By Lily Purqurian
Few things can claim to be the potential source of peace and prosperity in a region that is so devastatingly deprived of it, but offshore natural gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean could.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working that way. The recent discovery of approximately 1.7 billion barrels of oil resources in the Eastern Mediterranean, according to the 2010 U.S. Geological Survey Report, is able to offer an alternative energy supplier for the EU, economic and political stability for Eastern Mediterranean countries, settlement of the Cyprus dispute, an easing of Israeli-Turkish relations, a possible Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Lebanese partnership, transit profit, and a new source of cooperation for all countries respectively distressed – Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, Syria, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt – alike. Instead, it’s erupting into a new source of conflict.
Past and present frictions undoubtedly boil beneath the possibility of cooperation. What is most significant about natural gas is its ever-expanding status in global energy markets, thus presenting a threat to existing – or non-existing – power balances and alliances in the region. Depending on the extent to which maritime delimitation can be accomplished, a state like Palestine could wield unprecedented influence and a state like Syria could regain its teeth in the region. But the gas fields are hardly so respectful of borders. The blurry lines of ownership compete with already existing tensions as the stifling arrangement of exclusive economic zones (EEZ) in the Eastern Mediterranean fall victim to the hostilities between states. Lebanon has already disputed Israel’s claims to certain gas fields, while Turkey continues to deny the Republic of Cyprus statehood, and Israeli-Cypriot rapprochement (via ongoing demarcation conventions) is hampered by the vocal disapproval of Egypt, Lebanon, and Turkey.
What is most interesting about these divisions, however, is how unaffordable they are for each country to sustain. The exacerbation of territorial disputes and macroeconomic uncertainty incurs a new source of conflict in the region that compromises security and resources while potentially increasing exploitation. Already, naval forces are sent to secure maritime delineation and in the meantime, oil exploration has come to a vague suspension. Israel has not responded to Lebanon’s territorial claims but has instead committed to military force if needed. Additionally, Hezbollah threatens to bomb gas platforms that would secure Lebanon’s offshore resources. This, alongside the civil unrest in Syria and Egypt, debt crises in Cyprus, and political instability in Lebanon and Turkey further divides and weakens states which, frankly, need each other’s help.
More concerning than subtly bellicose activity, however, is the extent of provocation. States are irritated, and perhaps rightly so. Israeli-Cypriot negotiations – being the only standing cooperation in the region thus far – stand taller than the ownership claims of other states, thus making the Eastern Mediterranean more prone to exploitation in the future. Whether from Turkey, Palestine, or Lebanon; Israel and Cyprus do not have wide-range acknowledgment or support. This makes it more difficult to export and sustain natural gas when its sellers are so unwelcome.
So while Yiorgos Lakkotrypis, Minister of Energy, Commerce, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus, was right when he observed that the discovery of natural gas “can be a new prospect for bringing both wealth and economic development to each of the countries,” it seems he was all the more sharp in his observation when he continued, “but [they] also can create a new geopolitical map.”