The vast discoveries of natural gas that have recently been made in the Eastern Mediterranean have sparked new forms of struggle and at the same time forged new alliances between the countries of the region in order to extract this valuable new source of energy.
However, because the region is witnessing its most turbulent period in decades thanks to the ongoing ramifications of the Arab Spring, gas exploration and gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean have been taking on political angles as well as possible military ones.
There have been constant provocations led by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan since the news was announced that Egypt and Cyprus had discovered new gas fields in the region.
These were only exacerbated by the historical demarcation deal in the Eastern Mediterranean between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus that opened the door to massive exploration plans and resulted in major gas discoveries in the region.
The Mediterranean Sea was not a major source of oil and gas in the past, but in recent years the race to tap newly discovered resources has become something of a gold rush particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean region.
Egypt struck gold after a number of successful discoveries were made both offshore and on land, representing a major change in the industry and qualifying it to become an oil and gas hub or “aggregator” in the region. This means that Egypt will not only produce its own natural gas but will also liquify gas imported from other countries and then re-export it.
This is part of Egypt’s 2030 Vision, making the country the energy hub of the region, and the government has signed 88 agreements to carry out oil and gas exploration in areas including the Suez region, the Western Desert, the Nile Delta and most importantly the Mediterranean Sea.
The discovery of the gigantic Zohr Gas Field and its record development such that it could be fully operational by the end of 2018 has whetted the appetite of many international oil and gas giants that desire to follow in the footsteps of the Italian company ENI that manages the field.
Not content with the 88 agreements that have been signed and are already active, the government has a further 13 agreements in its sights.
Even more important than the major discoveries are the bilateral agreements that have been made with a number of countries to utilise the huge Egyptian gas-liquifying facilities for these countries to re-export gas to European clients.
The latest agreement with the Cyprus government amounts to $1 billion. Prior to that, an Egyptian private company and one from Israel signed an agreement worth $10 billion, intending to develop Egypt as a major hub for gas exports.
Such moves by the Egyptian government have irked the Turkish government, which has continued to provoke the Egyptian, Greek and Cyprus governments by claiming that it will not acknowledge the demarcation agreements signed in 2013 between the three countries.
An Egyptian government spokesman was firm in his rejection of comments made by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu when he declared that the agreements had been signed in accordance with international law and that they were not up for discussion.
Predicting Erdogan’s next move has been made more difficult by the failing Turkish economy, witnessing its worst crisis in decades.
Some analysts expect Erdogan to embark on a new military adventure to divert the attention of the Turkish population from the worsening domestic situation.
In August, Turkey declared that it was contemplating the opening of a new naval base and the reopening of an old airbase in Northern Cyprus, which would be a provocation for the entire region.
While a new Turkish naval or air base will hardly represent a turning point, they may lead countries such as Egypt and Greece to take military steps in the foreseeable future.
Moreover, Turkey continues to provoke other nations in the region, and it has attempted to harass Italian oil-exploration ships headed to the Eastern Mediterranean. It captured four Egyptian sailors on 21 September who were fishing near the Cyprus coast in an act that Egypt will not take lightly.
The tripartite alliance between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus agreed in December 2017 to expand joint military training has been reflected in the annual Medusa military manoeuvres carried out by the three countries.
This alliance stands against Turkish aspirations in Cyprus, which is within striking distance of the Egyptian air force. Cyprus’ airspace could be protected by the Egyptian Air Force as well as by that of Greece should matters escalate as a result of Turkish aggression.
The new purchases made by the Egyptian navy, including two Mistral amphibious assault ships, a French FREMM frigate, four Gowind corvettes, four German type 209 submarines, a South Korean frigate and a Russian Molniya class missile craft enhance Egypt’s naval strength and guard against possible threats to its oil and gas investments in the Mediterranean.
They also reaffirm the Egyptian navy’s supremacy in the region and its position as the sixth-largest naval fleet in the world. The purchases, along with Egypt’s dozens of new French and Russian jet fighters and helicopters, reflect growing concerns at the threat of terrorism and of hostile regimes in the region.
Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Turkey are all targeting new oil and gas exploration and investment, and as a result tensions have been rising in the Eastern Mediterranean, which is not only patrolled by these countries’ navies. The region also contains naval vessels from countries such as the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Italy, France and Denmark, many of them on standby because of conflicts in the region, especially in Syria and Libya, and the resulting wave of migrants and refugees to Europe.
Though conflict with Turkey is not imminent, Egypt, Greece and Cyprus are taking all their options into account as the Turkish regime is still undermining the sovereignty of these countries, especially that of Cyprus, by claiming unwarranted rights to natural gas resources in the region.
The upcoming period may witness escalation from Erdogan, since he may want to try to rally the Turkish people behind him after years of tyranny have led to the country’s worst political, social and economic situation in decades.
The region’s natural gas resources are one of the key reasons behind the Turkish regime’s megalomania, displayed in its failed incursions into Iraq and Syria and against the Kurdish population in Turkey.
They could also be the catalyst for conflict with Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, which remain vigilant with regard to the Turkish tyrant’s ambitions.
* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The battle for Mediterranean gas