With the confirmation in 2010 of the existence of substantial reserves of natural gas off Israel’s coastline in the eastern Mediterranean, followed by finds off Cyprus in 2011 (in February of this year ExxonMobil announced an even bigger find inside Cyprus’s EEZ) and the biggest find of all, off Egypt’s coastline, in 2015, there were hopes that the prospects of a bonanza would help resolve some of the political tensions that bedevilled the region. It was thought that the incentives to settle the division of Cyprus would be enhanced, and that Israel might be brought in from the cold, particularly with respect to its troubled relationship with Turkey. After all, Turkey is the most obvious large-scale consumer of the gas, and also the most logical transit route to markets further afield.
These hopes have for the most part since been dashed. When the government of Cyprus embarked on steps to exploit their offshore gas reserves, particularly by handing exploration rights to the Italian company ENI (Nicosia has also signed deals with France’s Total, and the US companies Noble and ExxonMobil), Ankara argued that Cyprus could not exercise its rights over the island’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the absence of an agreement on the future status of the Turkish Cypriot minority on the island. From Ankara’s understandable perspective, they too should enjoy their share of the largesse that would come Cyprus’s way once the gas fields could be exploited. However, there has been little progress on resolving the Cyprus problem.
Instead, in February 2018 Turkish warships prevented an ENI drilling rig from operating off the southern Cyprus coastline. Ankara, which also insists that Nicosia’s claimed EEZ overlaps with Turkey’s, has threatened to blacklist foreign companies – dubbed ‘bandits of the sea’ by Turkish President Erdogan – that help Cyprus exploit its offshore gas resources.
In late 2018 Turkey began its own exploration and drilling operations – accompanied by Turkish naval vessels – in waters claimed to be within the Cypriot EEZ. There were even reports in the Turkish media that Turkish F-16s had intercepted UK planes on a reconnaissance mission in proximity to the Turkish seismic vessels. Turkey has also criticised EEZ delineation agreements that Cyprus has entered into with Israel, Egypt and Lebanon.
The EU backs Nicosia’s EEZ claims – Cyprus is an EU member state after all – a position reiterated at an EUMed7 (France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, Malta and Cyprus) meeting in January of this year.
Israel, which plans to consume most of its offshore gas itself, has preferred to enter into agreements with Cyprus and Greece which will involve exporting gas to Italy via a pipeline passing through the Greek island of Crete.
More surprisingly perhaps, Cyprus and Israel are discussing building pipelines to Egypt, from where it could be exported as LNG to Italy, north Africa and beyond. This suggests that Cairo finds dealing with Israel more congenial than cooperating with Turkey, which has not been forgiven by Egyptian leader General al-Sisi for its support of the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Morsi that al-Sisi ousted from power, and which has added to Cairo’s irritation by siding with Qatar in its rift with the other Arab Gulf states.
As for Israel, it is fed up with Ankara’s bid to win the favour of the ‘Arab street’ by its support for Hamas, its constant attacks on Israel’s handling of West Bank and Gaza protests, and its fierce opposition to the declaration of Jerusalem as the Jewish state’s capital.
Egypt appears to have trumped Turkey as the more likely hub for eastern Mediterranean gas exports, and in January 2019 Cairo hosted a wider regional eastern Mediterranean gas forum consisting of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum countries (Cyprus, Greece, Israel and Egypt) plus Jordan, Italy and the Palestinian Authority, but not Turkey. In his comments to the forum, Sisi couldn’t help gently trumpet the fact that it was Egypt rather than Turkey that was at the heart of the forum’s deliberations.
Greece, Cyprus and Israel have undertaken maritime and other exercises relating to pipeline protection – three during 2017 alone – and Egypt too has signed military cooperation agreements with Greece and Cyprus and is groping towards improved eastern Mediterranean security arrangements with Israel.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended a Jerusalem meeting between Israel, Cyprus and Greece in March of this year, where he attacked ‘revisionist’ powers in the region and the need to defend against ‘external malign influences’. There can be little doubt that Washington wishes to throw its support behind the activities of ExxonMobil and Noble Energy in the eastern Mediterranean region. Unsurprisingly, Turkish media outlets interpreted Pompeo’s comments, and the meeting itself, as directed primarily against Turkey. They were surely correct to do so.
The EU is encouraging these discussions between the EMGF members in the hope that they can offer a welcome diversification of gas supplies to Europe. At the tail end of 2018 Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin celebrated the completion of the Turkstream twin pipeline that will bring Russian gas to Turkey and, hopefully, on to the Balkans via Greece or Bulgaria.
The Turkstream project emerged in 2014 as an alternative to the mooted South Stream pipeline, which was to take Russian gas to central Europe via Bulgaria, and which was dropped due to EU unease. Turkstream might yet emerge as a transit route for Russian gas into Europe, but the EU would nevertheless prefer to limit its dependence on Moscow.
All in all, this is a pretty comprehensive regional alignment of countries, an alignment from which Turkey is decidedly excluded.
Turkey’s lack of diplomatic flexibility and finesse, and its inclination to try to bully rather than negotiate, serve to amplify the seemingly expanding list of issues that bedevil Turkey’s relationships with most of its neighbours.
Turkey underlined its image as a bully by its extension to the eastern Mediterranean of its largest ever maritime military exercise, named Blue Homeland and which also straddled the Aegean and the Black Sea, in February/March of this year.
Of course the eastern Mediterranean energy nexus might yet not develop as many hope it will. Settling for self-sufficiency in gas is a real option for both Israel and Egypt. Lebanon disputes Israel’s claimed EEZ, and Israel’s middle eastern relationship are in any case always vulnerable. Pipelines are expensive, and investors could yet be deterred by falling European demand for gas and by over-supply. The EU might yet bite the bullet and begin to take Russian gas from the already-constructed Turkstream pipeline, to add the Azeri gas transited across Turkey via the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP).
Furthermore, Turkey’s case with respect to Cyprus is a real one, even if its method of dealing with it can sometimes raise eyebrows. And Turkey’s exclusion from the burgeoning regional diplomatic, economic, security and technical cooperation in the eastern Mediterranean imposes additional expense and complexity on its participants. Even so, the emerging regional networks of cooperation that are forming around the discovery of gas – and maybe oil too in due course – in the eastern Mediterranean, are excluding Turkey and to some extent are emerging in opposition to Turkey. This intensifies Turkey’s uncomfortable dependence on Russia and Iran for the bulk of its energy supplies, and adds to its unequalled portfolio of neighbourhood tensions.
Furthermore, beyond obstructing the progress that others might make, Turkey’s options in the eastern Mediterranean are limited.
Once again, Ankara seems to have found it easier to generate adversaries than to make friends, and to worsen problems rather than resolve them. One way or another it is Turkey that will surely be the biggest loser as a consequence.