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Friendship forum
Published in Ahram Online on 16 - 02 - 2021

On 11 February Greece hosted the Philia Forum, a conference which brought together the foreign ministers of Cyprus, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Iraq, and the minister of state for international cooperation of the United Arab Emirates. The French foreign minister participated via video link.
Held in Athens, the Philia Forum — its full title includes the coda “Building Friendship, Peace and Prosperity from the Mediterranean to the Gulf” — allowed for an exchange of views on development in the Mediterranean and Gulf region, and ways to foster greater cooperation, stability, and better use of the region's resources. Philia is the Greek word for friendship.
“Egyptian-Greek-Cypriot cooperation is the core that could be expanded to include Gulf states which share close ties and common interests in maintaining Arab national security, and a joint vision of cooperation and regional challenges”, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said in a phone interview following the conference.
With the charter of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), signed in September, due to be activated on 1 March, and the likely establishment of the Cyprus-based Tripartite Secretariat this spring, meetings like the Philia Forum provide an opportunity to improve cooperation within the Mediterranean region not over natural gas, but also on issues directly linked to security and stability.
“The forum paves the way for wider cooperation between states in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf, which explains Turkey's angry reaction to the convening of the meeting,” said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry described the forum as “hostile”. The Turkish daily Sabah reported the Turkish Foreign Ministry saying in a written statement that “the Greek foreign minister's accusatory and slanderous remarks at the meeting in Athens indicate this enterprise is not about friendship.”
“Tense relations with Turkey will not be the only area of difficulty facing the EMGF. Israel's relations with other member states, especially Palestine and Lebanon, which is expected to join the EMGF at some point, will place obstacles before the fledgling body,” said the diplomat.
Major natural gas finds off the coasts of Egypt, Cyprus, Israel, and Lebanon have made cooperation between the gas-producing countries increasingly necessary. Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus agreed to establish the EMGF in 2018. The forum was formed in January last year and its charter signed by its founding members — Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine — in September.
The forum is open to all countries that share the same values and goals and have the desire to cooperate more closely on regional security and prosperity.
EMGF is in many ways an offshoot of earlier tripartite gatherings of Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus, and the launch of the Cyprus-based Tripartite Secretariat this spring will provide another tool for cooperation among the three countries.
The foreign ministers of the three countries held a tripartite meeting on the sidelines of the Philia Forum during which they demanded respect for the sovereign rights of states in their maritime areas in the Eastern Mediterranean, sending a clear message to Turkey.
The three ministers issued a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the UN Charter, as well as the principle of good neighbourly relations between countries in the region.
The joint statement also allowed the three countries to reiterate their position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict: the statement posited a two-state solution as an indispensable requirement for comprehensive peace and stability in the region, and also insisted political solutions to the crises in Libya and Syria were necessary to preserve regional stability.
On Libya, the three ministers said any foreign intervention was unacceptable, and agreements concluded in violation of international law were void. They also reaffirmed their commitment to the unity, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria, and support for a permanent political settlement of the Syrian crisis in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
The growth in cooperation between Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus dates back to the meeting between the three countries' foreign ministers on the margins of the 2013 and 2014 UN General Assembly. The meetings quickly turned into a broad alliance fostering cooperation across a range of economic, political, and strategic interests. Seven summit meetings have since taken place, the first in Cairo in 2014. It was during the sixth summit in Crete in 2018 that the three countries decided to found the EMGF.
Shoukri held two bilateral meetings with his Greek and Cypriot counterparts on the sidelines of the Philia Forum. During his meeting with Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides, the two ministers expressed their satisfaction with the quick ratification of the founding charter of the EMGF, and agreement on its entry into force next month.
In his meeting with the Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias, a number of regional files were discussed alongside bilateral relations.
“The two ministers addressed ways to support the flow of mutual investments between the two countries and to overcome any obstacles that companies face,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ahmed Hafez.
In August, Egypt and Greece signed a maritime demarcation agreement which established an exclusive economic zone between the two countries. Ankara rejected the demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus and threatened to pursue plans to drill for gas in Cypriot waters.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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