Experts unpack Eastern Mediterranean crisis at Arab News webinar

Experts unpack Eastern Mediterranean crisis at Arab News webinar
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Updated 25 March 2021

Experts unpack Eastern Mediterranean crisis at Arab News webinar

Experts unpack Eastern Mediterranean crisis at Arab News webinar
  • Virtual event marks 200 years of modern Greece and Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire
  • Greek ambassador to Saudi Arabia says his country remains committed to abiding by international laws

DUBAI: Cautious optimism has been expressed by energy experts and government officials that peace, stability and prosperity will prevail in the contested, oil-rich Eastern Mediterranean region in the future.

They were taking part in Wednesday’s Briefing Room webinar, organized by the Arab News Research & Studies Unit to observe the 200th anniversary of the 1821 Greek Revolution. Thursday marks the bicentennial of the start of Greece’s War of Independence.

Alexis Konstantopoulos, Greece’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, used the opportunity to convey his government’s commitment to abiding by international laws.

“Our position has been consistent over time in terms of adherence to international law and it won’t change in the future,” he said. “It is important to bear this in mind because it is the cornerstone of our policy, bilaterally and multilaterally.”

Konstantopoulos described Greece’s role as a positive influence in the Eastern Mediterranean region, aimed at promoting dialogue and cooperation to secure peace, security and prosperity.

To illustrate his point, he highlighted a number of maritime agreements that Greece has signed that align with the principles of good neighborly relations. He said Greece’s goal is the delimitation of maritime borders with all the neighboring countries in accordance with international law and the Law of the Sea.

“There have been very important oil and gas developments in the Eastern Mediterranean recently,” Konstantopoulos said. “Greece promotes energy cooperation among countries in the region and those of the Middle East, either at a trilateral or multilateral level.”

He said the discovery and future exploitation of the energy sources is of vital importance to regional stability given its potential for promoting cooperation. In regard to the Eastern Mediterranean gas pipeline, Greece is promoting energy connectivity with newly discovered gas fields in the region, Konstantopoulos said.

“We are working for the realization of the East Med gas pipeline, that will be linking the offshore natural gas reserves of Israel, Cyprus and Egypt through Greece to Italy and all other European Union countries,” he said.

“Energy can be used as a catalyst for peace and close cooperation among Eastern Mediterranean countries. We consider that the East Med Gas Forum is open to all countries in the region that respect the provisions of international law.”

Alexis Konstantopoulos, Greece’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

Laury Haytayan, the Middle East and North Africa director at the Natural Resource Governance Institute, concurred that the most complex issue is linked to maritime borders, not just between Turkey and Greece but between many different countries, such as Lebanon and Israel as well as Syria.

She said these issues pose challenges in terms of security to the region, as well as to the oil and gas sectors, while the new dimension of the Russian presence in the region adds another complexity to the mix.

“There is a lot of potential in the Eastern Mediterranean,” she said. “But, at the same time, you have a lot of problems and complexities you need to deal with altogether and avoid alienating parties or playing divisive cards.”

For his part, Alexandros Zachariades, head of research for 89 London, an LSE-based think tank and an expert on the Eastern Mediterranean, said the withdrawal of America from the region, especially during the Barack Obama and Donald Trump administrations, has created a vacuum that has coincided with an expanded Russian presence.

Keeping Greek-Turkish tensions in mind, he said Washington’s regional role will be key.

A handout photo released by the Greek National Defense Ministry on August 26, 2020 shows ships of the Hellenic Navy taking part in a military exercise in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, on August 25, 2020. (AFP/Greek Defense Ministry/File Photo)

“Currently and luckily, Greece and Turkey are talking to each other. The ongoing negotiations mean tensions are low, but they will not lead to any sort of breakthrough in solving the maritime issue that they have had since the 1970s,” Zachariades said.

“The US is now the only party that can keep those two sides talking and also push them to find solutions on the issue of Cyprus.”

Looking to the future, Haytayan said the East Med Gas Forum should stay focused on energy and not get distracted by politics. She pointed out that the platform is seen by Turkey as a political entity opposed to its oil and gas ambitions in the region. And that the Palestinian minister recently vetoed the UAE’s request for membership.

“This was overshadowed by other good news happening in the region,” she said. “If this mentality continues of using the platform for political scoring, automatically the forum will lose its value even though there is an economic value to it.”

She said the East Med Gas Forum can cater to the regional energy market, with the demand for gas increasing from 0.3 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) per month to 0.6 Tcf and supply not keeping pace. To this end, she said the forum can play the role of a crucial platform for regional countries to come together to build a common infrastructure and frame appropriate oil and gas policies.