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Philia Forum must be more than a talking shop

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By Cyril Widdershoven 

The supra-regional meeting between Foreign Ministers of East Med and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in Athens was a media success. 

In a joint declaration, Greece, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Cyprus, France, and Egypt, all committed to establishing a framework to discuss common interests and concerns related to sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference, and freedom of navigation. 

The participants explicitly referred to International Law, UN Security Council Resolutions, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). 

Diplomatically, all participants, including France, reiterated they are willing to put in place result-oriented exchanges, joint actions, and initiatives in the sectors of energy, innovation, digital economy, and civil protection. 

Such diplomatic talk only slightly hides the underlying concern that the parties have been focusing on. 

Taking out the COVID-19 pandemic, economic crisis scenarios or intercultural exchanges from the conundrum. The main issues the Forum has to focus on are the increasing regional and external factors they are facing. 

The East Med crisis with Turkey, the partly unfinished Qatar crisis, or the clear and present danger to regional maritime waters (East Med, Suez Canal, and the Red Sea), are the main building blocks for the Philia Forum set-up. 

Arguably, the East Med Gas Forum, officially an energy get-together, but increasingly a security-related organization, and the Saudi-Egyptian led Red Sea Alliance, targeting maritime security issues too, are the real building blocks for future success. 

The new Philia Forum brings sides to the table to discuss the ones left out, Turkey, Qatar. 

Increased supra-regional cooperation, based on economic, political and security cooperation is the right approach. 

All parties involved are refocusing their Post-Corona strategies on further expanding maritime logistics and energy integration. 

To make this a functional approach, Israel should have been included officially. 

By not integrating Israeli maritime and security issues in the overall approach, the Forum’s legs are wobbly. 

As Israel is part of the EMGF and is setting up full integration with the Abraham Agreement’s Arab GCC counterparts, its role is clear and pivotal. 

Saudi objections are known, but the reality on the ground is already much deeper than what has been scratching the media surface. 

Two central pillars of the Philia Forum need to be addressed openly to make it a new Bridge, not only to Africa but between EU-NATO, the Arab World. 

By combining security and energy, based on maritime and economic aspects, a functional approach is possible. 

Discussions need to be clear, and functional, not focusing on too many issues. 

For all parties, including Israel, Jordan or even other GCC members, the first steps need to be rational, linked to existing frameworks, geopolitical realities, and possibly even existing economic links. 

The involvement of GCC countries in economies of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus is already a building block. 

This could even lead to the involvement of Qatar, if other issues are solved, as Doha is already investing in Greece, Egypt, and offshore East Med. 

To stay a discussion forum is just for the media, real action needs to be taken, otherwise, it is just another one on the list. 

To address encroaching global powers, especially China and Russia, should also be taken into account. 

Freedom of Navigation is at play, as China is increasingly interested in setting up shop in East Med or Red Sea ports. 

Russia’s military engagement is already a concern for most, so the action is clear to most. 

European or NATO cooperation will be necessary too, as several parties are member states of the latter. 

Emphasis should also be put on integrating not only France but additionally Italy and the UK. 

A first step has been taken right now, sending signals to the perceived adversaries. Action needs to strengthen the legs of the Forum too. 

Cyril Widdershoven is Global Head of Strategy, Berry Commodities Fund