Even that the supra-regional meeting of between East Med and GCC countries last week Thursday in Athens has been a media success, analysis has been partly flawed if not taking into account the main underlying security and economic conflicts of the two or even three regions. Since the 1990s, the East Med – Red Sea and Gulf areas have become a major conflict arena, in which not only EU – Arab interests, US – Russia but also Turkey and China are playing a role. The security and economic interests of two main regions, EU – MENA, is put in the limelight, but not in the right setting.
As stated in the joint declaration by Greece, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Cyprus, France and Egypt, the official goals of the Philia Forum are to discuss common interests and concerns related to sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference and freedom of navigation. In the statement, the participants explicitly referred to International Law, UN Security Council Resolutions and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but have diplomatically forgotten to explicitly make clear which issues are on the table. In a very diplomatic way, all participants, including France, reiterated that they are willing to put in place result-oriented exchanges, joint actions and initiatives in the fields of energy, innovation, digital economy and civil protection, but have been only hiding the real underlying concerns. If the Philia Forum is going to be a new bridge between Europe, Middle East and Africa, as some have vividly stated, the main focus will not have to be on the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis scenarios or intercultural exchanges, but on the increased regional and international external factors that all invited regional actors are currently facing.
While looking at the main line-up of parties involved, the East Med crisis with Turkey, the still partly unfinished Qatar crisis or the clear and present danger to regional maritime waters (East Med, Suez Canal and Red Sea), are the main building blocks for the Philia Forum set up. Without even assessing the dramatic changes currently taking place inside of most of Forum’s participants, a single red line is already clearly visible. Future economic development could and will be constrained if global and regional logistics are threatened. For all, the role of offshore security, especially in the Red Sea, East Med and Gulf region, is pivotal for their future. An increasing amount of literature is being produced to address some of the specifics, such as Suez Canal, Bosphorus or Strait of Hormuz, but forgets mostly that regional actors depend on accessibility and freedom of navigation for their economic plans and future. While more than 80% of global trade and commodities is maritime bound, for most Forum countries it constitutes a lifeline, not only for oil, gas or commodities exports, but simply said for bread and butter. With a dependency above 80% for food and feedstock imports, the region is very volatile.
The media focus on energy and investments, as purported by the Forum, only takes attention away from clear security related points to be discussed and solved asap. Some have already indicated that the East Med Gas Forum, officially an energy get-together, but increasingly a security related organization, and the Saudi-Egyptian led Red Sea Alliance, targeting maritime security issues too, are the real building blocks for future success. As old-school analysts, or realists, will stated clearly, oil / energy = politics = energy / oil. This still is the case, whatever global warming or energy transition holds for all, hydrocarbons are still ruling and shaping politics, especially in this Philia Forum set up.
Some seem now to have identified that there is growing need but also oppor-tunity for power players to come together. The former Clash of Civilizations, as indicated by Huntington and others, in which a direct Europe – Arab World confrontation is an option, seems now to be shifting by the emergence of new global and regional power players. Turkey is clearly a central issue for all, as Ankara’s geopolitical and military power projections are rechanging the regional set-up dramatically. US – Russian rivalry, Trumpism and Putin has also had its impact, as unforeseen diplomatic moves and realignments are taking place at present.
Still under assessed or politically forgotten is the role of others, such as the re-emergence of Russia as a strong power player, able to offset US – EU projects in the area. The main hidden Tiger is China, as the latter is moving around its Mahjong pieces, without showing military strength, but only economic interests. The Philia Forum should and could be the ultimate forum to discuss the future of China in the arena, and potentially confronted the encroachment of Chinese military or naval powers in formerly non-Chinese waters. Since the last 4-5 Centuries, no Chinese naval forces have been seen in most of them. By promoting Chinese investments or outright acquisition of European an MENA ports, a new strategic situation is set up under the sleeping eyes of most participants. China’s One Belt One Road is not a Marshall Plan 2.0, but a clear Chinese power strategy to force new alliances without direct military intervention. The latter however will not be excluded, but is not written down in normal print.
* Geopolitical disruptive thinker, focused on Commodities, Geopolitics, MENA and Security. Assessing investments, FDI, SWFs, Key-Stakeholders and power players in MENA, EastMed and Central Asia.