Saudi-Greek military relations: Going strategic?

  1- Saudi-Greek ties have reached a historical high in the past year, resulting in joint military exercises and defense cooperation. The increased Riyadh-Athens relations are mainly driven by the countries’ shared interest to counter Turkey. Besides Saudi Arabia, Greece has been cultivating close relations with its “protectorate” Cyprus, and Mediterranean Sea neighbours – Egypt and, separately, Israel – but also with the UAE. All of these partnerships are defined or exacerbated by Turkey’s growing ambitions. 

TURKEY: THE SHARED THREAT

a) With Saudi Arabia: While not historically hostile, the current rift in Saudi-Turkish relations stems from the Arab Spring and Turkey’s support for Qatar in the Gulf dispute. Turkey (alongside Qatar) is the main sponsor of the Muslim Brotherhood – an Islamist organization that gained influence during the Arab Spring anti-government protests, and that is currently designated as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Saudi Arabia and Turkey had also competed for influence in the Syrian Opposition and were backing different sides in the Libyan Civil War.

b) With Greece: Turkey is Greece’s historical archenemy. Greece and Turkey have openly clashed over Cyprus in 1974 and have an unresolved maritime territorial dispute in the Aegean Sea for decades. The Greek-Turkish rivalry flares up periodically resulting in mock dogfights and non-kinetic maritime clashes. The latest Greek-Turkish tensions spiked due to Turkey’s gas exploitation in Cypriot waters, which Athens views as a violation of the sovereignty of the Republic of Cyprus.  

THE SAUDI-GREEK RESPONSE: FORGING AN ALLIANCE

  2- While historically distant and dull, Saudi Arabia and Greece have formed an unlikely alliance in the span of a few months. In 2021, Saudi Arabia and Greece have done more for their bilateral relations than in the past 90 years. 

a) Early signs that Saudi-Greek ties are accelerating appeared in 2017 when Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos visited King Salman in Riyadh. Both leaders described the visit as a historical turning point. The visit has undoubtedly laid the political groundwork for the current military cooperation and resulted in further diplomatic engagement in 2019 and 2020. 

b) February 2020: Greece announced that it will deploy some of its Patriot air defense systems to Saudi Arabia under a program involving the United States, the United Kingdom and France. The announcement came as the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was on a Middle East tour for investment talks with the Saudi and Emirati governments. The Greek government said that discussions about Patriot deployments to Saudi Arabia began in October 2019. 

c) March 2021: the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) deployed for the first time to Greece to participate in Falcon Eye, a joint drill with the Hellenic Air Force in Souda Bay. At the same time, a Saudi military delegation headed by Chief of Staff of the Saudi Armed Forces General Fayyadh Al-Ruwaili arrived in Greece for talks. 

d) April 2021: Greece and Saudi Arabia signed a defense agreement, the first in the history of bilateral relations, for Athens to lease Patriot air defense systems to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia sought the Patriot lease to cover some of the gap that will result from the planned US withdrawal of air defenses (Patriots and THAADs) from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh will reportedly not only finance the deployment and the support teams, but will also upgrade the Patriots for Greece. 

e) September 14, 2021: Greece delivered a Patriot air defense system to the Kingdom as well as 120 soldiers to work the weapons system. The Greek Patriots will reportedly remain in the country for an undetermined period of time, and will be used to strengthen Saudi air defenses, particularly at energy infrastructure sites. The deployment came less than a week after the US withdrew its own Patriots and THAADs from Saudi Arabia.

f) September 21, 2021: a team from the Royal Saudi Land Forces (RSLF) arrived in Greece to participate in a four-way multinational exercise of special operations with the Greek Special Operations Forces. The participating RSLF force consists of troops from the paratrooper units, as well as the security forces. The UAE and Egyptian special forces are also participating in the quadruple exercise.

FUTURE SAUDI-GREEK RELATIONS: GOING STRATEGIC OR TAPPING THE BREAKS? 

 3- Major efforts are underway to reconcile Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt with Turkey and Qatar. While there are signs of initial success, there is a long road ahead paved with heavy obstacles. In addition, Saudi Arabia has taken the “backseat” so far in interacting with Turkey as opposed to Abu Dhabi which seems more determined to normalize relations with Ankara. 

 4- Strong Saudi-Greek bonds will likely persist despite the ongoing Arab re-rapprochement efforts with Turkey. Saudi-Greek ties might lose momentum if a breakthrough is achieved between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, but it is unlikely that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz will pause the cooperation prematurely. 

 5- Should the course remain, Saudi Arabia will very likely form a strategic partnership with Greece and become the newest addition of the Hellenic-Gulf alliance against Turkey. With Greek Patriots on Saudi soil and periodic Saudi-Greek drills underway, there is great potential for defense, industrial and energy cooperation between Riyadh and Athens.

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