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EnergySource February 19, 2019

Gas and conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean

By Nael M. Shama

In January, Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in an effort to coordinate energy policies and establish a regional gas market. The group will attempt to develop and organize the region’s rising gas market, allowing its members to tap their vast natural gas resources, and potentially become an exporting hub for Europe. Although the formation of the EMGF may be a step in the right direction, Turkey’s exclusion remains a major stumbling block to the future of energy cooperation in the region. Incorporating Turkey into the Forum will improve EMGF’s prospects of success, although Turkey is unlikely to be invited to join as long as Cyprus remains in the Forum—or without a resolution between the two countries.

The establishment of the EMGF reflects the growing interest of a large number of parties in the hydrocarbons of the Eastern Mediterranean. Massive gas discoveries over the past decade off the shores of Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, estimated by the US Geological Survey at somewhere between 122 and 223 trillion cubic feet (as well as 1.7 billion barrels of oil), indicated that the region has a chance of becoming one of the world’s most significant sources of natural gas over the next few decades.

In response to these important discoveries, Israel is planning to export large quantities of its natural gas to Arab countries, Egypt is striving to become a regional energy hub in the Euro-Mediterranean region, and Cyprus is seeking additional offshore explorations in its economic zone. Lebanon is a latecomer to the natural gas game, but in 2018 it awarded two of its blocks for exploration (expected to begin operations in late 2019). The EMGF is also good news for major oil corporations operating in the region, including Texas-based Noble Energy (working with Israel); Italian corporation Eni (working with Egypt, Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus); and French company Total, the United States’ ExxonMobil, and Qatar Petroleum (all working with Cyprus). ExxonMobil also signed a deal last October with the Cypriot government to carry out explorations off southern Cyprus, and preliminary results were reported to be extremely promising. In the same vein, the British-Dutch company Royal Dutch Shell, Total, and a consortium of South Korean Kogas and Eni have won exploration rights in Cypriot waters. Meanwhile, Eni secured a new exploration license in the East Nile Delta Basin of the Mediterranean.   

However, high levels of cooperation around gas in the Eastern Mediterranean highlight the countries that have been left out of the EMGF (Turkey, as well as Syria and Lebanon), and recent moves by the Turkish government are the latest signs of instability in the Eastern Mediterranean. In response to its exclusion from the group, Turkey conducted live-fire navy exercises in January in an area designated by Cyprus as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and plans to conduct “the largest naval exercise of the past 20 years” in the Aegean, Eastern Mediterranean, and Black Seas in early March. Turkish media say these exercises are intended to “send a message” to the members of the EMGF.

Even prior to its exclusion from the EMGF, tensions were high between Turkey and its neighbors over Eastern Mediterranean resources. Speaking at a military ceremony in Istanbul in November, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that his country would not allow gas extraction plans in the Eastern Mediterranean to materialize if it excluded Turkey and its allies in the Republic of Northern Cyprus. Erdogan expanded on this position, saying, “We do not have an eye on other countries’ rights, laws and territories. We only protect the rights of our country and of our brothers…We will not allow bandits in the seas to roam free just like we made the terrorists in Syria pay.” Erdogan’s rhetoric shows how adamant Turkey is to both obstruct Greece and Cyprus’ hydrocarbon research plans in the region and militarize the dispute, if deemed necessary, to stop them. In December, Turkey issued three navigational telexes designating a sea area for military drills and seismic surveys, apparently designed to dispute the EEZs of Cyprus and Greece. Additionally, local Turkish reports indicated that Ankara is planning to construct a naval base in northern Cyprus in 2019.       

Tensions rose in October when the Turkish navy announced that it had stopped a Greek frigate from “harassing” a Turkish ship conducting seismic surveys west of Cyprus. In response, the US State Department urged Turkey “to refrain from statements and actions that could increase tension” in the area. In December, a Cypriot-Greek-Israeli summit discussed plans for economic cooperation against the backdrop of the three countries’ tensions with Ankara, indicating that they plan to intensify their cooperation over energy security even in the absence of Turkey.

The US has strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and a stake in both the safety of Europe and the uninterrupted flow of energy supplies to its states. And due to the rise of the EMGF as an institutional framework through which regional cooperation can be enhanced and differences can be bridged, US efforts to promote economic cooperation in the region now have a higher chance of success. Optimism should be tempered, however, by caution. Turkey’s exclusion from the EMGF is a significant obstacle that should not be left unaddressed.

Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a researcher and writer on Middle Eastern politics. You can follow him on Twitter @Nael_Shama

Image: Composite image assembled from data acquired by the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (Suomi NPP) satellite over nine days in April 2012 and thirteen days in October 2012 (photo by NASA Earth Observatory/Wikimedia Commons).