An Egyptian-Hellenic alliance

Niveen Wahish , Thursday 13 Aug 2020

Egypt and Greece signed a maritime demarcation agreement last week in a deal that has wide economic and geopolitical significance

An Egyptian-Hellenic alliance
An Egyptian-Hellenic alliance

More than a dozen rounds of negotiations took place before an agreement was signed demarcating the maritime borders between Egypt and Greece on 6 August and setting out the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) between the two countries.

The agreement is in line with international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), noted Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri following the signature with his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias in Cairo.

The agreement is important because it will allow Egypt to exploit natural resources beyond its territorial waters of 12 nautical miles and into its much wider economic zone, explained petroleum expert Ramadan Abul-Ela.

It could also mean exploiting new gas fields such as the Zohr Field discovered in 2015. This is especially important since “there are those who want to mess with our economic waters,” Abul-Ela added, referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who “wants to stick his nose where it does not belong. First, he is being a bully in Northern Syria and Iraq, and now he is practising piracy in the Mediterranean.”

In November last year, Turkey and the Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya Fayez Al-Sarraj signed a memorandum of understanding on maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean Sea. “Their coast lines don’t even face each other,” commented Abul-Ela.

The UNCLOS is an international convention adopted in 1982 that permits a state to extend its EEZ seaward to 200 nautical miles (370km). However, if the maritime distance between two countries is less than 424 nautical miles, exclusive economic zones can be determined through bilateral agreements between two coastal states.

Turkey is not signatory to the UNCLOS.

By concluding an agreement with Al-Sarraj, Turkey is trying to grab a share of the rich natural gas found in the Eastern Mediterranean, said petroleum expert Ibrahim Zahran. However, “since it is not signatory to the 1982 treaty, it can make whatever claims it wants but only international law will rule,” he added.

Furthermore, Egypt is well equipped to protect its maritime economic interests against any trespassing, he said.

Egypt’s agreement with Greece threatens Turkey’s plans, and on Monday Turkey announced that its research vessel Oruc Reis and two auxiliary vessels would be conducting exploratory drilling from 10 to 23 August.

In reaction, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis called a meeting with the country’s military chiefs on Monday. The Turkish drilling was a “new and serious escalation” that had “exposed” Turkey’s “destabilising role”, the Greek Foreign Ministry said, as quoted by the BBC.

Turkey’s announcement was a direct reaction to the signing of the agreement between Egypt and Greece, said Constantinos Filis, research director at the Institute for International Relations at the Panteion University in Athens.

Turkey wanted to establish its hegemony in the region and wanted to force the rest of the region to accept it and not to take decisions against Turkish interests, Filis told Al-Ahram Weekly.

He said the Egypt-Greece agreement was an obstacle to the agreement signed between Ankara and the Al-Sarraj government, which does not represent all Libyans. That agreement was void, he stressed, adding that if had it not been for the Egypt-Greece agreement, Turkey would have started acting upon its agreement with Al-Sarraj and started exploration and drilling.

While Greece’s priority in the agreement is to find a way to undercut the agreement between Al-Sarraj and Turkey, it could have economic advantages, Filis said. Before the agreement was signed, Egypt and Greece could not carry out activities such as extracting resources in the areas concerned. “If a country has not delineated its boundaries, it cannot undertake any legal activity nor practice its sovereign rights in such waters,” he said.

He said that if the price of oil and gas rises, Greece may consider prospecting for oil and gas in its economic waters or in cooperation with Egypt. For the moment, low prices have made it less lucrative for multinational companies to pump new investments into the field.

 Crude oil prices have averaged less than $40 a barrel in 2020, down from around $65 two years ago and around $95 a decade ago. Filis said Turkey was drilling to send the message that it was the hegemonic power, not because it knows better than the oil companies.

According to Filis, the Greek agreement with Egypt has left some areas without demarcation, and there was a need to delineate the rest of the area with both Turkey and Cyprus, he said. That area includes the area east of Rhodes and southern Crete.

“This is the right thing to do. Both Egypt and Greece respect the law of the sea. We cannot follow the Turkish model,” he said.

However, he said that unless Turkey adapts to regional and legal realities, there will be no room for dialogue. If it changes its attitude, dialogue will be welcome. 

In recent years, Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus have strengthened their cooperation, especially in the area of energy, helping each other to make the most of their resources. The three countries have signed a cooperation framework agreement for a power-linkage project through Crete, for example. 

Egypt and Cyprus have also agreed to build a natural gas pipeline that will allow natural gas from the Cypriot Aphrodite Field to be transported to Egypt’s liquefaction facilities at Idku and Damietta and re-exported as liquefied natural gas.

In 2018, the three countries became the cornerstone of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum that includes all the countries that produce and import gas in the region and the transit countries.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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