Alwaght- Following tensions between Greece and Turkey over some disputed oil and gas-rich islands, some regional actors have stepped in and took side of one of these two countries. Saudi Arabia announced that its air forces takes part in the Eagle Eye 3 air drills that started from November 7 and will continue to November 20 at the Souda air base in Greece.
A senior Saudi air force official said that Eagle Eye 3 is one of the “promising bilateral air exercises” between the two countries, the previous rounds of which have been successful at all strategic, operational, and tactical levels. Round 1 and 2 of the military drills were hosted in March and May 2021, respectively by Souda and King Faisal air bases.
The cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Greece has been growing several years, and in September, the Chief of Staff of the Greek military announced the deployment of the Patriot air defense system by this country in Saudi Arabia. After the visit of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Athens later in July, many contracts were signed in various economic, military, and energy fields, signaling that their relations are improving day by day. During this trip, the two sides also signed a pact to establish a bilateral strategic partnership council.
In recent years, the Saudi military has held numerous exercises with its Western and regional partners to improve the level of readiness of its forces, but such exercises have not made it any stronger, and according to the reports, even in Yemen war, many airstrikes on Yemeni positions by F-15 fighter jets are conducted by pilots hired from Egypt, Pakistan, and the US.
Saudi Arabia's participation in the joint exercises with Greece is at a time Turkey and Greece have been in severe tensions with each other in recent months and there is a possibility of a military conflict between the two sides at any moment. Turkish officials, especially President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have repeatedly warned foreign parties against supporting Athens.
Turkish and Greek officials flex muscles for each other every day and accuse each other of warmongering in the disputed areas. Therefore, the presence of Saudi Arabia in the air force drills with Greece means facing off Turkey, and this issue can affect the relations between the two countries. Though Ankara has not commented on the military drills yet, Erdogan had expressed his regret that Saudi Arabia hosted the exercises last year.
After Erdogan's visit to the Arab kingdom and the improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia after several years of tensions, it was expected that the relations between the two sides would improve, but it seems that despite the rapprochement, the competition between Riyadh and Ankara to play the leadership role in the region continues and Ankara's diplomatic efforts have not been able to satisfy the Saudis.
Despite the measures to reconcile, Saudi officials maintain their discontentment to Turkey's regional policies in the past decade, especially in the Qatar crisis, where Ankara went all out to support Doha against the blockading countries. The Saudis know very well that any military cooperation with Greece in the current conditions will cause Ankara's anger, but with aggravation of the security mystery in the Persian Gulf, especially with the diminution of the American role, Riyadh tends to create a balance with rivals such as Turkey and this approach led to formation of a new regional alliance with the participation of the Israel and even Greece. The main reason for Erdogan's regional policy U-turn in the past months and improvement of relations with Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi was to prevent the formation of such a coalition, according to analysts.
Qatar stands by Turkey
While Saudi Arabia has chosen Greece to develop military cooperation with in the Mediterranean region, there are some Arab monarchies that stand by Ankara. Qatar is one of them. Earlier in October, Qatar agreed to deploy 36 fighter aircraft to Turkey for training needs. According to the agreement, Qatari fighter pilots will be trained in Turkey and 250 Qatari military forces and 36 training fighters will be deployed in Turkey. Turkish media reported that development of bilateral military relations was the main aim behind the agreement and is part of the developing military partnership between the two allies.
When Saudi Arabia and its allies severed relations with Qatar and imposed an air, sea, and ground blockade on it in 2017, Ankara stood by Doha in full force and even deployed troops to the small monarchy to defend its ally against possible invasion. The move paved the way for establishing a Turkish military base in Qatar that is facilitating broader partnership. Also as part of this partnership, more than 3,000 Turkish riot police are to be sent to Qatar to help secure stadiums and hotels as Qatar nears opening World Cup 2022. The forces would work under the orders of Erdogan's government.
Evidence shows that maritime disputes with Greece are the main drivers for Erdogan to boost his country's military. Having in mind that the US is procrastinating on the sale of F-16 fighters jets to Turkey but at the same time is providing the same aircraft to Greece, the presence of dozens of Qatari warplanes can greatly help the Turkish air force in the event of a war with Greece. Some of Turkey's fighter jets are old generation and worn out, and amid despair to receive new jets from Washington, Ankara has reached out to Doha to use Qatari fighters if necessary to advance its goals against Greece.
Observers suggest that one of the key aspects of military partnership with Qatar is that the Turkish pilots will have an exceptional chance to get knowledge on the French Rafale warplanes. In January, Greece took delivery of the first batch of 18 Rafale jets it ordered from France and since Qatar has the same aircraft, the Turks can know further on them and develop readiness to counter possible Greek attacks.
Since the borders of Turkey and Greece are mostly maritime, and since the two countries do not have powerful navies, air force will be effective in a possible conflict, and a country more powerful than its rival in air force can end the war in its favor. This is why Turkish fighters have tried to show off their power by flying over disputed islands in recent months, though Greece scrambled its fighter to take them on. Holding air exercises with the participation of Saudi Arabia also shows that the role of the air force will be far greater than other forces should a conflict erupt.
Since Greece and Turkey are both NATO members, according to the military bloc's charter, the Western countries cannot provide military aids to either of the two countries in bilateral confrontation. So, each country is trying to strengthen its position by getting support from the wealthy Arab monarchies that are unwilling to play a role in the dispute due to their competitions.
Although Saudi Arabia and Qatar reconciled two years ago, their involvement in opposite fronts demonstrates that rivalry and regional differences between them remain in place.