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Patricio Martínez

Greece: Back in the Middle East

- After a centuries-long absence, Greece is determined to resume its role in the Middle East.

Greece: Back in the Middle East

The Hellenic presence in the Middle East goes back to the very origins of their civilization. The invasion of the so-called “Sea Peoples” in the 12th century B.C. It can be considered as the beginning of the contacts between the civilizations of the Levant with the Greek. This presence reached its peak with the so-called Hellenistic Period that began with the conquests of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC. until the beginning of the Roman era in the 1st century B.C. The long Hellenic presence in the region was an enormous cultural influence, Greek was for centuries the lingua franca as well as of culture and science.

The loss of independence of what we now call Greece and its subsequent occupation by different nations did not mean the end of Greek cultural influence. Egypt and the nations of the Levant maintained a significant Greek population, and classical Greek philosophical thought always held a prominent place among Middle Eastern thinkers and intellectuals.

In 1821 the revolution against the Ottoman Empire led to the rebirth of an independent Greek state 374 years after the conquest of Constantinople.

The new independent Greece immersed in the era of nationalisms of the 19th century began then with a process of struggles mainly against the Ottomans but eventually also against Bulgaria and Albanian and Macedonian groups in order to create the "Great Greece" or "Megali Idea". with the aim of integrating the former Greek territories into the new independent nation. Although this was finally a relative success, other failures would mark a series of tragic consequences for the thousand-year-old Greek communities in the excluded territories.

The defeat in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) meant the almost total extinction of the Greek population in Anatolia and Pontus, the vast majority of whom were forced to flee to European territory. The rise of pan-Arabism also affected Egyptians of Greek origin, whose origins date back to the time of the Ptolemaic Empire; the so-called Egyptians, were forced to emigrate when President Nasser's nationalization and expropriation policies particularly affected that community (as well as others such as Jews, Armenians, and other communities of European origin). The last blow to the Greek communities would be on the island of Cyprus in 1974, when the Military Junta that ruled Greece carried out a coup attempt against the Cypriot government to unite the island with Greece (Enosis) and cement its popularity. This coup failed and led to the Turkish invasion of the north of the island with the argument of protecting the Turkish Cypriot community. The Greek Cypriots would be displaced to the south and the Turkish Cypriots from the south would be displaced to the north, a situation that continues today.

This failure would be what would lead to the fall of the military dictatorship and the return of democracy to Greece. With the regime change, Athens decided to turn definitively towards Europe and particularly the European integration movement. The country would join the then European Economic Community, being one of the founding states of the European Union and adopting the euro in 2001 (this ended the drachma after 2,600 years of use).

However, the country would face two major challenges that would force a change in Athens' foreign policy beyond the European Union: The economic crisis that began in 2008 and had devastating effects on its economy and, above all, the re-entry of Turkey as hegemonic power in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Under President Erdogan, Turkey has sought to expand its influence in the region, which has been perceived by Greece as aggressive acts that undermine Greek territorial integrity. At the center of all this are the Turkish claims to the Aegean Sea with the aim of expanding its Exclusive Economic Zone, according to Ankara this would extend to about half of what is currently a Greek maritime zone, which, if realized, would it would leave half of the Greek islands under Turkish economic dominance, not to mention some comments from Turkish officials making territorial claims to some of the Greek islands.

Map showing Türkiye's maritime claims.

Turkey's ambitions are not limited to the Aegean and affect Greece's new allies

Seeking to increase its influence in Africa, Turkey signed a maritime boundary agreement with the Libyan faction it supports in that country's civil war, de jure creating a corridor linking the two countries. This of course was unacceptable for Egypt, which supports rival factions and even has part of its exclusive economic zone claimed by Turkey.

Map showing the agreement reached between Turkey and its allies in Libya.

Israel has also been embroiled in disputes with Turkey, a country with which it had good relations for most of its history until the 2010 incident of the Mavi Marmara ship, which was carrying pro-Palestinian activists seeking to enter Gaza. evading the israeli naval blockade, the ship was intercepted and boarded by the israeli navy, beginning a confrontation that left nine dead and dozens injured between activists and israeli sailors. From this moment on, President Erdogan took a more critical position towards Israel, which has hardened over the years and which, despite some attempts to mend relations, has even led to the withdrawal of diplomats and even to open Turkish support for groups. armed Palestinians like Hamas, considered terrorists by Israel.

Even a non-Mediterranean country like the United Arab Emirates has seen in Erdogan a rival that is spreading his influence over the Arab world at an accelerated rate and threatening its strategic interests. This ever-growing list of states that have conflicting interests with Turkey's presented a great opportunity for the Greek political leadership to create a support network to contain Turkish influence in the Mediterranean.

Beginning in 2015, Greece began to move closer to Israel on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, marking a reversal of the traditional Greek policy of distancing from Israel in favor of relations with Arab nations. Over the next five years, ties between the two countries grew closer on the basis of military and energy cooperation. The air and marine forces of both countries have carried out constant military exercises with positive results, often accompanied by forces such as the Egyptians, the French and the Emirati. But it is the energy aspect that has been the foundation of the new Greek-Israeli relations.

The discovery and start of exploitation of natural gas fields off the coast of Israel meant a new energy alternative for Greece, independent of the traditional gas supply routes from Russia and Turkey. Together with Cyprus, the three countries signed a series of agreements culminating in the EastMed Project, a gas pipeline from Israel to Greece via Cyprus, which is projected to be completed by 2025. The three countries also recently announced plans to lay a power cable energy to interconnect their electrical networks. All these projects have been contrary to the interests of Turkey, which has expressed its opposition to them.

Erdogan's aggressive policies have ended up being counterproductive for his country.

Map showing the Turkish claim to the Exclusive Economic Zone of Cyprus as well as the nearby gas fields.

Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have ended up completing Greece's new network of alliances. Athens and Cairo reached an agreement to definitively delimit the border of their exclusive economic zones, this, as can be seen on the map, is in the detriment of Turkey, confining it to a very limited space and that would affect all Turkish attempts at territorial claims. Even if Ankara seeks to restore relations with Egypt, this deal appears to be far more solid than what Erdogan can offer in return.

Map of the Greek-Egyptian agreement on the limits of their Exclusive Economic Zones.

Finally, the United Arab Emirates have begun a great rapprochement with Greece by signing a cooperation agreement in defense and foreign policy. Still a new relationship compared to Israel or Egypt, this new cooperation promises to be highly beneficial to both parties.

After a prolonged slumber, Greece has once again found its place in Mediterranean geopolitics, its strategic position as an alternate gateway to Europe from the Middle East has allowed Athens to create a network of new allies with similar interests and who mainly seek to contain the Turkey's new ambitions. Certainly the Hellenic nation is far from positioning itself as a major power in the area equivalent to Turkey, but with this new strategy it can manage to tip the balance of power in the area in its favor.


    Bianco, Cinzia (2020) Gulf monarchies and the eastern Mediterranean: Growing ambitions. Consultado en:

    Tanchum Michael (2015) A New Equilibrium: The Republic of Cyprus, Israel and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean Strategic Architecture. Consultado en:

    Tziarras, Zanonas (2019) The New Geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean: Trilateral Partnerships and Regional Security. Consultado en:

    Tzogopoulos, George (2020) Greece and the new Middle East. Consultado en

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Martínez, Patricio. “Grecia: De vuelta a Medio Oriente.” CEMERI, 7 sept. 2022,