Europe and the New Middle East

Alliances in the Middle East are changing but the EU has been little engaged with the new diplomatic shifts and risks becoming irrelevant in the region, writes Jonathan Spyer.

Jonathan Spyer is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The signing of agreements for  “full normalization” of diplomatic, economic and all relations’  between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain at the White House this week largely formalizes an existing reality.

These countries share common perspectives and common interests on the key strategic issues facing the Middle East region.  Behind the scenes, they have been cooperating for quite a while.

The relevant files in this regard are: the challenge represented by the regional ambitions of Iran, (Israel’s chief security concern), Turkish regional expansion – bearing the banner of Sunni political Islam in its Muslim Brotherhood iteration (the particular focus for the Emiratis), and the implications for these of an emergent lighter US footprint in the Mid-East, alongside the growing influence of the Chinese in the region.

The camp of states aligned on these issues is not limited to Jerusalem, Manama and Abu Dhabi.  Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Morocco share similar concerns. The emergent strategic picture in the Middle East is one of competition between this pro-western alliance, whom America are looking to strengthen and build, and the rival blocs of Iran and Turkey, with their allies and clients.

Ten years after the outbreak of the Arab Spring, large swathes of the Arabic speaking world are fragmented and partially governed. Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are today geographical spaces, rather than states in the full sense of the word.

The presence of Iranian and Turkish proxies can be seen throughout all these nations. Across these collapsed spaces, in the Mediterranean, and in the Gulf, the competition between the rival alliances will be engaged.

In the capitals of Europe, there is as yet only limited understanding of this new and emergent picture.  As a result, European countries are increasingly irrelevant or invisible in the diplomacy of the Middle East.

The still dominant perspectives in Europe belong largely to the era now fading: the supposed centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to Mid-East stability, the desire to return to the Iran nuclear agreement, a more general preference for formal and multi-lateral agreements, while the region favours the tacit, the pragmatic and the bilateral.

As a result, European countries have played no part in the emergence and crystallization of the tacit alliance of pro-western countries of which Israel and the UAE form a part. This alliance has emerged through bilateral connections, but with the quiet encouragement and tutelage of the US.

Similarly, the US policy of maximum pressure on Iran, strongly supported by pro-western regional states, is opposed by key European countries.  They favour a return to the JCPOA. In so doing, again, Europe will advance not its interests, but rather its irrelevance.

On the issue of Turkish aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean, France and Greece are playing a vital role.  No united European stance has been forthcoming, however.  Italy, one of the EU’s other leading powers sits on the opposite side to France, remaining aligned with Turkey.

The fear of President Erdogan’s use of Syrian migrants as a tool of intimidation apparently remains.

Today, the UAE is aligned with Egypt and General Khalifa Haftar in Libya, against the Turkish and MB-backed Feyaz Sarraj government in Tripoli. The UAE, backed by Saudi Arabia, is seeking to create a network of alliances to challenge and turn back Turkish ambitions in the east Mediterranean.

Israel’s relations with Turkey formally remain, but are in the deep freeze, with no sign of improvement on the horizon (though trade remains brisk).  Ankara is currently domiciling an active Hamas office in Istanbul. It was recently revealed that the Turks have begun to offer citizenship to Hamas operatives resident in Turkey.

As the contest with the Turks in the eastern Mediterranean heats up, the Emiratis perceive Israel as a natural partner in that arena, too.  In response to a Turkish dispatch of a survey ship accompanied by warships to the disputed area on August 10, Israel issued a clear statement of support for Greece, for the first time.

The statement, issued by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, asserted that “Israel is following closely as tension rises in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel expresses its full support and solidarity with Greece.” Prime Minister Netanyahu later reaffirmed this position.

So the emergent alliance to contain Turkey in the east Mediterranean includes Egypt, the UAE, Israel, Greece, France and Cyprus.  There ought to be a united European response to this key challenge, taking place on Europe’s very doorstep.  Such a response has yet to emerge.

The East Mediterranean situation is characterized by US absence.  Indeed, underlying the whole strategic picture in the region is the reality of US drawdown.

US weariness with the Mid-East, urgent internal questions, emergent energy independence and the growing challenge of China are all leading to a focus away from the Mid-East.  This is bringing US allies closer along bilateral lines.

There is a place here for European influence, and for a major European role. But it is dependent on Europe acquainting itself with the emergent, profoundly changed the strategic realities of the region.  This has not yet happened.  It should happen soon.