Middle East North Africa Politics & Diplomacy The Gulf
MENASource April 6, 2021

The Abraham Accords hold the key to Biden’s East Med policy

By Matthew Zais

The East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) held its latest Ministerial in Cairo on March 9, where the United States was formally approved as an official observer. This occurred on the heels of the historic February visit to Israel by Egyptian Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, Tarek El-Molla—the first by an Egyptian minister in fifteen years (with the exception of Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s visit in 2016 to attend former Israeli President Shimon Peres’ funeral). However, what was perhaps most notable from these recent events was the United States’ absence and the underlying question of whether it will continue to advocate domestically and internationally for natural gas to reduce global emissions. 

Minster El-Molla’s strong relationship with his Israeli counterpart, Minster Yuval Steinitz, has essentially paved the way for the EMFG to emerge as the region’s most significant energy partnership—one that hopes to expand beyond natural gas and the Mediterranean. In the final week of the Donald Trump administration in January, then Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette convened a historic meeting of his counterparts. In it, Egypt joined the Abraham Accord signatories—Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)—in what was a first for the region. This occurred in the wake of the historic Abraham Accords energy ministerial in December 2020, when Israel conducted its first official visit to Abu Dhabi to meet with the US, UAE, and Bahrain. Following the larger conference in January, the US formally submitted its request to become an EMGF observer country and provided its first voluntary contribution. 

Energy cooperation in the region continues while the role of natural gas remains under debate, thus, affecting the Biden administration’s ability to conduct international energy diplomacy. For some in the Biden administration, there is less interest in how some fossil fuels—such as natural gas—can achieve climate goals. This philosophy is evident in the administration’s full review of energy projects, including international natural gas engagement and a complete pause on fossil fuel project financing by the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and Export-Import Bank (EXIM). At the same time, some of Biden’s energy experts recognize the critical role natural gas will serve to reduce global greenhouse emissions and how an outright ban or lack of fulsome support for strategically important projects will be counterproductive. In her written confirmation testimony on January 27, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm echoed the previous comments by Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, on the importance of natural gas to achieve global and national climate goals.

The question over the US’s role in the East Med and support for natural gas hasn’t stopped the EMFG from forging ahead. Additionally, El-Molla and Steinitz discussed connecting Israel’s Leviathan natural gas field with Egypt’s liquified natural gas (LNG) facility. This would increase Egypt’s commerciality as a natural gas hub and LNG exporter to provide competitive volumes to southern Europe. The ministers also continued the discussions from December and January to implement a natural gas solution for the Gaza Strip and to reconnect the Mediterranean and the Red Sea with natural gas. The US participated in these discussions for the last three years as it sought to expand the forum to the Red Sea and bring Saudi Arabia to the table. Also, since the Palestinian Authority is a member of the EMFG, the forum provided a valuable avenue to address Palestine’s energy challenges.

The strong Israel-Egypt energy partnership, which is the backbone of the EMGF, is also a warning to Turkey’s efforts to dictate energy terms in the eastern Mediterranean. Turkey’s energy agreement with the Libyan Government of National Accord, the former’s support for the latter, and gunboat diplomacy to prevent Cyprus exploration was seen as a geographic veto on Israel and Cyprus’ vision for an eastern Mediterranean undersea pipeline connection to Europe.

Perhaps most notably, El-Molla’s visit to Israel was a signal to the US that the region intends to advance multilateral energy cooperation regardless of whether the Biden administration continues US support for natural gas. Under this current cloud, it is unclear what role, if any, the US will continue to play in the region’s energy cooperation or the EMGF. This would be a missed opportunity for US leadership to build upon the Abraham Accords in the Middle East, particularly as it seeks to reframe its commitment to the region. 

Conversions from dirty fuels like coal and heavy fuel oil to natural gas are essential but are at odds with any prescription to avoid future fossil fuel development. This dilemma mirrors the European Union’s approach and partly explains its marginal emission decline—an approach that is equally curious given the EU’s simultaneous support for Russia’s Nordstream 2 natural gas pipeline. The Biden administration is now confronting the same reality. Still, the debate over natural gas—between climate idealists and energy realists—threatens to diminish the potential and power of America’s international energy diplomacy.

For these reasons, the recent meeting of EMGF and El-Molla’s historic visit to Israel raises several policy questions. 

First, will the administration embrace natural gas production in the East Med on the energy and geopolitical merits, or view it through a global warming lens that should then be avoided? Although the administration’s initial approach has been to eschew all fossil fuels, fortunately, this isn’t a necessary tradeoff. Natural gas remains essential to reduce global emissions while simultaneously serving as a positive geopolitical catalyst in the eastern Mediterranean. As a global leader in LNG production, the region remains an ideal venue for American energy diplomacy to champion the geopolitical power of energy cooperation.    

Will the US engage with the EMGF? If so, will it see it solely through energy terms or as a mechanism to challenge Turkish behavior that threatens US and eastern Mediterranean interests? The discovery of vast natural gas reserves perpetuated the latest round of Turkish aggression in the Mediterranean and defined its objectives both in Cyprus and Libya. This is why the EMGF emerged and remains an ideal multilateral platform for positive US leadership and participation. It enables regional energy cooperation, expands beyond gas and the Mediterranean, and challenges Turkish aggression. Ideally, this energy cooperation will eventually include, rather than confront, a new and cooperative Turkey.

How will US energy policy in this region complement its efforts to counter Russia and China?Any effort to counter Russian and Chinese aggression would be incomplete without challenging these nations’ regional energy coercion. Ignoring this component by pursuing the ideological alternative only diminishes American influence as a global energy leader. However, as Russia and China deploy capital for strategic energy projects, US diplomatic efforts through the EMGF will likely be insufficient by themselves. To compete, the US must recommit, rather than diminish, the role of US financial institutions like the DFC and EXIM. This will leverage American energy dominance to realize effective international energy diplomacy, which includes strategically important natural gas projects.

Finally, US leadership in the region and energy partnerships such as the EMGF are inextricably linked to the transcendent Abraham Accords. While motivated by the potential for a new Iran nuclear deal under the Biden administration, the Abraham Accords represent an unprecedented regional unification that was inconceivable just a few years ago. But it also represents an opportunity to continue America’s positive international energy diplomacy, and leadership in the East Med would be an ideal place to pick up the baton.    

Matthew Zais is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative and the vice president of government affairs for Hillwood and HKN Energy Ltd. Most recently he served as the principal deputy assistant secretary of international affairs at the US Department of Energy. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewzais.

Image: September 08, 2020 - Kastellorizo, Greece: A Greek navy warship heads off the island of Kastellorizo. Tensions between Greece and Turkey escalated over this 12-square-kilometre island, which lies off the Turkish coast and is the most distant Greek outpost in the eastern Mediterranean. The small island is critical to both countries's energy claims in the Eastern Mediterranean. Un navire de guerre grec au large de l'ile de Kastellorizo, avec les cotes de la Turquie visibles au loin en arriere-plan.NO USE FRANCE