in a country that has no winter sports facilities and whose plans so far envisioned only ones that would be indoors.

The games would be held at Trojena, a yet-to-be-built resort on mountain peaks overlooking Neom slated to be home to 7,000 people by 2026 and annually attract 700,000 visitors. Trojena would be the Gulf’s first outdoor ski resort.

Powered by renewable energy, Trojena expects to create an outdoor ski slope by blasting artificial snow at the mountains.

Plans for the resort also include a ski village, luxurious family and wellness facilities, the region’s largest freshwater lake, and an interactive nature reserve. Trojena would also feature a yoga retreat and an art and entertainment residency.

Executive director Philip Gullett predicts that Trojena will offer a “seamless travel experience” in which “we are looking into delivering luggage via drones, using biometrics to fulfill security requirements, and allowing interested parties to explore the site first using the latest virtual reality.”

In Mr. Gullet’s anticipation, visitors will be able to scuba dive, ski, and hike or climb, all on the same day.

At least 32 Asian nations compete in the Asian games that include alpine skiing, ice hockey, biathlon, cross-country skiing, and figure skating competitions.

To be fair, Saudi Arabia sent its first winter Olympics team to the Beijing games in February, where Fayik Abdi ranked number 44 in the men’s giant slalom.

The winter sports bid is part of a big-splash Saudi effort to establish itself as the Gulf’s foremost player in international sports, a position so far occupied by Qatar with its hosting of this year’s World Cup and the United Arab Emirates that, like Qatar, owns one of the world’s top European soccer clubs.

Saudi Arabia recently bought English Premier League club Newcastle United and sparked controversy by attracting with vast sums of money some of the world’s top golf players to compete in a new tournament that kicked off in one of former US President Donald J. Trump’s resorts.

Tiger Woods reportedly turned down a US$700 to 800 million offer to join the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series. However, others, including Greg Norman, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Bryson DeChambeau, have jumped on the Saudi bandwagon.

Saudi Arabia has also signed a 10-year, $650m deal for a Formula One motor racing event, partnered with World Wrestling Entertainment for annual shows, and hosted the world heavyweight championship rematch between Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz.

Less than a year after signing with Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, soccer superstar Lionel Messi has emerged as the tourism ambassador for the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah.

Families of activists and dissidents imprisoned in Saudi Arabia unsuccessfully tried to persuade Mr. Messi not to engage with the kingdom. “If you say ‘yes’ to Visit Saudi, you are in effect saying yes to all the human rights abuses that take place today in modern Saudi Arabia,” they said in a letter to the player.

A Saudi national and former Twitter employee is currently on trial in the United States for spying for the kingdom on Saudi users of the social media platform.

Areej Al-Sadhan said the information potentially provided by the former employee may have led to the arrest of her brother Abdulrahman Al-Sadhan because of his satiric social media posts. Mr. Al-Sadhan was tortured and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Saudi officials killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in 2018 in what the kingdom has said was an unauthorized rogue operation. However, others, including US intelligence, assert that it was anything but.

Adding to Neom’s futurism, Saudi sources said last month that the city, funded by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, would be home to the world’s largest buildings, twin 500-metre-tall skyscrapers dubbed The Line that would stretch horizontally for dozens of miles.

By 2030, Mr. Bin Salman expects some 1.5 million people to live in the skyscrapers.

Everything about Neom…seems fantastical. From flying elevators to 100-mile long skyscrapers to a floating, zero-carbon port, it seems to owe more to Coruscant and Wakanda than to any urban forms outside of science fiction,” said Bloomberg columnist David Fickling, referring to Star Wars’ city-covered planet and Fantastic Four’s fictional country in East Africa.

In Mr. Bin Salman’s mind, Neom – derived from the Latin word neo for new and the first letter of the Arabic word for future, Mustaqbal, and built with advanced smart city technologies — will likely not only be an example of artificial intelligence increasing life’s conveniences but also the creation of the perfect surveillance state.

Speaking to Bloomberg in 2017, Mr. Bin Salman envisioned residents and visitors managing their lives with just one app. Neom, Mr. Bin Salman said the city would have no supermarkets because everything would be delivered.

“Everything will have a link to artificial intelligence, to the Internet of Things – everything. Your medical file will be connected with your home supply, with your car, linked to your family, linked to your other files, and the system develops itself in how to provide you with better things,” Mr. Bin Salman envisioned.

“Today all the clouds available are separate – the car is by itself, the Apple watch is by itself, everything is by itself. There, everything will be connected. So, nobody can live in Neom without the Neom application we’ll have – or visit Neom,” he added.

Mr. Bin Salman’s vision of Saudi Arabia as the world’s latest top-of-the-line winter sports destination attracts headlines but has yet to be proven as a concept. That is true for much of the futurism embedded in plans for Neom except for the surveillance state – that is already a reality in various parts of the world.

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How Russia’s Policy in the Middle East and North Africa is Changing After February 24

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Image source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saudi Arabia

U.S. President Joe Biden has now visited the Middle East, and this week, President of Russia Vladimir Putin also pays a visit to Iran, where he is expected to hold trilateral meetings with President of Iran Ebrahim Raisi and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Syria’s Astana process.

On February 24, 2022, the Russia–Ukraine military conflict began. Five months into it, the world has undergone global changes. Under the new conditions, Russia’s foreign policy in regions of the country’s strategic interest is changing as much. Among such regions are the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), which are traditionally in the focus of the Kremlin’s attention. Arab countries have taken an intermediate position in responding to Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Some of them supported the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia. However, unlike the U.S. and countries of the EU, the Arab world did not impose sanctions of their own. There are some difficulties on trade, but this is due to the desire of the Arab states to reduce the sanctions risks.

In recent years, the claim that the United States is leaving the Middle East has been popular in expert and academic circles. Some of them even spoke of Russia filling the emerging vacuum. However, the likelihood has now increased that Moscow’s activity in the MENA region will also significantly decrease. Nowadays, almost all the attention of Russia, and of the whole world, is focused on Ukraine. Some countries have already managed to use this to realize their own ambitions. In particular, Turkey announced the start of new military operation in Syria. Although Moscow has asked Ankara to abandon the operation, this is unlikely to influence the decision of President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

It seems to me that, at least in the coming months, and possibly years, we can expect a sharp decline in Russia’s efforts to resolve the humanitarian crisis in Syria. The involvement of the Kremlin in Libyan affairs will also decrease. Moscow may not have the resources to defend its interests in Libya by military-political means in the event of another possible escalation.

Big changes await Russia’s economic cooperation with the Arab countries. On the one hand, due to problems with logistics and sanctions, cooperation may be difficult. On the other hand, Russia is reorienting its economy towards the East, which could have a positive effect on economic cooperation with the Arab East. The most interesting thing is how the food supply situation will develop. Arab countries are highly dependent on Russian and Ukrainian grain exports. That is why the conflict between these countries has such a strong impact on the MENA region. This will have an impact on how Russian-Arab relations will change in the future.

There is some contradiction. On the one hand, dependence on Russian and Ukrainian food exports continues to persist. On the other hand, in the short term, the conflict creates the prerequisites for a reorientation to other markets—in particular, to buy grain from India. However, it should be taken into account that India, like other major food exporters, may not have enough resources to cover the needs of the Arab states quickly.

Moscow’s influence may be reduced in matters related to military-technical cooperation with the countries of the MENA region. Previously, the United States reacted quite sharply if someone bought Russian weapons. Among the most striking examples are the deal between Russia and Turkey for the purchase of S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems or the agreement with Egypt for the purchase of Su-25 aircraft. Washington opposed such purchases and responded with a threat of sanctions in order to force the countries of the Middle East to abandon Russian weapons. After February 24, the reaction to such purchases will be much stronger, and this may expand from traditional U.S. partners in the region to a wider range of states. Sanction risks are highly likely to lower the level of military-technical cooperation between Russia and the MENA countries.

Of course, the Arab countries take into account the risks of sanctions in economic matters, which can negatively affect trade as well as investment cooperation with Russia. At the same time, Russia and the MENA countries have a number of large long-term infrastructure and industrial projects. There are many projects in oil and gas, as well as in nuclear energy. Let’s pay attention to the position of Saudi Arabia. It shows that Riyadh values cooperation with Russia under the OPEC+ deal. It did not increase oil production despite requests from Washington.

Some political cooperation will continue. This is especially evident in the example of the Arab countries of the Gulf. Not so long ago, the 5th Ministerial Meeting for Strategic Dialogue between GCC and Russia took place. The meeting discussed the situation in Yemen and Libya. In addition, the participants considered issues of further elaboration of Russian proposals for the creation of a collective security system in the Gulf zone. Thus, Russia’s political influence in the region still remains, and it is possible that Moscow will be involved in a number of political projects. However, in my opinion, in the long term, this influence will be reduced gradually. The main question now is how much Russia will be considered a security provider after February 24.

From our partner RIAC

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