Egypt’s realistic approach to eastern Mediterranean gas crisis

Egypt’s realistic approach to eastern Mediterranean gas crisis

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A fishing boat sails in the Mediterranean Sea near an oil station in Alexandria, Egypt, July 18, 2017. (Reuters)

The eastern Mediterranean gas crisis is expanding dramatically, and more so than a mere dispute between Greece and Turkey, Egypt and Turkey or Libya and France. The crisis is expanding incredibly, especially with the clear intervention of international parties, namely the US, Russia and the EU states, due to their greed for the area’s riches.
It is as if history is, once again, repeating itself. The region has become the focus of international forces and they are aiming to secure their economies for the longest time possible. There are too many parties in the Mediterranean gas crisis, but what particularly interests us is Egypt and its way of dealing with it.
Since the discovery of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean, things have been intricately interconnected. Most prominently, disputes between states occur wherever gas is found or in any country whose regional water contains it, as well as in terms of how the gas is moved from fields to market.
Those disputes have caused great tension in the region and the current dispute between Turkey and Greece — induced by Ankara’s rejection of the maritime boundary delimitation agreement between Egypt and Greece — is the latest in the path of escalating tensions. It has led to naval maneuvers by Turkey on the one side and by Greece and some European countries on the other. These naval exercises might cause an unnecessary altercation that could cause the situation to implode.
From a purely pragmatic position, Egypt hopes to greatly revitalize its economy based on the gas discoveries in its regional waters, including the Zohr field. Such resources should yield a qualitative transformation in Egypt’s capabilities, such as linking their returns to developing a specific sector like higher education and scientific research. As for focusing on shifting old cars to use natural gas instead of gasoline in order to manage imports, that is short-term and helps the budget for a while, noting that the world is shifting toward electric vehicles.
Egypt has certainly engaged in the game of interactions and disputes, whether through delimitation agreements or other methods. However, it will continue to wait, pending the outcome of the direct altercations between the Turks on the one side and Greece and France on the other, especially after both sides’ recent statements. In the end, it is a country that overlooks the Mediterranean Sea, where it has international rights. What has added insult to injury are the countries that do not have maritime borders in the region and are going to extraordinary lengths to engage in the game, in any role, enticed by the region’s riches both politically and economically.
As mentioned, the conflict is not restricted to the verbal and maritime wars between Turkey and Greece or Turkey and Egypt. Other parties have engaged, with the US playing a key role in the eastern Mediterranean gas dispute. Its role comes in many areas, including in support of the EU’s involvement and the EastMed Gas Forum. Moreover, the deputy assistant US secretary of energy has expressed his country’s desire to join the EastMed Gas Forum as a permanent observer.
US lawmakers last year adopted the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, which helps consolidate Washington’s position in the eastern Mediterranean gas market. Congress adopted the act as part of a package to spend $1.4 trillion to make the US a major player in the natural gas market in the region through a security and energy partnership with the area’s countries — Cyprus, Greece and Israel in particular.
Meanwhile, the recent altercations between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron are not new, but they also come in the context of France’s desire to claim its share of the region’s gas, participate in drilling, and make agreements with some countries. During the third ministerial meeting of the EastMed Gas Forum in Cairo in January, France officially asked to join the forum, which shows the region’s importance for Paris.
On the other side, Russia and Turkey seem to be moving on a counter front. Moscow considers that its movements in the Mediterranean must ensure its gas export operation to Europe, while preventing the US from controlling the eastern Mediterranean gas pathways. Thus, we can expect to witness a more efficient Russian presence in the region. However, this presence needs a supportive country and it has so far only found Turkey. That is strange, given the many disputes between the two countries, such as the situation in Libya, where the non-public Russian support for Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar contradicts Ankara's substantial and influential support of Fayez Al-Sarraj. The same goes for Syria, in the easternmost part of the Mediterranean, where Moscow stands by Damascus, while Turkey supports armed groups on the opposite side.

Naval exercises might cause an unnecessary altercation that could cause the situation to implode.

Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy

Those disputes might be overlooked by the Russians. They may also constitute an obstacle in the next phase for both sides’ movements, as their main goal is to curb the roles of the US, Europe and their partners in the Mediterranean gas market.
One thing must be clarified: Russia does not eagerly desire the Mediterranean gas, as the rest of the countries do, since it already accounts for 17 percent of the total world production of natural gas, according to the latest statistics. Consequently, it relies greatly on gas exports for the growth of its economy, especially to European countries. Hence, the European movement toward the eastern Mediterranean poses a direct threat to Russia’s benefits, as it provides Europe’s markets with an alternative source of gas.
No one knows when the eastern Mediterranean crisis, which is expanding day by day, will end, and no one can predict the region’s future, especially if we read history well. However, Egypt is dealing with the crisis skillfully and with strict realism as it tries to secure its legal rights. It is not participating in the alliances in a way that eliminates its will.

  • Dr. Abdellatif El-Menawy is a critically acclaimed multimedia journalist, writer and columnist who has covered war zones and conflicts worldwide. Twitter: @ALMenawy
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