Richard Reeve 

12 September 2019

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This primer explains what presence, relations and obligations the UK military has in the Eastern Mediterranean region, including Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian Territories, Syria and Turkey.


The UK has had a continuous military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean since the 1870s and, despite its retreat from empire in the mid-20th century, retains sovereign territory on Cyprus exclusively for military purposes. Since 2014, RAF Akrotiri has been the UK’s principal base for air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria as well as for the April 2018 air strikes on Syrian government targets. It previously supported British interventions in Libya and Iraq. The region is also a vital staging point for Royal Navy operations in the Persian Gulf and for NATO patrols of waters off Syria, Lebanon and Libya. Conservative-led governments since 2015 have looked to normalise and extend military relations with non-EU states in the region including Egypt, Israel and Turkey. The inclusion of Israeli Air Force jets in RAF-hosted exercises in the UK in September 2019 is the latest example of this active cooperation.

Key Points:

  • Retention of the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs) on Cyprus gives the UK a permanent military and intelligence presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. By 2020 this will be the largest concentration of UK forces outside of mainland Britain.
  • Factors motivating the UK to maintain its regional military presence include ambitions to: protect shipping on the Suez Canal route between Europe and Asia; conduct surveillance of key Middle Eastern states; support military interventions against regional opponents; and control migration into Europe.
  • UK defence obligations in the region are through NATO, the EU and a separate treaty guaranteeing Cyprus’ independence. Israel and Jordan, though widely seen as UK allies, have no defence treaty arrangements with the UK.
  • Military relations between the UK and Egypt and Israel have been quietly stepped up since 2016. British warships now make regular port calls and joint land (Egypt) and air force (Israel) exercises resumed in 2019.
  • British arms exports to the region are relatively minor but there is an ambition to sell more to major arms importers Egypt, Turkey and Israel, which are not under any arms embargoes.


Image credit: Cpl Andy Benson/Wikimedia. 

About the author

Richard Reeve is ORG's Chief Executive and the Director of the Sustainable Security Programme. 

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