Conflict expands in Eastern Mediterranean over gas riches

Natural gas reserves of 9.8 trillion cubic metres in the Levant Basin and the Nile Delta Basin — representing 5% of global reserves — have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Sunday 19/01/2020
The platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea which started production today is pictured from the Israeli northern coastal city of Dor. (AFP)
The platform of the Leviathan natural gas field in the Mediterranean Sea which started production today is pictured from the Israeli northern coastal city of Dor. (AFP)

While the United States plays whack-a-mole in Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict fades from international and Arab view, a new multinational contest is expanding in the Eastern Mediterranean.

The cast of players includes traditional Mediterranean rivals — NATO members Greece and Turkey — along with a host of newcomers — Israel, Egypt, Cyprus and, most recently, Libya — joined by an emerging cast of wannabes — Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

Not content to watch from the grandstands, Moscow, Washington, Paris and Beijing are identifying and exploiting opportunities presented by fast-paced energy and security developments.

Natural gas reserves of 9.8 trillion cubic metres in the Levant Basin and the Nile Delta Basin — representing 5% of global reserves — have been discovered in the Eastern Mediterranean. The race to identify and exploit these potential riches is well under way.

On the last day of 2019, the taps were opened at Israel’s giant Leviathan gas field.

“Today we made history,” proclaimed embattled Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “For many years I fought to get the gas out of the ground, against fierce opposition from our political rivals.”

After satisfying the local market, Israel will export gas to Egypt, which has grandiose plans to become a regional energy hub. This high-stakes economic partnership increasingly defines security and economic ties that were once defined by the dispute over the Palestinian territories.

Just up the coast, the French energy company Total is about to begin exploration drills in Block 4, north-west of Beirut. By early spring it should be clear whether there are enough reserves to enable Lebanon to become part of the regional energy bonanza.

Greek, Cypriot and Israeli leaders have advanced their burgeoning economic and security partnership by promoting the construction of a 1900km EastMed Pipeline, the economic centrepiece of a dynamic economic and security alliance established to coordinate production, transport and defence of the region’s gas reserves.

The action follows last year’s establishment of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum to coordinate energy policies and establish a regional gas market for export to Europe.

Turkey was pointedly excluded from that party.

Ankara contests claims by Cyprus and Greece, notably the awarding of exploration licences to Total and Eni.

The generational battle over Cyprus has been complicated rather than eased by disputes over the division of the island country’s reserves. Turkey has undertaken its own competing exploration activities to secure the assets for the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

For months it deployed exploration vessels in contested waters around Cyprus. Two Turkish drillships and two seismic survey vessels are exploring for hydrocarbons inside Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.

“The ships will continue to perform their duties,” declared Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Turkey will not let others crush its and Turkish Cypriots’ interests.”

Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi acknowledged concerns about the increasingly militant environment in which energy exploration and transport take place. Speaking at a Rome conference, Descalzi said he was not willing to drill wells “if someone shows up with warships.”

Gas exploration is not for the faint of heart. One year ago, ExxonMobil announced the discovery of an estimated 5 trillion-8 trillion cubic feet of gas off the coast of Cyprus. ExxonMobil Vice-President Tristan Aspray noted: “We’d be interested in other opportunities offshore Cyprus and indeed the whole Eastern Mediterranean.”

Duelling policies to exploit gas reserves have fortified conflicting views of national and maritime security interests and prompted the expansion of the arena of conflict to include Libya.

Turkey has sought to leapfrog the reach of the EastMed coalition by making a hotly contested political, energy and security agreement with Libya. The centrepiece of the agreement is a unilaterally staked-out claim to a wide section of the Mediterranean south of Rhodes and Crete running from Turkey to the Libyan coast, the purpose of which is to block any pipeline route to European markets that Turkey opposes.

Lest there be any ambiguity about Turkey’s intention to up its game in the region, Ankara deployed Syrian proxy forces in Libya in support of the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Greece, France, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt voiced unified opposition to the Turkey-Libya maritime deal.

All elements for a new and expanding cold war in the Eastern Mediterranean are in place. Mechanisms adopted by all players have exacerbated rather than reduced regional tensions. Security and economic alliances have hardened rather than softened opposing views and reduced rather than increased the prospects for reconciliation of Cyprus’s longstanding crisis. Rivals increasingly talk past each other rather than to each other.

Developments such as Turkey’s deal with the GNA suggest that the arena for conflict, which was borne out of the zero-sum competition for the gas bonanza throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, has spread to include complex and wide-ranging security and defence issues that will make fixing Cyprus look like child’s play.

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