Food and energy diplomacy

Dina Ezzat , Saturday 28 May 2022

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth month, Egyptian diplomacy is trying hard to get due attention paid to regional stability and cooperation.

photo: AFP
Smoke rises from an oil refinery after an attack outside the city of Lysychans k in the eastern Ukranian region of Donbas, on May 22, 2022, on the 88th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (photo: AFP)


June is promising to be a busy month for Egyptian diplomacy, which is trying hard to ensure that international diplomatic attention is paid to the arguably overlooked concerns of the Middle East and Southern Mediterranean region.

“The war in Ukraine has taken much longer than expected, and it is clear that the crisis will continue for at least a few more months,” said one Egyptian diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.

“Our region has been suffering considerably due to the war, and our many concerns cannot be overlooked while the world cannot reach an agreement on a solution,” he added.

With the Arab countries, headed by Egypt, suffering from a severe drop in grain supplies from both Russia and Ukraine, food security has become a pressing concern for most Arab capitals, which are trying hard to find alternative resources.

Egypt has been opting for sources including India and possibly Argentina. The further the source, the more costly the price becomes, however, stretching state coffers already under strain by a significant drop in foreign investments and tourism revenues.

But Egyptian officials say that Egypt remains in a significantly better position than some other countries in the region whose food security has been very much compromised.

According to the Egyptian diplomat, the concern about food security “comes at the top of other economic and political problems that are in part caused by the war in Ukraine and in part have been exacerbated by it.”

Several Arab capitals have already reached out for assistance and warned their international partners that a delayed response could mean unrest in some countries, informed diplomatic sources say.

“We think that this is a very challenging moment and that it is in the interest of everyone to reach out with all possible assistance, because what is at stake here is the stability of a highly volatile region,” the Egyptian diplomat said. 

During his participation in the Davos meetings of the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri met with Borge Brende, president of the WEF, to discuss the economic crisis and food security concerns, according to a statement by ministry spokesman Ahmed Hafez.

In a few weeks, Shoukri is scheduled to go to Brussels for consultations that will also cover food and energy security. President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen is expected in Cairo around mid-June to discuss cooperation on food and energy security around the Mediterranean.

“The European Union has promised a solid assistance package on food security, but for sure the agenda of Von der Leyen’s talks in Cairo will also address energy cooperation. This is a vital issue for the Europeans in view of their wish to be independent of Russian gas supplies,” the same Egyptian diplomat said.

According to Egyptian and European sources, while in Cairo Von der Leyen will discuss upgrading supplies of natural gas from Egypt to Europe. This, they explained, will mean increasing gas exports from Israel to Egypt to allow for the gas to then go onto Europe.

The EU has been actively engaging with several Arab countries on energy supplies. However, the Arab Gulf countries have not accommodated the European, and for that matter the US, requests to increase oil production.

The Europeans have gone to Algeria in search of more sustainable gas supplies. However, Algeria has also been lobbied by Russia, a close partner, not to rush any increase of gas exports.

Algeria is a key exporter of natural gas to Europe, but according to a paper by Intissar Fakir, a North Africa senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, “Algeria’s current production capacity limits its ability to substantially increase export volumes to Europe.”

“As of now, any meaningful increases in Algerian production will require years of exploration and development and, more crucially, further energy industry reforms to attract new investment,” Fakir wrote.

According to recent statements by Tarek Al-Molla, Egypt’s minister of energy, Egypt’s exports of natural gas to Europe currently stand at around 10 to 15 per cent of total gas imports to Europe. Egypt, he said, is working to increase its share of the European gas market.

Libya is another North African country with considerable oil and gas reserves, and Europe is also eyeing Libya to diversify its energy suppliers.

Cairo-based European diplomats say that European capitals are engaging Libyan interlocutors. However, they added that the continued internal Libyan political and military squabbles were not making the country a reliable source of energy supplies.

“Obviously, we are not getting off the Russian supplies overnight, but I think it will take quite a while for Libya to be a stable member of the regional and global energy market,” one said.

This year alone, inter-Libyan squabbles have blocked oil exports at least twice. The continued failure to find a compromise between the parallel Libyan governments of Abdel-Hamid Dbeibeh and Fathi Bashagha has been making it hard for Libya to find stability.

Egypt, informed diplomatic sources say, has signalled a willingness to participate in and possibly host a meeting to help the Dbeibeh and Bashagha camps to come to a compromise. The proposed meeting might bring together both Egypt and Turkey alongside the US and various European countries.

Getting Egypt and Turkey to be parties to a joint working team on Libya, diplomatic sources from both sides said, is not as difficult today as it would have been a couple of years ago.

According to this diplomat, resolving the crisis in Libya might get more attention now, given the interest in its energy resources as a result of the war in Ukraine. This, he added, was not necessarily the case for other pressing Middle East concerns, however.

“It is no secret that the Palestinian cause has almost been dropped off the list of priorities for international politics for over a decade,” he said.

According to the Egyptian diplomat, “there are many meetings that are being discussed to address the issue of regional security and cooperation, with the Palestinian cause being central.”

“We may not see eye to eye on everything, but what we all agree on is that this region with all its problems, including those caused by the war in Ukraine, needs immediate and serious action to avoid giving the world another major crisis,” he concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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