Natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean have been the source of regional geopolitical reshuffling.
While the utilisation of vast reserves may have a game-changing impact for the countries dependent on imported hydrocarbons, it also exposes serious disagreements regarding defining zones of interest, delineating sea areas as part of countries' sovereign territories and exploitation rights, resulting in increasing polarisation.
Despite bitter competition and growing friction among some states in the region, the discovery of hydrocarbon reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean has also led to new areas of cooperation and alliances amongst the states. One such initiative is the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) established last year, by seven states aiming to enhance cooperation in the trade of energy. Egypt, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, also adopted a joint declaration expressing their goal to: "Monetise their reserves, utilise their existing infrastructure, and build new ones as necessary for the benefit and welfare of their people." The countries have previously been cooperating in the field of security, with Egypt conducting joint military drills with Greece in the region since 2015. Cypriot forces joined their military exercises in 2018, and also performed joint drills with Israel.
For Federico Borsari, a researcher for the MENA Centre at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), the EMGF initiative certainly represents a positive development, contributing to multilateral engagement and allowing member countries to give institutional shape to their energy strategies.
Chiara Proietti Silvestri, an analyst at the Bologna-based energy consultancy, Rie-Ricerche Industriali ed Energetiche, believes that the EMGF is also good news for major oil corporations operating in the region, as well as for the European market, which can exploit a new route of gas ameliorating its energy diversification with respect to the dominant Russian supplies.
However, we must not exaggerate the forum's potential, according to Francis Perrin, a senior fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS). "It is a forum, which means a place for dialogue. It is important and useful of course but it does not mean that key decisions will be taken within this forum," he informed MEMO. As for Rauf Mammadov, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, the sustainability of the forum will depend equally on geopolitical developments and domestic politics in each member state.
However, given its lukewarm relations with most of the states in the region, Turkey, a major player in the region, has been excluded from regional maritime agreements including EMGF, along with Syria and Lebanon.
Ankara has also been alarmed by the rate at which its rivals have come together in strategic cooperation, including joint diplomatic, energy and military initiatives.
In Perrin's view, the EMGF can clearly be considered an anti-Turkish axis, but it will never be officially presented in such a way, for diplomatic reasons.
However, Borsari warns that this exclusion appears detrimental to the overall goal of the initiative – to promote regional cooperation. In this regard, including Turkey and other countries, may help to resolve current disputes, or may at least provide a legal and diplomatic forum for promoting peaceful solutions, rather than military ones. But, Proietti Silvestri deems that this will be hard to achieve due to Turkish hostility with Cyprus.
Instead, Ankara has sought to establish closer links with countries that have not previously had specific alliances, such as Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian Authorities.
Gas discoveries have also caught the attention of major international powers especially the US, Russia, and the European Union (EU). While the EU's primary interest is to satisfy its energy security by reducing its energy dependence on Russia, the US and Russia also have large geopolitical motives besides economic aspects.
In Borsari's view, the US are interested in promoting more cooperation and integration in the Eastern Mediterranean region, as this fits into Washington's strategy for countering instability and extremism in the broader Mediterranean and the Middle East. The US sees gas as a tool for bringing their allies closer together. The two billion dollar contract on Israeli export of nearly two billion cubic metres of gas to Egypt signed last year, is an example of such closer cooperation between states. Moreover, Perrin adds that Washington also tried to be a mediator/facilitator between Israel and Lebanon regarding the dispute of their maritime border. Finally, the strong presence of US companies also strengthens the position of US allies in the region, as is the case of ExxonMobil, which is exploring in the region.
While EU and US companies are mostly focusing on obtaining the offshore concessions provided to them by coastal states, Russian has been active in buying shares of already discovered fields via US and European companies. Only in Syria, Russia has taken different strategy by striking a deal with Bashar Al-Assad, about getting a concession right for exploration off the Syrian coast. Also, Rosneft and Novatek have been involved in joint ventures to exploit gas resources.
According to Borsari: "These efforts are part of Moscow's soft power strategy to extend its leverage and influence in the area."
But growing militarisation and tensions spilling over from other parts of the Middle East threatens the stability of the region and beyond. Samuel Doveri Vesterbye, managing director of the European Neighbourhood Council, observes: "The Eastern Mediterranean is explosive hotspot which most Europeans are totally unaware of."
Thus, the intervention of European diplomacy is essential in appeasing the tensions, especially between Turkey and other states, namely Cyprus, as the dispute directly involves the internal stability of a member state. Although Europe firmly supports the stance of its member states in its dispute with Turkey, Proietti Silvestri notes that Europe (especially Italy) is interested in reducing tensions in the area, paving a way for cooperation with Turkey. But Perrin remarks that Europe is a little reluctant to apply strong pressure on Turkey, due to the country's importance on some key issues, especially the war in Syria and the flow of migrants and refugees. Europe is diplomatically active in this part of the world, but it will perhaps not be in a position to really show its teeth. Nevertheless, a solution to the problem will require a multilateral approach involving all the engaged countries. Ostracising Turkey, regardless of its actions, will not lead to any long-lasting outcome, according to Mammadov. Europe should, therefore, promote a negotiation, starting with the inclusion of Turkey to the table of dialogue with the EMGF, in particular, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and Israel.
Proietti Silvestri suggests that Europe should recognise the role of Turkey in the transportation and sale of gas in Europe, while allowing producer countries to start extraction activities in a context of stability. In addition, she views Turkey as the most suitable solution for bringing Eastern Mediterranean gas to Europe, through exploiting the existing pipeline connections to offshore fields. However, Proietti Silvestri's view is that: "This complex situation requires political compromises of little electoral appeal but of undoubted long-term advantage, along with the abandonment of any unilateral policy." Protecting a country's offshore energy interests does not automatically exclude the seeking of multilateral partnerships.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.