As I write this, the Gulf has stepped closer to the brink of a military confrontation. On Wednesday, last week, Iranian gunboats tried to impede and seize a British oil tanker. They would have forced it towards an Iranian port had not a British frigate escorting the tanker intervened, trained its guns on the Iranian vessels and forced them to retreat. The attempted seizure of the British tanker was in retaliation for the British seizure of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar because it was carrying oil to Syria in flagrant breach of EU sanctions.
The Iranian response is part of the succession of escalatory incidents in the Gulf and Red Sea that have led the US to decide to form an international coalition to protect commercial vessels, oil tankers and maritime platforms. It would be comprised of nations keen to safeguard the security of their ships and maritime routes, while the US would be in charge of monitoring and intelligence in the designated region, which includes the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Indian Ocean, the Gulf of Oman, Bab Al-Mandeb and the Suez Canal.
As tensions in the Gulf grow increasingly fraught, it appears that the Eastern Mediterranean is heading in the same direction. An impending crisis has been seething beneath its waters and threatens to erupt to the surface there as well. UN Secretary General António Guterres has warned of the “risks of conflict” raised by exploratory drilling for hydrocarbon resources (oil and gas) in that region.
The risk of conflict over natural resources — from water to petroleum and natural gas — is far from new in the Middle East. What is new this time is that the bad omens are coming at a time when the spirit of cooperation and partnership in the Middle East seemed to have gained an edge over the spirit of conflict and tension, and when good news appears quicker to arrive than bad.
Previously in this column I have observed how the maritime border agreements between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Cyprus, which were concluded in accordance with international maritime law, had opened the doors to mutual prosperity in the Red Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. I held that the prospects for sharing the benefits of the natural resources in these regions would work to keep tension and conflict at bay.
In no small part, this has proven correct. Things have begun to look up in the south after Ethiopia and Eritrea signed a peace deal ending their longstanding conflict and in the north where Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Cyprus, Greece and Italy formed the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).
In addition, the US mediation carried out by Ambassador David Satterfield succeeded in bridging differences between Lebanon and Israel over the maritime boundaries between them, facilitating natural gas extraction for them both.
Lebanon has engaged the French firm Total, the Italian Eni and Russia’s Novatek for the purpose while Israel engaged the Israeli Delek Drilling company and the American Noble Energy company which are currently operating in the Tamar and Leviathan gas fields. The Dutch-British Shell company has begun exploration for more gas in Cypriot waters which, according to the Cypriot-Egyptian agreement, will be liquified by the Egyptian firm Edco.
The most recent piece of good news concerns the closure of the longstanding dispute between Egypt and Israel over Egyptian compensations to Israel for halting gas exports in the wake of 18 terrorist attacks against the gas pipeline in Sinai. Under the agreement, the compensation due to be paid to Israel was reduced from $1.8 billion to $500 million. Then, on 30 June, Israel used pipelines belonging to Egypt’s Eastern Mediterranean Gas Company to pump gas from Israel’s Tamar gas field to Egypt.
Mutual interests, therefore, seem to have the power to transcend sensitive areas of conflict, as occurred with the Palestinians and Israelis, who became members in a single forum (the EMFG) and between them and the Lebanese in order to enable them both to benefit from their offshore resources.
Unfortunately, Turkey had no interest in such an approach. Ankara’s agenda is shaped by the Turkish-Greek conflict of a century ago, the proxy war between Greece and Turkey over divided Cyprus, and tensions between Turkey and Egypt over Ankara’s incessant attacks on Egypt for the revolution against Muslim Brotherhood rule and its hosting of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood on Turkish territory.
Ankara recently began to harp on the “historic rights” of Turkish Cypriots in the “Republic of North Cyprus” which is recognised by no other country in the world but Turkey. It then sent military vessels into the gas exploration areas in an attempt to provoke Egypt and Cyprus.
Egypt responded by deploying its naval vessels while Nicosia lodged a complaint with the Security Council with support from the EU and the US.
Next, Ankara began to speak of its “geographic rights” in the large underwater gas fields in the Eastern Mediterranean and then began drilling operations there without having concluded an agreement with any other country with which it shares Mediterranean shores. Naturally, such actions are a breach of international maritime law and a form of economic thuggery.
Turkey has exhibited such predatory behaviour elsewhere in the region, most recently in Libya where it has intervened directly in the Libyan crisis, supplying Tripoli’s Al-Sarraj government and its terrorist militia and Muslim Brotherhood allies with heavy weaponry in order to prevent the Libyan National Army from entering the capital and completing the unification of the Libyan nation.
If Turkey is a main cause of spiralling tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the rise in hostilities in Libya, mounting international rivalry in the region has begun to cast its heavy shadow over good developments in the Middle East, especially given the ongoing Syrian crisis.
If the US and NATO are responsible for protecting Cyprus and Cypriot interests, the Russians, from their position in Syria, are anxiously watching developments in the Eastern Mediterranean which has the potential to rival Russian gas exports to Europe.
The Iranian presence in Syria and Lebanon cannot be seen as a positive factor either, given how it links the crisis in the Gulf, the crisis surrounding the Houthis in Yemen overlooking the Red Sea and the Syrian crisis on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean where the possibility of an Iranian-Israeli confrontation remains open.
Nor is China remote from the scene, now that Beijing has found footholds in the Greek port of Piraeus, the Israeli port of Haifa and in Djibouti to the south in the Red Sea. It is impossible to foresee where all this international rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean will lead, and to what extent it will be linked to spiralling and extremely volatile tensions in the Gulf and the Red Sea.
Is there a way to cool these situations down and to prevent explosion?
The impetus towards cooperation and partnership in the Middle East that has been generated during recent years continues to gain momentum thanks to the will of participatory nations and the desires of major international firms. So much can be accomplished if industrial and commercial enterprises increase.
At the same time, the “Jerusalem meeting” between Russia and the US, with Israel attending, might generate another calming trend, especially if Russian-US and China-US relations improve. On the other hand, history has shown that it is to the folly and impetuousness in Ankara and Tehran that we should look for the key to the question regarding war versus peace in the seas around the Middle East.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the regional Centre for Strategic Studies
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: What’s happening in the Middle East?