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Eastern Mediterranean: A new hotbed of tensions at the European doorstep  

January 31, 2020 at 5:00 pm

The Persian Gulf on 12 March 2017 [Fatemeh Bahrami/Anadolu Agency]

The first major discoveries of gas and oil deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean in has greatly accelerated the geopolitical dynamic of the region and beyond. While the area’s subsea riches have raised high hopes and opportunities for all the countries in the region, this potential “gold mine” has also launched a bitter competition among the states. The militarisation of the region and deep-rooted political disputes may have serious ramifications on North Africa Middle East and Europe affecting regional energy landscapes and balances of power.

US Geological Survey estimates that this region, also known as Levantine Basin, which covers about 83,000 square kilometres of the Eastern Mediterranean, holds somewhere between 3.5 trillion cubic metres (tcm) and 6.4 tcm of gas as well as 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil. It is easy to imagine how these vast reserves would boost regional economies and reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.

The first major discoveries in Tamar (2009) and Leviathan (2010) in Israel were quickly followed by new discoveries in Cyprus (Aphrodite), and offshore Egypt (the giant field Zohr). Another potential significant offshore gas field known as Calypso has been made in Cyprus in 2018.

However, the exploitation of these undersea treasures would be anything but smooth. Beside facing tough competition from other gas producers such as Qatar, Russia and Caspian Sea states, the region is plagued with multiple geopolitical conflicts, attracting the attention of foreign powers – namely the EU, the US and Russia. It seems that the region is turning into some kind of a new Arabian/Persian Gulf in the context of regional rivalries and diplomatic/territorial feuds and exploitation rights. While this comparison is not new and has emerged in the last decade following the changes that have taken place in the area, the underlying reasons that brought the region into the spotlight are different from the Gulf.

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The main disagreement, according to Rauf Mammadov, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, is driven by different interpretations of the sea law. And, “the fact that not all the players engaged in the dispute are signatories to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) complicate the matter even more,” he told MEMO. These rivalries are nevertheless not new. They did exist before gas discoveries in the Eastern Med (Israel/Lebanon, Israel/Hamas in Gaza and Turkey/Cyprus). But the gas potential of this region can worsen these disputes, according to Francis Perrin, a senior fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS).

According to Chiara Proietti Silvestri, an analyst at the Bologna-based energy consultancy Rie-Ricerche Industriali ed Energetiche, we are still not at the point of hegemonic rivalries which distinguish the Persian Gulf. Also, the two areas diverge in some aspects, such as the role of regional actors, the types of rivalry and the influence of superpowers.

More precisely, as Iran and Saudi Arabia dominate the Persian Gulf, geography makes Turkey a dominant player in the East Med Region. She explains that, while most of Persian Gulf littoral states profit from oil and gas, Turkey lacks indigenous energy resources, despite being a dominant player in the region. “It has instead sought to cash in on its geographical position, as a transit state for the European market, but also seeks to access productive resources,” which potentially puts Turkey in the conflict with other regional producers, she added.

The recent regional developments could be described through observation that cooperation and competition coexist, overlap and – quite often – inhibit each other, explains Federico Borsari, a researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)’s MENA Centre.

He also observes that the cooperation phase of recent years is currently evolving towards a more competitive one, especially after the bilateral agreements signed by Turkey and the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) on maritime boundaries and military cooperation were immediately rejected as illegal by Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and Israel. In his view, Ankara’s growing assertiveness is destabilising the region by imposing its own interpretation of exclusive economic zone EEZs and maritime borders, while on the other hand this initiative is bringing closer those countries opposing Turkey’s energy policies in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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The Turkish side claims that the ownership of offshore waters should be governed by the continental shelf and that the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of an island, such as Cyprus, is limited to only 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. Turkey does not recognise the exclusive sovereignty of Cyprus and insists on the right of the Turkish-Cypriot community to divide the island’s natural resources. But international law experts play down Turkish claims which are not in accordance with international law and UNCLOS (to which Turkey is not a signatory).

Proietti Silvestri explains that Turkish decisions came as a response to the unilateral moves by Greek Cypriots to search for gas off the divided island, without coordinating with Turkish Cypriots. In 2019, the Turkish Cypriot president called on the Greek Cypriot administration to establish a joint commission for cooperation, but the counterpart did not accept, giving Turkish Cypriots and Turkey the motivation to continue their unilateral action. It is unclear for how long Erdogan will continue to pursue unilateral interests even at the price of isolation.

Greek and Cypriot flag at squer of Omodos village on April 04, 2018 in Limassol, Cyprus [Athanasios Gioumpasis/Getty Images]

Greek and Cypriot flag at squer of Omodos village on 4 April  2018 in Limassol, Cyprus [Athanasios Gioumpasis/Getty Images]

By flexing its military muscles, Ankara tries to fight legal weakness as it desperately wants its piece of East Mediterranean pie. Mammadov added that Erdogan’s recent decisions have already led to the ostracisation of his country from western community, such as in the case of a purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system, which has deeply disturbed NATO and the US in particular. 

In Proietti Silvestri’s opinion, Turkish military engagement in Libya and Fayez Al-Sarraj’s victory would decisively strengthen their position in the Eastern Mediterranean, while spoiling the plans of its competitors to export gas to Europe through the proposed undersea pipeline.

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Any new failure could raise the cost of isolation to an unbearable level, according to Borsari, pushing Turkey to review its foreign policy approach and seek a new and more cooperative engagement with its neighbours. This, in turn, “could also impact Erdogan’s domestic political position, forcing him to accept or consider different visions and voices concerning the country’s foreign policy direction,” he noted.

However, some analyst, like Mona Sukkarieh of the Beirut-based Middle East Strategic Perspectives, think that “the closer we get to potential exploitation of offshore resources prior to a reconciliation between the two Cypriot communities, the bolder Turkey’s actions are going to be.”

But it is doubtful how much Turkey can achieve with its aggressive policy. Perrin reminds us that Cyprus is a member state of the European Union (EU) and Turkey’s behaviour could worsen the relationship with the EU. “Oil companies doing exploration work offshore Cyprus include the US giant ExxonMobil and European groups such as Total and Eni, which will be supported by their respective home governments,” he explains. Since Turkey faces two great risks; political isolation and overreach (military presence in Syria and activities in Libya, disputes with Cyprus, Greece, Egypt as well as with other Arab states), it will be very difficult for Ankara to win on these various fronts, Perrin adds.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.