Full of Gas, Full of Problems: The Eastern Mediterranean's Hydrocarbon Showdown

January 6, 2015 Topic: Energy Region: GreeceCyprusEgyptIsraelTurkey

Full of Gas, Full of Problems: The Eastern Mediterranean's Hydrocarbon Showdown

The discovery of natural gas is exacerbating tensions among various players in the Eastern Mediterranean. Is there a viable path forward where all can benefit? 

In October of last year, Russia, Israel and Cyprus conducted a joint naval exercise in waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. Though scheduled well in advance, the timing of the drill could not have been more opportune for Cyprus; the Barbaros, a Turkish seismic vessel dispatched by Ankara in order to survey the sea floor for hydrocarbons, had just entered the bitterly contested Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) between the two countries.

The affair triggered a flurry of diplomatic action. Israel called on Turkey to respect Cyprus’ right to explore for natural gas within its maritime boundaries, and Cyprus insisted that the vessel immediately withdraw. Not surprisingly, President Erdogan rebuffed these demands , and avowed that the Barbaros would remain at sea until a distribution deal was reached for the riches beneath.

This tense affair is representative of the new developments that have caused a shift in traditional regional patterns of enmity and amity between the Eastern Mediterranean’s primary actors: Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey, which began with the rapid deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations after the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident. Despite bilateral attempts (and limited American mediation) for reconciliation, the two countries are still far from realigned. Although Israel has demonstrated the willingness to normalize the relationship, Turkey’s foreign policy seems to systematically exacerbate the problem. Its blatant, emotional and nondiplomatic stance against any Israeli policy toward the Palestinians has left little room for a healthy reconciliation process. Anti-Semitic rhetoric coming out of the pro-AKP media has only made matters worse.

Another development was the collapse of Turkish-Egyptian relations, following the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. For the AKP, which felt a political and ideological bond with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian military’s coup brought back painful memories of historical events in Turkey. As a result, Turkey adopted a contentious stance toward Egypt’s new president, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, leading to a severing of diplomatic ties.

Other significant developments that fall within the same geopolitical context include the long-standing Turkey-Cyprus and Turkey-Greece (NATO members since 1952) disputes over a host of issues such as the Cyprus problem and the Aegean maritime zones, respectively. These historically troubled relationships have become even more complicated with the introduction of hydrocarbons in the region in 2011. After Israel, Cyprus discovered its own natural-gas reserves in its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which, unsurprisingly, is contested by both Turkey and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey), which controls 37 percent of the island. Turkey has repeatedly threatened Cyprus with military action if it ever tries to exploit its natural resources. In October 2014, Ankara illegally issued a NAVTEX order, thereby reserving areas in RoC’s EEZ for seismic surveys that are meant to discover natural resources. It then dispatched the Barbaros, a seismic vessel, accompanied by Turkish warships into the Cypriot EEZ in order to collect data. Last month, Erdogan pledged that the Barbaros would not leave until a deal was struck.


Greece is faced with a similar maritime dispute with Turkey over shared rights in the Aegean Sea. Turkey considers portions of the disputed Aegean Sea “grey areas” and maintains that any unilateral effort from Greece to expand its maritime zones constitutes a casus belli (cause for war). Despite various efforts between Greece and Turkey to normalize ties, discussions remain focused on low politics (e.g. economy, tourism, energy) and avoid the fundamental, but infinitely more sensitive issues. In light of these realities and the rising opportunities for trilateral energy cooperation with Israel, Greece and Cyprus have made a strategic pivot toward Israel . Through preliminary energy agreements with Israel and Cyprus, Egypt has also joined this game, at least indirectly.

Thus, two distinct but overlapping partnerships have emerged: Israel-Cyprus-Greece and Egypt-Cyprus-Greece. As this suggests, Cyprus and Israel are key states in both these partnerships, primarily because of the pivotal role they play as rising energy producers. In order to evaluate the Eastern Mediterranean’s future, the motivations, challenges and perspectives of these two countries on the evolving balance of power must be explored.

The Israeli Perspective:

Israel’s foreign policy has always prided itself on caution and a pro-Western agenda. Political instability in the Eastern Mediterranean over the last five years has only affirmed this strategy in the eyes of Jerusalem’s decision makers, gas or no gas. But the discovery of hydrocarbons has created an opportunity for increasing regional economic integration, and Israel hopes that initial deals with Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority will serve to solidify those diplomatic ties.

Landing a deal with Egypt is paramount for both countries, whose relations have seen a noticeable uptick since the ouster of Mohamed Morsi. Containing radical Islam is the foundation upon which Jerusalem and Cairo have found common ground. During last summer’s war in Gaza, Israel relied heavily on Egyptian mediation in order to reach a settlement with Hamas. But a natural-gas deal would also provide a welcome diversification of the relationship, and an economic boost, utilizing Egypt’s stagnant LNG plants .