For one to converse in politics, one must constantly keep an eye on the map,” was a conclusion drawn by Charles de Gaulle, a statement as grand as his broad, star-decorated shoulders.
Lebanon should knows this as well as any other nation. From geological facts to political conflicts all the way through disputed maritime borders, numerous issues have led to Lebanon’s natural resources being exploited and commercialized.
A weak state has left its gas untapped, something de Gaulle, who lent a hand to rebuilding the modern French state after the Second World War, would have frowned upon.
Lebanon’s estimated offshore reserves are located in an oil and gas basin stretching into the offshore territories of Israel, Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Cyprus.
Lebanon does not have settled maritime borders with any of its neighbors, and the absence of a settlement affects management of Lebanon’s petroleum sector in various ways.
Following the Israeli discoveries of gas reserves off the coast of Haifa, the potential of the Eastern Mediterranean gas basin became more obvious. A US survey, published in 2009, estimated that there were 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas in the area, called the Levant Basin Province, which lies off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Gaza.
The beleaguered country needs to define its role in the next century through the exploitation of gas.
Tariq F. Zedan
The lack of a state-centric approach to the issue is not solely a matter of maritime borders, nor understanding the industry’s processes and its possible commercialization. The abundance of Lebanese talent and expertise is clear. The decision to exploit gas is not one for the Lebanese state, as has been demonstrated since discoveries were made, but rather through a complex parallel system working on the periphery of the state.
From Hof to Hochstein, several US envoys have attempted over the years to resolve the Eastern Mediterranean gas issue between Israel and Lebanon. However, from the Lebanese side, only one hand holds what the local media has dubbed the “gas file.” Understanding Lebanon’s current political landscape is crucial to digesting the challenges facing the fate of its natural resources. This has led to the state decision-making process which can shed light on the current static position.
As a democratic country, Lebanon has, alongside a president, an executive branch and a legislative one, in the form of a government and parliament. The composition of both is subject to a sectarian divide between Muslims and Christians, further divided for each sect as set forth in the constitution.
This has only been exaggerated through the perpetual influence of regional and international players. A hybrid system of state governance can be traced back to historical milestones (the 1860 Mutasrifia, 1920 Grand Lebanon, and 1989 Taif Accords) which came at a dear cost to the state’s work and powers.
As a result of this, the process of decision-making takes place outside the official branches of the state and institutions, between political parties, until a unanimous agreement is reached.
When such an agreement occurs, it is then moved on to be endorsed by the government and thus, an official Lebanese state decision is made. This practice is hyper-sensitive to regional conflicts and international shifts.
The Lebanese speaker, Nabih Berri, is the hand that holds the country’s “gas file.” Multiple events and efforts by Lebanon’s political parties and civil society experts have attempted to put the file in the hands of the government, but for over 10 years those attempts have failed.
The impact of natural resources, combined with a weak state, makes for ambiguity. Looking at the map will not suffice. Lebanon needs to define its role in the next century through the exploitation of gas.
What is at stake today is the role of the Lebanese state on the geopolitical stage of the coming new global system. Will Lebanese political leaders lend a hand and allow the state to step on the gas? A rhetorical question one might say, since some hands operate from abroad!
• Tariq F. Zedan is a writer and analyst of public policy and international affairs.