Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim bin Abdulaziz Al-Assaf on Thursday visited the Greek part of Cyprus for the first time in the history of the two sides’ relations. At a press conference with President Nicos Anastasiades, the top Saudi diplomat said that his country supports Cyprus’s legitimacy and sovereignty.” The controversial visit has triggered criticism from Turkish officials and Media. Many political experts now wonder why the Arab kingdom sent its FM to Cyprus in the current conditions.
Cyprus island is located in the eastern Mediterranean. The island country was under British rule until 1960. It became independent in the same year and the three countries of Turkey, Greece, and Britain guaranteed its sovereignty. In 1974, a Greece-provoked coup toppled the government there. Turkey, one of the guarantors and feeling a duty according to the 1960 pact, sent units of its army to the island state, practically leading to the country dividing into two southern and northern parts. Northern Cyprus has a Turkish majority and accounts for about 30 percent of the whole Cyprus territory. In 1983, it announced independence under the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Turkey was the only country to recognize the new state. In addition to Cyprus’s geostrategic position, the geoeconomic issues, particularly the oil and gas reserves add to the Cyprus cause complexity. The Greek Cyprus seeks attraction of investment to its oil and gas reserves of the neighboring as well as Western countries. Such investment targets two goals: Increasing income for economic prosperity and using energy and economy to tighten its bonds with the other countries in a bid to pave the way for full control of the island.
Egypt and the Israeli regime are open to this policy as they have signed agreements with Cyprus on energy. Saudi Arabia is joining them. A week ago, Riyadh opened its embassy in the capital Nicosia. And now it has sent its FM, driven by a will to join Tel Aviv and Cairo in expanding cooperation with the island state.
The first reason Saudi Arabia is pursuing its policy of presence in Cyprus is a will to curb Turkey in the region and a hope to squeeze Ankara in retaliation to the latter’s media and diplomatic grilling of Saudi Arabia in the case of killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed by a Saudi-sent hit squad at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. The CNN read the Saudi FM’s visit as Saudi firing of a “diplomatic missile” at the Turkish President Recept Tayyip Erdogan. Yasin Oktay, Erdogan’s advisor, in a reaction to the Saudi move said that the problem between Turkey and Saudi Arabia on Khashoggi’s case is not hidden from anybody. But the Turkish stance is never against the kingdom. Rather, it seeks justice. He added that the crime occurred on the Turkish soil and so Ankara held the right to pursue it. “This is not aggression and hostility against Saudi Arabia,” he was quoted as saying.
On the other side, the international organizations since the split made efforts to solve the Cyprus case peacefully. A 10-day conference was held two years ago by the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in Switzerland. It failed to yield any results, however. Only two months after the conference, the Greek Cyprus said it discovered a gas field containing 28 billion square meters of the reserve. Joint drilling between Turkey and northern Cyprus stirred fresh dispute between the two parts of Cyprus. Mustafa Akinci, the president of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, in a letter sent to the Anastasiades via the UN on July 13 proposed a joint committee for cooperation on both sides’ use of hydrocarbon resources of the island. Guterres welcomed the move. Saudi Arabia very likely wants to disrupt cooperation between the two sides and also between Turkey and Greece.
A third goal is to set up an anti-Turkish camp, comprised of Greece, Egypt, the Israeli regime, and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi FM flew to Cyprus from Cairo. This comes while there are challenges ahead of negotiations among Tel Aviv, Beirut, and Nicosia over the distribution of the Mediterranean energy resources. Southern Cyprus president told his Saudi guest that his country was ready to cooperate with Riyadh in defense and security.
Saudi efforts result
There are two major reasons to believe the Saudi attempts to destabilize the eastern Mediterranean are doomed to fail:
1. The major fulcrum of the Saudi policy to cause tensions in varies regions is the ideology. This is while a large part of southern Cyprus is Christian Orthodox and thus has not bonds nor does it have interest in the fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology, a strict version of Islam promoted in many regions to cause division and even devastating conflicts. Over 99 percent of the Turkish Cypriots are Sunnis with a strong ethnic tendency to Turkey. Saudi plots in southern Cyprus can backfire, rendering the Cyprus Muslims abhorrent to Riyadh and strongly open to Turkey.
2. Turkey is the most economical transit route for Cyprus and even Israeli energy to Europe. So, even after oil and gas production, southern Cyprus needs negotiations and agreements with Ankara for exports. Even if Saudi Arabia invests in Cyprus, it will remain short of effective pressure tool against Turkey. Saudi Arabia is, in fact, unable to deal a reciprocal blow to Turkey as the latter did in Khashoggi case. After all, a geopolitical move against Turkey is far from proportionate to Ankara’s pursuit of Khashoggi murder. This signals Saudis running into a political and legal impasse in Khashoggi case. Erdogan’s advisor called the Saudi visit “weird and illogical”, signaling that Ankara is aware of this disproportion.