September 22, 2020 should go down as a landmark date not only for the energy sector in the Eastern Mediterranean but also for the fragile political landscape of the whole region. Six countries – Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Italy, and Jordan, plus the Palestinian Authority – have signed a historical agreement which opens the road for tight cooperation in the gas sector. At the same time, the agreement has significant geopolitical implications for the ever-changing balances in the wider region.
From a Quasi-Formal Forum to a Full-Blown International Organization
The first efforts around the establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum go way back. In autumn 2018 the leaders of Cyprus, Egypt and Greece met in the Greek island of Crete and held talks about the consolidation of cooperation among gas-producing countries. This meeting predominantly aimed to achieve efficient coordination among Mediterranean states which are involved in the process of gas production and distribution, in order to gradually maximize the potential gains for all the sides involved.
This promising idea has received a more official format a couple of months later, when in January 2019, the “Natural Gas Forum in the Eastern Mediterranean” took place in Cairo with the participation of all the 6+1 parties that signed the charter of the Organization on September 22, 2020. Since January 2019 the Forum has been gradually moving to the establishment of a concrete international body, and the strategic initiative has been officially completed and reached its final form through the virtual ceremony which took place yesterday.
High-Ranking Virtual Conference
The following Ministers of Energy-related sectors participated in the virtual conference: Natassa Pilidou (Cyprus), Tarek al-Mala (Egypt), Kostis Hatziadakis (Greece), Yuval Steinitz (Israel), Hala Zawati (Jordan), alongside the Italian Undersecretary of the Ministry of Economic Development (MISE) Alessandra Todde and the Palestinian Ambassador in Egypt, Diab al-Louh.
According to the joint statements issued by the participants shortly after the completion of the works, the organization will function as a factor of peace and stability in the region, bringing closer the gas producers, the suppliers and the consumers. The ultimate goal of this joint initiative is to establish a robust and viable territorial gas market in the Eastern Mediterranean, which will crucially benefit the people of the region in the long-term.
It should be noted that France has expressed its interest in becoming a member of the organization, while the EU and the US will probably engage with the initiative under an observer status.
Gaza Field and Status of Israeli-Palestinian Relations
The Gaza Marine field was discovered in the late 1990s approximately 35 km offshore Gaza Strip. In 2000 the UK British Gas company bought the rights of the field for research and exploration and in 2016 the field came under the possession of Royal Dutch Shell, when the latest acquired the BG Group.
The project has been into a stalemate for almost 2 decades due to the unique political and security challenges in the area and disagreement over the exploitation rights of the field between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In 2018 the Gaza Marine gas field has been bought by the Palestine Investment Fund, a sovereign fund which invests in strategic projects, with ultimate purpose to strengthen the struggling Palestinian economy. Since 2003 the public shareholding fund is functioning under the guidance of the Palestinian Authority, seeking to participate in initiatives across vital industry sectors that could serve the interests of the Palestinian people.
The acquisition of the Gaza Marine gas field by the PIF and the participation of the Palestinian Authority in the official establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum signify an optimistic outlook regarding Israeli-Palestinian relations. It is not only the participation of the PA in an international body where cooperation with Israel is de facto achieved through the mutual economic benefits that both parties would seek via the exploitation of the gas reserves.
Such a potential major project in the Gaza Strip which could bring prosperity in the area and could potentially limit the influence of the radical Hamas organization in the region or possibly force Hamas to adopt a more moderate stance towards Israel and the PA, in order to establish a viable work environment for the people living in Gaza.
Turkey’s Exclusion and Possible Counter-reaction
The establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum comes at a critical moment for the stability in the region. Turkey has been unilaterally conducting seismic research and drilling in the declared Cypriot fields over the past year without any authorization from the Cypriot administration. Since last July, Ankara has also been raising tension over disputes with Greece, regarding the maritime zones of the Greek islands.
The very establishment of the EastMed Gas Forum organization sends a political message to Turkey. The exclusion of Ankara from the EastMed Gas group highlights the fact that the unilateral and aggressive decision-making in the region will not be welcomed by any of the neighboring countries.
We know that President Recep Erdogan hates being isolated, and he has never been actually isolated in the past, regardless of what some commentators are persistently claiming. However, this latest move leaves officially Turkey out of a club, where Ankara could be playing an major role under different circumstances. In this respect, Turkey has been lately trying to find common ground with Egypt. Either through seeking rapprochement in the Libyan conflict or through proposals for declaring their respective exclusive economic zones with much more luring terms than Cairo has done with Nicosia or Athens.
Apparently the last plan is fundamentally based upon the Turkish “Blue Homeland Doctrine” according to which the maritime rights of Greece and Cyprus are severely degraded. Nevertheless it is rather improbable to see a cooperation between Cairo and Ankara any time soon, or at least under the current political status quo. Turkey’s harsh criticism against the al-Sisi administration alongside the fierce support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt foreclose any impetus for a political reconciliation between the two counties.
Cause for Concern
This assumption leads us to a concerning conclusion. In the event that Turkey ends up being at odds with the seven of the EastMed Gas Forum then we can be expecting unconventional reactions from Ankara. After all, the recent signing of the charter should not be seen as only an energy deal but also as a political agreement.
And in this special occasion, the ideal method for Turkey to counter-react would be to utilize the relations with Hamas. This includes ties that have been built over the years through the essential assistance from Turkey in support of the Palestinian cause.
If such a scenario is to materialize, then we should expect Ankara to decisively attempt destroying any potential of cooperation in the Gaza Strip, as we have described earlier. And a Turkish boost to Hamas in order political objectives to be achieved through local tensions could bring catastrophic results to the wider theater of the Eastern Mediterranean, threatening the now visible regional peace and stability that’s been sought after for such a long time.