The United Arab Emirates is once again deploying its air force in support of allied countries that share its strong opposition to Turkey extending its military reach in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya.
The UAE is presently sending between two and four warplanes to the Greek island of Crete for joint training exercises with the Hellenic Air Force following talks between senior Greek and Emirati military officials.
This isn’t the first time the UAE’s air force participated in military exercises in Greece. In 2019, UAE fighters participated in the Iniohos 2019 exercise, in which Emirati pilots flew alongside their Israeli counterparts, among others.
What’s notable about this deployment, however, is its timing. France has also just sent two Dassault Rafale jets to Crete in a show of support to Greece as its dispute with Turkey over gas and oil exploration and drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean and the delineation of maritime boundaries escalates.
Turkey recently sent warships to escort a research ship for a drilling survey in waters claimed exclusively by Greece.
On August 14, one of these warships suffered a minor collision with a Hellenic Navy warship that the Greek side said was an accident. On August 22, Turkish air and naval forces carried out exercises in the Aegean Sea that included F-16 jets in a show of force.
Turkey has a significantly larger air force than the UAE, as well as Greece, that consists of over 200 F-16s and 40 F-4 Phantoms. The UAE has over 70 F-16s and about 60 French-built Mirage 2000s. While smaller, the Emirati fleet flies more advanced F-16s (the Block 60 one-seater E and two-seater F variants built especially for its air force) than its Turkish counterpart.
Turkey and the UAE have been locked in an increasingly bitter cold war in recent years.
Turkey’s incumbent ruling party, alongside its close ally Qatar, is a strong supporter and patron of Muslim Brotherhood groups across the region. The UAE and Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, strongly oppose the Brotherhood and support regimes that suppress it, such as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime in Egypt. Both countries also began blockading Qatar in July 2017. Turkey and the UAE have also been on the polar opposite sides of regional proxy conflicts, most notably the one in Libya.
The UAE’s decision to send some fighter jets to demonstrate its support of Greece in its dispute with Turkey is another example of Abu Dhabi’s consistent opposition to Ankara’s regional policies in this multi-front cold war.
UAE allies Egypt and France also strongly oppose Turkey’s policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and support Greece. These policies also include Turkey’s drilling for natural gas in the Republic of Cyprus’ economic exclusion zone (EEZ) and its agreement with Libya’s U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to create an EEZ that claims huge swathes of the Mediterranean between their two distant coasts.
In the Libyan conflict, the UAE sent some of its Chinese-built Wing Loong II armed drones to support the GNA’s adversary, the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar. Turkey responded by deploying drones of its own in Libya that decisively helped the GNA turn the tide against LNA, which had hitherto besieged the GNA in the capital Tripoli for 14 months.
UAE fighter jets may well have carried out some airstrikes using its fighter jets during different stages of the Libyan conflict, although this hasn’t been conclusively confirmed.
In early July 2020, Turkey began deploying MIM-23 Hawk medium-altitude air defense missiles in the western GNA-controlled al-Watiya airbase when they were suddenly targeted and damaged in an airstrike. The aircraft that launched that strike likely used standoff missiles to maintain their distance from the base and avoid being shot down, which might also explain the confusion over their origin.
Those jets could well have belonged to the UAE. After all, Abu Dhabi deployed no fewer than six of its Mirage 2000 jets to Sidi Barrani airbase near the Egyptian-Libyan border. UAE Mirages are also known to have come equipped with an export version of the long-range Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile, which could certainly have carried out that kind of strike.
That being said, Egypt also possesses Storm Shadow missiles for its more modern French-built Dassault Rafale jets, so the UAE is certainly not the only possible suspect in that strike.
In early July 2019, almost a year to the day before the al-Watiya attack, a powerful airstrike destroyed a migrant center in Tripoli killing dozens of people. The Interior Minister of the GNA, Fathi Bashaagha, blamed the UAE, claiming it carried out the attack with one of its F-16s.
Even earlier, in 2014, the Pentagon said it believed that Egypt and the UAE had carried out secret airstrikes in Libya, something Cairo and Abu Dhabi denied.
Today, the dire possibility that Turkey and the UAE jets will clash is probably still highly unlikely. Nevertheless, such a possibility cannot be totally dismissed out of hand so long as both rivals continuously find themselves facing each other down in tense flashpoints like the Eastern Mediterranean and volatile conflict zones like Libya.