Saudi Arabia’s decision to support Cyprus in the ongoing battle over the Eastern Mediterranean is designed to protect the country from Turkish intrusion. Cyprus is angered by Turkey’s bid to drill for natural gas amid heightened tensions over energy reserves in the region. With Cyprus accusing Turkey of flouting international law in sending ships to drill inside an exploration area that is already licensed to the energy companies Eni of Italy and Total of France, Riyadh is stepping up diplomatic activity.
After the visit of Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides to Riyadh this week and his meeting with King Salman, the Kingdom announced that it stands on the side of Cyprus and supports its sovereignty. Moreover, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan expressed full support for Cyprus.
It is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia’s position on the Cyprus issue is similar to that of the EU, which announced its support for the sovereignty of Cyprus and threatened Turkey and its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that it would withhold some financial aid. But a more important aspect of the Saudi move toward Cyprus is how it relates to Turkey’s struggle for influence in the Mediterranean region, as it is attempting to seize maritime areas using an illegal agreement signed with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
It seems that Saudi Arabia is going to use soft power. From Riyadh’s point of view, Turkey cannot keep up with Saudi Arabian investment in countries that are geographically close to Ankara — but are against Erdogan — as it attempts to corral Turkey.
The territory of the Republic of Cyprus extends over the southern part of the island of Cyprus, while Turkey occupies the northern part. Bringing up this issue is certainly going to make Cyprus a central issue, on top of many others in the increasingly volatile Eastern Mediterranean.
After the Erdogan government signed an agreement with the Libyan GNA, in which it extracted significant economic rights in the waters of the Mediterranean, Ankara announced that it had sent ships to explore for oil and gas off Cyprus, including in the region in which the Cypriot government authorized European companies to conduct exploratory drilling. Like Greece, the Republic of Cyprus has expressed strong opposition to the agreement. To be sure, tempers are flaring. Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades called for collective regional action against the Turkish move, which was a violation of international laws relating to countries’ maritime borders.
The Cypriot Parliament’s Speaker also announced support for the Libyan House of Representatives in its efforts to persuade the EU and international organizations to withdraw recognition of the GNA and instead support the Libyan National Army.
Saudi Arabia is working in cooperation with several countries, from both within the region and outside, to block and force back both Turkish and Iranian expansion. The creation of the Red Sea Security Council — with the involvement of Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Djibouti, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan — is part of an effort to create regional security organizations that can protect waterways from hostile powers. Moreover, the opening of Egypt’s Berenice (Barnis) Military Base on the Red Sea coast helps to project power to secure Egypt’s southern coasts, economic interests in the Red Sea, and international maritime traffic moving through to and from the Suez Canal.
This new structure, combined with the ongoing disputes surrounding Cyprus and other states regarding Turkey’s maritime rights, is filling a vacuum in a part of the region devoid of regional security structures in spite of its high strategic value, which is bringing competitors from outside the region. For Saudi Arabia, Turkey’s moves against Cyprus are another example of Ankara’s aggression. Thus, the expansion of such a security concept backed by regional neighbors may be within Riyadh’s vision in the near future.
There is another relevant angle: The Levant. The Jordanian king sees that Cyprus “plays a significant role in finding a peaceful solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” All of Cyprus’ partners defend its rights to explore and exploit the natural resources discovered in its exclusive economic zone. Other actions revealing Cyprus’ enhanced role in the region include Nicosia’s support for Lebanon’s many crises (Anastasiades’ previous visits to Saudi Arabia were based on discussions about how best to address the issues there). Given Lebanon’s current predicament, the move by Saudi Arabia to help Cyprus is part of a broader view of security issues in the Mediterranean, which are giving rise to more contested spaces and boundaries.