The East Mediterranean’s Shifting Dynamics: Now is the Time for Greater Cooperation

The persistence of unresolved maritime delimitation disputes has become coupled with conflicting claims over sovereign rights.


Nowadays, there is a growing awareness of the geopolitical importance of the East Mediterranean in its own right, as an arena with explicit dynamics of cooperation, competition, and conflict. It has all the characteristics of a distinct region, which however interacts and functions in complementarity with other regions and as part of the wider Middle East. The Israel-Hamas war comes to solidify this perception especially when taking into consideration that the East Mediterranean as part of the broader Middle East has developed dynamics of conflict that shake the regional foundations underneath.

The establishment of a forum of political dialogue in the East Mediterranean that would not only provide a platform of regional cooperation but most important a framework for conflict mitigation and resolution is one way. It has been identified as a major geopolitical necessity long before the Israel-Hamas war by dialogue processes with most representative, the East Mediterranean Initiative (EMI), supported by the Geneva Center for Security Policy.

The persistence of unresolved maritime delimitation disputes has become coupled with conflicting claims over sovereign rights regarding hydrocarbon discoveries. In addition, some of the maritime delimitation disputes have been linked to ongoing conflicts like the civil conflict in Libya, to such an extent that conflict resolution efforts have become more complex. Also, the continuation of long-standing unresolved conflicts such as the Israel-Palestine conflict has been exacerbated by a long-year stalemate in conflict resolution efforts. These three trends constitute a troubling dynamic whereby conflicts are increasingly interlinked, with spillover effects like refugee flows.

EMI’s Concept Paper

Looking into the future, EMI compiled a concept paper that envisions a framework for East Mediterranean dialogue that would help resolve conflicts, mitigate mistrust, and open a path for regional cooperation. The new proposal to establish a regional platform of dialogue builds on numerous previous attempts to institutionalize a process of regional cooperation for the states of the Mediterranean. Most prevailing is the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP), which is widely known as the Barcelona Process; the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), that was complemented by a more targeted Southern Neighborhood policy for the countries of the southern Mediterranean; and the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) as an attempt to revive the Barcelona Process.

The cited previous attempts are discerned by the following characteristics. First, the broad approach of these initiatives has been based on frameworks designed to link countries of the southern Mediterranean to the EU and not between them. Second, no previous initiatives centered on the East Mediterranean in its own right, in contrast, for example, to the Western Mediterranean Forum, otherwise known as the 5+5 Dialogue (comprising of Algeria, France, Italy, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Portugal, Spain and Tunisia).

Realistically, the East Mediterranean has no regional forum that can reflect emerging dynamics, except for the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) which, however, centers on enhancing cooperation in the energy domain. EMGF is a regional cooperation platform of dialogue between governments, and it has become both an avenue of communication between states and the energy industry and a clearing house for ideas, and plans for mutually beneficial energy development in the region. The forum, however, lacks a political heavyweight in resolving, for example, maritime-related differences.

Creation of WANATO

The Israel-Hamas war, the continued instability in Libya, the domestic mess in Syria on the one hand, and promising projects underway in the East Mediterranean on the other hand highlight that now is the time for greater cooperation. Greater cooperation for countering asymmetric threats like terrorism, for the resolution of conflicts and restoration of trust among peoples and countries is of utmost necessity more than ever before. Trilateral partnerships to address common challenges and explore opportunities should be enhanced and expanded in scope to include majority of East Mediterranean countries on joint training to enhance cybersecurity, fight terrorism and violent extremism, and combat Weapons of Mass Destruction trafficking.  

Additionally, constructive past proposals by regional leaders must be taken into consideration. The creation of a West Asia North Africa Treaty Organization (WANATO), on the pattern of NATO, that is proposed by HRH Prince El Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan, can serve as a regional institution that will promote not only security goals but also enhance human security and cement a process of economic and political cooperation.

Just as NATO produced decades of peace and stability in Europe, a regional treaty organization in the WANA region can work in the same direction. Human dignity enabling people to live with respect can lead to the evolvement of peaceful regions. In times of armed conflicts, human dignity is often not well-protected. Thus, compliance with the Humanitarian Law during armed conflicts is not only a legal obligation but a moral duty so that a minimum of human dignity is preserved. The struggle for the promotion of human dignity should go hand in hand with the war on terror.

Overall, active diplomacy and coalition building, can lit the engines of cooperation, and open an avenue for the establishment of a political forum of dialogue among countries in the East Mediterranean to address common challenges and explore opportunities that can enhance collective prosperity for current and future generations.

Antonia Dimou
Antonia Dimou
Antonia Dimou is Head of the Middle East Unit at the Institute for Security and Defense Analyses, Greece; and, an Associate at the Center for Middle East Development, University of California, Los Angeles


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