There was a time when the “region” was frowned on in Arabic political discourse. Although the word does not immediately signify a political entity or political boundaries, there was always a concern that it might be used to circumvent “Arab nation”, which was closer and dearer to the pan-Arab spirit, or to dilute Arab identity into a larger region such as the “Middle East” or “Greater Middle East”, which would come along later. However, “region” eventually acquired some acceptance, at least outside the Arab nationalist framework. In the 1980s, for example, we began to speak of the Arab Gulf region as epitomised by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). There followed similar councils such as the Arab Cooperation Council and the Maghreb Nations Cooperation Council. Some of these councils faded away or lost their efficacy, but they all stood for distinct regions characterised by territorial contiguity and good neighbourly relations.
Other parts of the world, from East to West Africa and from South to Southeast Asia, have seen the rise of similar regions. Benelux and the Nordic Council are concrete examples in Europe, and Mercosur is another example in South America. Cooperative regions have also formed among countries in the same river basin, such as the Danube, Amazon and Mekong. The Eastern Mediterranean Region is a newcomer and a new type of region. Rather than organising cooperation in a navigational zone, its purpose is to strengthen cooperation in the production of natural wealth; in this case, oil and gas. To lay the cornerstones of a maritime region, it was necessary to demarcate maritime borders. This took place in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which, since its conclusion in 1982, has become one of the main instruments of international law for delineating the boundaries of maritime regions and the economic zones of their constituent states.
If the maritime border agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia on 8 April 2016 laid the foundations for a Red Sea economic cooperation region between the two countries and, perhaps, a security cooperation zone between them and other Red Sea countries, the maritime economic zone border agreement that Egypt and Cyprus signed on 17 February 2003 made it possible to invite other Eastern Mediterranean nations to cooperate in the extraction, processing and marketing of oil and gas. Efforts towards this end culminated in the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) in 2019, bringing together Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Italy. Then followed the Greek-Italian maritime boundary agreement concluded in June this year and the Egyptian-Greek maritime boundary agreement signed 6 August. In addition, Egypt and Cyprus signed an agreement to pump Cypriot gas to Egypt for liquefaction and reexport while another agreement was signed between Egypt’s Malfins firm and the US-based Noble Energy firm, which operates the Israeli gas fields, to pump gas to Egypt for the same purposes.
The foregoing political and legal transactions were set into motion by the discoveries of large underwater gas fields, such as the Israeli Tamar and Leviathan fields, Cyprus’s Aphrodite and Egypt’s Zohr field. The United States Geological Survey recently estimated that the Eastern Mediterranean basin contains natural gas worth from $700 billion to $3 trillion.
But the Eastern Mediterranean region is not just about “geo-economics” connected with the sources, utilisation and distribution of wealth and the realisation of prosperity for participant nations. It also says quite a bit about geopolitics, because it is a region adjacent to areas teeming with historical conflicts, conflicting interests and arms races, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Greek-Turkish conflict. Although Egypt and Jordan have signed peace agreements with Israel and cooperation agreements in various fields, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is still seething even if both the Palestinian Authority and Israel are part of the EMGF. In addition, the climate between Israel and Syria and Lebanon is still volatile because of Iranian interventions in the latter two countries. Although the US tried to intervene to help delineate the maritime border between Israel and Lebanon, the negotiations failed to produce an agreement.
The EMGF region also abuts on the Syrian crisis with its nearly decade-long civil war that has invited Russian, Turkish and Iranian intervention which, in turn, triggered other crises and disputes.
But perhaps more importantly, it borders on Turkey which has begun to threaten the entire region. This is less because it also has a shore overlooking the Eastern Mediterranean than because of a host of complexities starting with its disputes with Greece over maritime borders and passing through that long-lasting dispute over Cyprus, which is divided between the predominantly Greek Republic of Cyprus, which is a member of the EU, and the Turkish-occupied “Turkish Republic of Cyprus”, which no one recognises apart from Turkey.
More ominously, Turkey has taken its historical contradictions and complexes deep into the Mediterranean and all the way across to Libya where it signed an agreement with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) to demarcate a maritime border where no one could logically exist. Such actions have triggered a major crisis in the entire Mediterranean. If, on the surface, it appears to centre on who controls Libya (and, by extension, access to Libyan oil), it essentially involves a Turkish bid to secure a big enough seat for itself on Middle East tables to force others to recognise a de facto state that no one has recognised to date, thinking that this will legitimise Turkish warships’ harassment of Egypt, Greece and others in the Mediterranean while its drill ships dig for gas and oil in others’ economic waters. In the meantime, Turkey continues to make war in Iraq and Syria and to transfer its mercenaries to Libya.
The Eastern Mediterranean region is manifested in a form of regional cooperation that offers member states the opportunities for development, progress, mutual dependency and even peace among disputants. Unfortunately, Turkey has a leadership that sees itself as a latter-day Ottoman conqueror. It is in the process of escalating a southern expansionist drive, taking advantage of balances of powers that are skewed in its favour, especially in light of the sapped strength and resources of both Syria and Iraq. Iran is no countervailing force because of Ankara’s relations with Tehran, directly or via Syria and Lebanon. Nor does Israel stand in its way, due to Ankara’s eagerness to play Israeli ally when it suits it and to play advocate for Palestinian rights when expedient.
In order to confront the Turkish threat to the Middle East, the Arabs will need to reverse the balance of powers between them and Turkey, and they will need to devise a vision for managing strategic alliances opposed to Ankara’s dangerous ambitions.
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 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly