Tensions rise between Egypt and Turkey over eastern Mediterranean resources

Analysts warned the latest controversy over sovereignty could lead to war over vital resources.
Sunday 11/02/2018
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks at a news conference in Istanbul, on January 25.  (AFP)
Fanning the flames. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks at a news conference in Istanbul, on January 25. (AFP)

CAIRO - Cairo warned Turkey against breaching Egyptian sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean and vowed to defend its maritime border and interests in the region.

Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abu Zeid, in a statement February 7, said Egypt would not tolerate violations of its sovereignty over its economic zone in the eastern Mediterranean.

His warning was made two days after Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Ankara planned to explore oil and gas in the region. In an interview with the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Cavusoglu said Ankara did not recognise a maritime boundary demarcation agreement between Egypt and Cyprus, which allowed Egypt to explore oil and gas in its territorial waters.

Cyprus has been divided between Turkish and Greek residents since 1974. Turkey does not formally recognise the Cypriot government, which is backed by Greece, which instead recognises the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

Egypt signed the deal in 2013, allowing Cyprus and Egypt to explore for oil and gas in their economic zones. Italian company Eni in 2015 discovered what was described as the eastern Mediterranean’s largest gas field off Egypt’s coast. The Zohr gas field was officially inaugurated in January and is expected to produce 2.7 billion cubic feet of gas a day by the end of 2019.

The discovery revitalised the foundering Egypt’s energy sector, with hopes that the country will move towards energy self-sufficiency and possibly restore its position as a gas exporter.

Egypt imports almost 1.2 billion cubic feet of gas every day at a cost of $2 billion a year so the Zohr gas field is considered essential for the cash-strapped, resource-poor country.

Turkey’s declaration that it did not recognise Egyptian sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean raised already high tensions between Cairo and Ankara.

“This is tantamount to a declaration of war,” said Yehia Kidwani, a member of Egypt’s parliamentary Defence and National Security Committee. “Egypt is more than capable of defending its own rights in the Mediterranean.”

Relations between Cairo and Ankara moved from amity to enmity in July 2013 after the Egyptian military-backed a popular uprising against Islamist President Muhammad Morsi.

Egypt accused Turkey of meddling in its affairs, including providing support for members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement. Several Muslim Brotherhood officials are known to have sought refuge in Turkey and Cairo has demanded their return. In 2014, Egypt declared the Turkish ambassador in Cairo persona non grata and withdrew its ambassador from Ankara.

However, the latest controversy over sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean is more than an ideological difference of opinion, with analysts warning it could lead to war over vital resources.

“This is also about Turkey’s attempts to create new realities in the region,” said Saad al-Zunt, the head of Egypt’s Political and Strategic Studies Centre. “An analysis of the latest Turkish moves in the region clearly shows this.”

Egypt expressed concerns towards what it perceives as attempts by Turkey to increase its presence and influence in the region, particularly in neighbouring Libya and Sudan.

The Libyan National Army, which is backed by Egypt, accuses Turkey of helping terrorists fleeing Syria and Iraq join the battlefield in Libya. Turkey has also secured a presence in the southern entrance of the Red Sea after an agreement with Sudan to take administrative control of the Sudanese island of Suakin, 400km from Egypt’s border.

Cavusoglu’s statements were made the same day that Iran confirmed that Turkey would have to pay for gas exports, having already received 800 billion cubic metres of gas for free, in light of a 2012 international arbitration case.

Turkey’s objection to the Egypt-Cyprus deal rests on its refusal to recognise the government of Cyprus and any agreement signed by it. However, because all other countries in the world recognise the Nicosia government, few believe Turkey will take legal action.

Abu Zeid confirmed that Cairo had ratified the Cyprus deal with several international organisations, including the United Nations.

“No party can dispute the legality of the deal, which goes hand in hand with international law,” he said.

Turkey is not party to the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas of 1982. It refused to ratify the convention, mainly because of an Aegean Sea boundary conflict with Greece.

The United States, Venezuela and Israel also refused to ratify the convention, each for different reasons.

This, however, does not rule out the possibility of further tensions and conflict over resources in the eastern Mediterranean region, with additional huge gas and oil reserves expected to be discovered in the area, petroleum experts said.

“Zohr watered the mouths of countries in the region,” said Ramadan Abul Ela, a professor of petroleum engineering at the Suez Canal University. “The Zohr gas field can be the first of many to be discovered in the region.”