A new version of Greek-Arab relations

by Antonis D. Papagiannidis

Greek foreign policy had a tradition of Arab-friendly positioning. This was a side-effect of the presence of large Greek communities throughout the Arab world – especially in Egypt – along European colonial rule; but even afterwards, foreign policy followed on the track of Greek trade, shipping and construction companies who had established close relations in the region. Especially from the late Seventies and up to the mid-Nineties, the (initially) radical PASOK/Andreas Papandreou Governments kept close contacts with radical segments of the Arab Umma – ranging from the Yasser Arafat PLO to the Qaddafi regime in Libya; moreover, for quite a long time there were quite cordial relations with the Islamic/post-Khomeini regime of Iran.

This state of play had started to shift once relations between Greece and Israel got closer – increasingly so in the last ten years.

Still, when last week the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain met in Athens in a “Friendship Forum” co-hosted by Greece and Cyprus – France joined via teleconference – the climate was noticeably different. For once, not even a whiff of radical sentiment was on the air. The stated priorities of the Forum – the fight against the pandemic, economic and energy cooperation, tourism, civil protection – sound innocuous enough. But the very fact that the Forum comes as a follow-up to trilateral or quadrilateral relations in the region, such as between Greece, Cyprus and Egypt or between Greece, Cyprus and Jordan (also invited to the Forum), with Israel a close observer when not an outright point to f an embryonic regional stability operation – fondly followed, albeit from a distance, by the US.

The political correctness in international relations prohibits any reference (be it veiled) to the main/effective content of this stability dimension of the Forum, which is no other than the effort to contain the increasingly boisterous presence  of Turkey on the regional chessboard of the Eastern Mediterranean. Were it for such regional meetings to get a more established character, though, this version of Greek-Arab relations might even include an EU-Arab dimension, such as the one that “EU-Arab World Summits” have tried to establish ever since 2016, with the patronage of the European Parliament, at the initiative of the Delphi Economic Forum and the Al-Iktissad Wal-Aamal.