The Water Wars Defining Middle East Future

The Reshaping of MENA Geopolitical Coalitions and Military Strategies
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia. (Getty)

Armed conflicts are not new to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. It is the only region in the world where people, on daily basis, witness stories of territorial disputes, civil wars, proxy wars, and the non-ending cycle of the rise and fall of terrorist organizations of different shapes, names, and sizes. However, the emerging era of water wars in the MENA region is expected to be the worst of all. That is not only because of the urgency of water resources to human life, but also because these water conflicts have become a determining factor in shaping regional geopolitical coalitions and military strategies of the entire MENA region.   

The Essence of MENA Water Wars

In their essence, the current wars over water resources in the MENA region are not as shallow as being motivated by the scarcity of clean water or the unfair delineation of maritime zones. This is only the thin surface of the problem. Most of these conflicts are purposefully stirred up as part of greater political and economic schemas. That make them more complicated and dangerous. In that sense, water wars in the MENA region can be identified into two main categories.

The first category is the ‘hydro-political’ conflicts, where countries with natural control over the water resource use their geographic advantage to stress targeted countries into producing a certain political or diplomatic reaction that enhances the geopolitical or military objectives of the offender country. A good example on this is the current Euphrates-Tigris conflict between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria. Another interesting example is the decades-long conflict over the Jordan River between Israel and Arab neighbors.

The second category is ‘hydro-energy’ conflicts. They are the conflicts initiated in water basins, in pursuit of the energy resources embedded in or generated by the power of these waters. A prominent live example on this is the conflict over maritime zones demarcation in the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. Another important case to monitor, in this regard, is the growing conflict over the Blue Nile River between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. However, the Nile River conflict is a bitter fit for the hydro-political category as we will explain in more details below. 

To understand the complexity of hydro-political and hydro-energy wars and the threat they pause to the MENA region, let’s zoom in the map on Egypt, which is currently stuck between two hydro battles that are defining the future of the Middle East. One of them is at the north, where the century-old conflict in the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus has been boiling for a while. The other one is in the south, where a potential war between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia is currently brewing.

A picture taken on September 25, 2019 in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Cyprus approximately 20 nautical miles (37 kilometers) north-west of Paphos, shows a Turkish army frigate, the TCG Gelibolu, (R) and the drilling vessel Fatih (L), which was deployed by Turkey to search for gas and oil in waters considered part of the EU state's exclusive economic zone (EEZ). (Getty)

The Hydro-energy Conflict in Eastern Mediterranean

In the past three years, the conflict between Turkey and Greece, in the eastern Mediterranean reached a peak point that pushed MENA countries, especially from North Africa and the Arab Gulf region, to intervene. In December 2019, Turkey signed a military agreement and a maritime agreement with the former Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). On one hand, the maritime agreement allowed Turkey to maneuver the international laws and access the maritime zones disputed with Greece, in search for hydrocarbon (natural gas). This was seen by Greece as a threat to its economic interests and national security. On the other hand, the military agreement allowed Turkey to send military troops and mercenaries to Tripoli. This was seen by Egypt as a threat to its national security, mainly because of the animosity that aroused between Turkey and Egypt, after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime from power in Egypt, in 2013.

As a result, Egypt and Greece signed an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) agreement, in August 2020, to deter the common threats represented by Turkey. For decades, out of respect to brotherly relations with Turkey, Egypt used to turn down Greece requests to sign an EEZ agreement. In addition, Egypt cooperated with Greece, Cyprus, and Israel on establishing the EastMed Gas Organization, which purposefully excluded Turkey, despite being the country with the longest border in the Mediterranean, because of its unpleasant record of regional conflicts, especially with the Mediterranean countries forming the organization.

Thus, Egypt, whether like it or not, found itself part of the conflict in the Mediterranean, which in the summer of 2020 turned into a basin of war with foreign warships and fighter jets, coming from all over the world, under the guise of performing military drills. Under this chaotic scene, Egypt participated in a record number of naval exercises, mostly in the Mediterranean, with France, Spain, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. In the same year, the Egyptian navy traveled to maritime basins, as far as the Black Sea, for a joint exercise with Russia. In the process, Egypt has been working hard to upgrade its naval fleet. According to the Global Firepower ranking for 2021, Egypt has become the 7th out of 140 countries, in terms of navy fleet strength, while Turkey remained in the 20th position of the same index.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (L) welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at the Maximos Mansion in Athens, on November 11, 2020. (Getty)

Egypt’s forced involvement into the Mediterranean conflict pushed Arab Gulf countries, like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar to diplomatically and militarily intervene. Saudi Arabia and UAE took the side of Greece, in an effort to deter the Turkish threat on the security and sovereignty of Arab countries, particularly Libya. Several military and naval exercises were conducted between Greece, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, which Turkey found offensive. On the flip side, Qatar intervened in the Mediterranean conflict in support of its ally Turkey and also to challenge Saudi and UAE due to diplomatic tensions that separated them for about four years. The role played by Arab countries in the Mediterranean conflict did not only alter its outcomes, but also enhanced the military capabilities and reshaped geopolitical coalitions of the Arabs with European and north African countries. In January 2021, Saudi, UAE, and Egypt reconciled with Qatar under Al-Ula Declaration. This also encouraged the start of rapprochement effort between Turkey and Egypt. When actualized, Turkey-Egypt cooperation may change the entire balance in the Mediterranean conflict, for decades to come.

The Hydro-political conflict on the Nile River

Simultaneously, in the south, Egypt is directly involved in a fast-growing conflict with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which was illegally built in 2010. Ironically, Turkey and Arab Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, have an influence on this critical conflict that affects, not only the immediate security of eastern African countries, but also the global trade movement, which depends on the Red Sea.

Since the 1970s, Ethiopia has always dreamt about building a huge dam on the Blue Nile, but it always feared military retaliation from Egypt. In April 2011, Ethiopia took advantage of Egyptian state weakness following the Arab Spring revolution, and unilaterally decided to build the GERD. Ethiopia justifies building the dam saying it will generate electricity for more than 65% of the population. The Ethiopian state, also, sells a strange lie to the Ethiopian people claiming that Ethiopia owns the water of the Nile, because “God makes the Nile spring in their land.” Accordingly, they believe that they can hold the Nile water behind a dam and sell it to other countries, the same way Arab Gulf countries are selling oil and petroleum resources extracted from their lands.

However, the core of Ethiopia’s insistence on challenging Egypt on this matter is that it serves the interests of the political elite and improves their chances of winning the elections. In other words, Ethiopian politicians are benefiting from keeping this hydro-political conflict going without a resolution. The failed negotiations between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, in Congo’s capital city of Kinshasa, in early April, was the latest in a long list of failed negotiations, that has been going on for ten years. Apparently, Ethiopia purposefully used these negotiations to waste time until they get the dam completely built and filled. They used negations, also, as an excuse to prevent Egypt from requesting the intervention of the international community, especially the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), to force Ethiopia sign an internationally recognized agreement that protects Egypt and Sudan’s share in the water resources of the Nile River.

Since the beginning of 2021, Egypt has been taking real steps towards validating the option of going to war with Ethiopia if it continues to ignore Egypt’s water security concerns. In mid-March, the Egyptian President signaled a clear warning to Ethiopia that “if negotiations fail, all other options are open for Egypt to take, including options that may threaten the security and stability of the region.” In March, Egypt signed a military cooperation agreement with Sudan that allows the two countries to join forces in face of regional threats. On the same month, Egypt and Sudan conducted a number of joint military exercises at Merwoe military base, in southern Sudan, close to Ethiopia’s GERD. In late May, Egypt and Sudan conducted another military exercise in southern Sudan, wherein Egypt used land forces and advanced aviation equipment. Observers saw this particular exercise, named “Nile Protectors” as a warning message to Ethiopia, which was scheduled to fill in GERD with some 30 billion cubic meters, in early June. Meanwhile, Egypt signed other military cooperation agreements with Uganda, Kenya, and Burundi, which is believed to be used in action if Egypt decided to go to war.

Armed forces of Egypt and Sudan complete a joint military exercise in southern Kardavan province, Sudan on May 31, 2021. (Getty)

Should an armed conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia erupts, it will not only affect the security of Africa but also the security of the Middle East and the economic interests of Europe. Yet, the international community seems to be less concerned with resolving the conflict before it escalates to a point of actual war. The United States, which mediated in the conflict under the Trump Administration, withdrew itself from the negotiations under the Biden Administration. In a recent phone call with the Egyptian President, in early June, the President of the European council showed support to Egypt’s fight for water security, but said the conflict with Ethiopia is an issue to be handled by the African Union. China, which is the biggest investor in Ethiopia’s operational capital, has declined Egypt’s requests to intervene to pressure Ethiopia. China has a similar conflict with neighbor countries over the Mekong River. Russia ignored Egypt’s request to mobilize the UNSC to intervene as a mediator. In a recent visit to Cairo, the Russian Foreign Minister said that he appreciates the criticality of the GERD issue for Egypt, but thinks that “it is an African matter that should be solved through the African Union.” Unfortunately, the African Union, which has been mediating between Egypt and Ethiopia for years has not succeeded in moving things in the right direction.

In March, almost all Arab countries, except UAE and Qatar, showed support to Egypt and Sudan’s position against Ethiopia, by releasing simultaneous press statements confirming that Egypt’s national security is integral to the Arab security. UAE offered to intervene as an international mediator if all parties of the conflict agree on its intervention. In May, Qatar started to take actual steps towards helping Egypt with solving the dispute with Ethiopia, in its capacity as the President of the Arab League.

Meanwhile, Turkey signaled that it could intervene as a mediator in the GERD crisis, if Egypt agrees. On March 12th, Erdogan’s special envoy to Iraq said on a televised interview that Turkey is ready to mediate in the GERD, provided that western countries do not intervene, because their intervention may complicate the issue. Turkey enjoys a massive political and economic influence over Ethiopia, that has continued for decades. According to the official data of the Ethiopian Investment Commission, Turkey is the third biggest investor in the operational capital of Ethiopia, after China and Saudi Arabia. However, Egypt has not responded to Turkey’s offer, in order not to influence the cautious process of reconciliation currently happening between them.

Conclusion

Water-related disputes have become the main subject dictating the political and military agenda of the leading countries in the MENA region. That includes the countries immediately involved in the ongoing disputes, and also those who are not directly related but their economic and political well-being depends on the outcomes of such conflicts. As we have seen, Arab Gulf countries are playing central roles in the conflict between Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean, and the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia on the Nile River, despite the fact that none of them is a Mediterranean or a Nile River country. This incongruous situation is forcing the reshaping of regional coalitions, and is creating a cross-border military activity and a race of armament, that the MENA region has not seen since the 1970s.