The new great game in the Eastern Mediterranean

Along the coast from Egypt to Turkey, new alliances and conflicts are taking centre stage.
Saturday 29/06/2019
Enforcing claims. A Turkish police officer patrols the dock, backdropped by the drilling ship ‘Yavuz’ at the port of Dilovasi, outside Istanbul. (AP)
Enforcing claims. A Turkish police officer patrols the dock, backdropped by the drilling ship ‘Yavuz’ at the port of Dilovasi, outside Istanbul. (AP)

A high-stakes game is unfolding in the eastern Mediterranean. Along the coast from Egypt to Turkey, new alliances and conflicts, driven by competition over control of tremendous gas deposits, are taking centre stage.

Close, even intimate, cooperation between Israel and Egypt on energy and therefore security is one of the defining characteristics of this new era.

Egypt, once an energy importer, plans to exploit its reserves and pivotal geographic position to become an international energy hub. In pursuit of this objective, it has settled outstanding energy transport-related claims with Israel in its effort to export Israel’s growing surplus of natural gas.

Natural gas from Israel’s Tamar field is to begin flowing to Egypt June 30, using a pipeline that had been used in the past to convey gas from Egypt to Israel.

Turkey and its ally the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus increasingly find themselves confronting an emerging energy and security alliance that includes Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and the United States. Turkish naval vessels have been dispatched more than once to enforce claims to potential gas deposits in waters off the Turkish and Northern Cyprus coasts.

How to respond to developments that challenge the West’s historical security domination and how to address the exploitation of energy resources in a manner that strengthens rather than endangers broad cooperation among stakeholders will increasingly engage international attention.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that exploratory drilling for hydrocarbon resources off the coast of Cyprus risks conflict.

These developments upset the maritime status quo long dominated by the United States and NATO, particularly in the security domain. Today, Russia and Iran have secured basing and commercial rights in Syrian ports and Moscow won port- and energy-related concessions from both Lebanon and Syria.

China’s Maritime Silk Road is focusing on establishing a dominant Chinese transport and logistical presence all along the Mediterranean coast, including the ports of Piraeus (Greece) and Haifa (Israel). The Chinese naval presence in the Red Sea port of Djibouti indicates the growing potential for a Chinese naval entry to the Mediterranean.

Earlier this year, the Greek Cypriot government sealed a deal with a consortium made up of Dutch-British Shell, US company Noble Energy and Israel’s Delek on the distribution of revenues from natural gas exploitation from the Aphrodite field. The agreement allows for the exploitation of an offshore field that is estimated to hold 4.1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Nicosia recently issued an international arrest warrant for personnel of the Turkish drillship Fatih and officials from companies cooperating with the state-run Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

“Our Turkish kinsmen in Northern Cyprus also have rights according to international law in the same way that [Greek Cyprus] has rights on all resources in the region, be it oil or something else,” warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “We will not allow these rights to be usurped by those who have no business [there].”

Erdogan’s protests count for little in Washington. The US Congress and the Trump administration support Cyprus’s unfettered energy development in the eastern Mediterranean and the lifting of restrictions on arms sales to Cyprus. Those moves reflect the growing importance to Washington of security and energy concerns in the eastern Mediterranean and Turkey’s estrangement from Washington on yet another key foreign policy issue.

The competition to exploit energy does not need to be a zero-sum game. The latest encouraging example is the US-led diplomacy to resolve competing Israel and Lebanese claims over offshore gas deposits that each is anxious to exploit.

The two countries are in dispute over an 860 area in Block 9, which is estimated to hold large quantities of gas, similar to those of Israel’s Tamar field.

Lebanon has awarded exploration licences in Block 9 to a consortium of companies that includes Total of France, Eni of Italy and Novatek of Russia. Israel awarded a licence in the disputed zone to Delek Drilling and Noble Energy. Neither side is currently active in the area.

Managed by US State Department official David Satterfield, a patient, quiet and persistent US-led diplomatic effort — unique in the Trump administration — is showing progress in establishing a negotiating mechanism for the resolution of Lebanese and Israeli ownership claims along their maritime frontier.

This dispute has festered for years but the urgency to resolve it increased as the contest to assert control over and exploit gas reserves has grown. Lebanon’s growing financial worries have contributed to creating the best opportunity in years to negotiate a resolution to Lebanese and Israeli differences.

The contests in the eastern Mediterranean are shaped by disputes rooted in 20th-century conflicts dominated by the assertion of nationalist identity — notably between Cyprus and Turkey and Israel and Lebanon — but the current agenda recasts them in an entirely new dimension — defined by the prospect of earning billions of dollars from the exploitation of undersea energy resources.

Energy and maritime security cooperation in the Mediterranean and beyond between Israel and Egypt and broader efforts to increase coordination with Cyprus and Greece in the face of growing Turkish opposition reflect the creation of new relationships that are not defined by old conflicts. These energy-related considerations will increasingly define the region and the policy agenda as the century progresses.