It is difficult to predict how the natural gas discoveries in Eastern Mediterranean will impact an already complex regional inter-relation system. Signs of mounting tension around the offshore potential resources are not new. If this tension occurs in the current early phase of exploring and extraction, it should also be sufficient to alert the international community to what the future may hold in a region where armed conflicts are easy to erupt.
The parties concerned are Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza. Just mentioning the names of these countries together in anything, not to mention a wealth potentially valued at billions of dollars, is enough to raise concern. Varying levels of access to offshore gas resources, or even awareness of it, put the players at different distances from the point of open verbal hostility around this specific issue. The civil war in Syria and its threats to Lebanon, the last exceptional four years in Egypt, and the unsettled future of Gaza are but some factors in what kept the lights of this contentious issue dimmed for the time being.
Yet, it might be a good idea to start thinking of an international arbitration body devoted to thoroughly, and exclusively, researching this issue and getting ready to look at the certain conflicting claims that will emerge and are emerging already. The debate in some of the region’s countries about a maritime border demarcation may take time due to the particularity of the situation of Cyprus and Gaza.
In Lebanon, for example, some heated discussions rise from time to time with voices calling to contest the Israel-Cyprus agreement regarding division of the water areas between the two as it is perceived to trespass on Lebanese water territories, particularly the areas facing South of Lebanon, the strong base of Hezbollah. Some views consider the agreement a blatant aggression on Lebanese rights and an attempt to impose a fait accompli on other countries of the region.
Lebanese government registered its reservations related to the Cyprus-Israel deal in an official memo presented to the UN in 2011. Israel refused any demarcation of its water borders with Lebanon unless all borders, land and sea, between the two countries are determined together. The claim was described by some Lebanese as a stall tactics until imposed realities become recognized.
In Cairo, critics of the government accused Egyptian authorities of “selling Egypt’s national rights and interests” to the Israelis. Cairo conceded a supposedly very rich offshore area called “Block 12” to Cyprus in 2014. Egyptian opposition believes Israel is trying to create an alliance with Egypt, Cyprus and Greece to guarantee a favorable demarcation and a permanent fait accompli.
Syrian and Lebanese Mediterranean waters are thought to be rich with offshore gas fields. Studies conducted by international companies confirmed the potentials back in 2011. Egypt is focused on its immediate need to get sufficient amounts of the new gas discoveries at a favorable price in order to cover its increasing domestic consumption. Israel promises to give Egypt what it wants. Turkey is showing signs of anger from time to time, but fortunately, so far, it did not develop its position beyond the line of rejection and rhetoric.
However, the two tips of the opposed positions are Turkey and Israel. Any bold move by one side, in its worse scenario case, may cause a clash between naval forces of the other. Several times in the near past the situation came close to that line already. Israel is enhancing its navy with additional firepower in anticipation of future problems.
It is sure now that East Mediterranean has indeed very promising natural gas resources. These resources could elevate the whole region from its dire economic impasse. Instead, it is most certainly going to be a trigger for future disputes and confrontations. The world better gets ready for yet another focal point of tension in the Middle East. To avoid the worst case scenario, an arbitration international body could be formed by the UN with the limited mandate of examining the issue of demarcation of water territories in the East Mediterranean.