How significant is the Greece-UAE defence agreement?

Greece and the United Arab Emirates have signed a defence agreement that could have strategic ramifications for Turkey given these countries’ mutual opposition to its foreign policy.

This strategic partnership, according to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, aims to “enhance political, economic and cultural cooperation” between the two countries. The military aspect of the partnership is particularly noteworthy since it compels each country to come to the aid of the other if their territorial integrity comes under threat. 

Greece strongly opposes Turkey’s drilling for natural gas inside Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), its establishment of an enormous EEZ with Libya and its attempted drilling in disputed waters in the Aegean Sea. The UAE is locked in a region-wide cold war with Turkey and supports Greece in its territorial disputes. 

How substantive their emergent pact will become has yet to be seen at this early stage. 

“At the moment Greek Emirati ties are mostly symbolic,” Ryan Bohl, the Middle East and North Africa analyst for Stratfor, a RANE company, told Ahval. “The most tangible gain for both sides is that they are both appearing to embrace the multilateralism that the United States is now poised to start favouring again with the Biden administration.” 

In Bohl’s view, the creation of a multilateral anti-Turkish bloc, even one in the “symbolic diplomatic sphere,” will provide both the incoming Biden administration and the European Union “with alternative frameworks to try to counter Turkish behaviour that is seen as destabilising”. 

“However, Turkey remaining a NATO member state means that the military value of such agreements are minimal,” he said. 

George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the Centre International de Formation Européenne and research associate at the Begin Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies (BESA), noted that Greece’s foreign policy is grounded in “good relations with regional actors and schemes of regional cooperation”. 

“The cooperation with the UAE has flourished in the last year, especially because the UAE has criticised the Turkish-Libyan MoU (memorandum of understanding) on maritime zones,” Tzogopoulos told Ahval, referring to the joint statement issued by Greece, Cyprus, France, Egypt, and the UAE back in May. 

“Also, both sides supported General Khalifa Haftar in the Libyan civil war,” he said. “The training of Greek and Emirati F-16 fighters - with Crete as their base - last August is indicative of solidarity.” 

While Tzogopoulos believes it is positive that Greece’s foreign policy is multidimensional, he stressed that this cannot solve Greece’s ongoing maritime disputes with Turkey. Consequently, he believes that Greece should undertake the diplomatic initiative of beginning dialogue with the aim of delimiting the continental shelf. 

“Without a solution to this problem, tensions will be continuously on the rise in the eastern Mediterranean,” he said, adding that the October Special EU council clarifies that Greek-Turkish dialogue and exploratory talks will only cover maritime zones. 

“So, Athens needs to benefit and define itself diplomatic developments,” he added. “Even the East Mediterranean Gas Forum can become more inclusive - on the initiative of Greece - should Turkey respect the rules set by the majority.” 

Analysts at the Ankara-based BlueMelange, an independent research group of Turkish Defence News, believe this latest pact is “much more complex” than the Israel-Greece-Cyprus tripartite defence and security agreement reached in September.

“According to our analysis, this deal may pave the way for some important arms sales and purchase contracts next year,” they told Ahval. 

Greece is presently seeking to upgrade its military arsenal, particularly its warships and older fighter jets. BlueMelange anticipates the UAE sponsoring some of these upgrades.

Lockheed Martin is already upgrading most of the Hellenic Air Forces’ F-16 fleet. According to Lockheed, when these upgrades are complete, Greece will operate the most advanced F-16s in Europe. The U.S. Congress has blocked upgrades for Turkey’s F-16 fleet since mid-2018

Greece is also buying additional advanced aircraft. France has agreed to sell it 18 formidable 4.5 generation Dassault Rafale multirole fighters – 12 of which are ex-French Air Force while the other six will be brand new. Greece is also requesting fifth-generation stealthy F-35 Lightning II fighter jets from the United States. Athens wants a hastened delivery of these sophisticated fifth-generation warplanes since it expressed its willingness to buy second-hand versions

Turkey, on the other hand, was suspended from the F-35 program last year for purchasing Russian S-400 air defence missiles. 

The UAE, which already operates the most advanced variant of the F-16 in the world, is also presently seeking to procure 50 F-35s and 18 armed Reaper drones from the United States. 

The BlueMelange analysts pointed out that the UAE also operates a sizable fleet of French-built Dassault Mirage 2000-9 multirole fighters that are very similar to the Hellenic Air Force’s fleet of Mirage 2000-5s. The Emirati Mirages are presently being modernised under a $929 million deal signed back in November 2019 that will see them equipped with more sophisticated French weapons and electronics. BlueMelange predicts the UAE will transfer them to Greece if and when it acquires the 50 F-35s it ordered from the U.S.

“The most obvious candidate for future ex-UAE Mirage 2000-9s is, of course, Greece,” they said. 

The analysts also predict that under this new agreement, Greece may sign new contracts to equip its F-16 and Mirage 2000 fleets with weapons supplied by the UAE before taking delivery of F-35s and Rafales. 

“At the end, we at BlueMelange, predict strong defence cooperation between Greece and Turkey consisting of expeditionary deployments of UAE fighter jets to Crete and defence contracts for the supply of Emirati weapons to the Hellenic Air Force,” they said. 

“On the other hand, we also forecast that UAE will transfer its entire, and very modernised, deadly Mirage 2000-9 fleet to Greece.” 

Overall, the analysts believe the “core” of this new Greece-UAE agreement “is based on French geopolitics, U.S. approval, and opposition to Turkish expansion.” 

“This win-win alliance is only part of a huge anti-Turkish pact, unfortunately,” they said. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.