from Milan, Italy
The Eastern Mediterranean region took the limelight recently, almost 15 years. The game-changer of this region was natural gas, discovered in huge quantities in 2010. Throughout history, the Eastern Mediterranean was obscured by the much more complicated onshore region, the Middle East. The violence, conflicts, and social revolts of the MENA countries took the spotlight from the sea, attracting international players. When natural gas was found in the region, things changed. Thanks to this, the Eastern Mediterranean turned out to be a central area, able to play an important role in the international arena. During this decade, the region’s countries could establish ties and connections. This path was crowned by the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, the first international organization of the region.
BEHIND THE SCENES: THE RELATIONS BETWEEN THE MEMBERS
In January 2019, the energy ministers of Egypt, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority gathered in Cairo. During the meeting, they established the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), the first international organization of the region. Anyway, this did not come to light but was the result of efforts made by those countries to create an alliance in the region. From 2010, they started to develop ties that some decades ago were impossible, and now are the cornerstone of the Eastern Mediterranean. In particular, the relations between Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, and Israel are the emblem of this process: till that year, the two Hellenic countries were hostile towards Israel, favoring good relations with the Arab world. When natural gas was discovered in both Israeli and Cypriot EEZs, the three countries found a common base from which they built their relationship.
The second important aspect of the EMGF is that the forum is a unique framework where Israeli and Palestinian representatives can collaborate and dialogue, which could prepare the environment for a peace process between them. In fact, the energy element could be a new start for the negotiation to find a solution, and Israel has already started to talk with Palestinians about Gaza’s offshore exploitation. Moreover, the organization is the crowning achievement of Egypt-Israel relations, that since the came to power of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisiin 2014, has seen important warming, especially in the energetic and security cooperation. Israel was the main supporter of the Egyptian EMGF formation‘s leadership. Cairo is a friendly environment that allows Israel to engage in a positive dialogue with Jordanian and Palestinian representatives in an Arab capital.
According to its mission statement, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum serves as a venue for historically antagonistic nations to resolve their differences to reap the financial rewards of energy cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean. Its purpose is to strengthen the relations between the members, create opportunities for energy development and cooperation, and maximize the commercial potential of the region’s hydrocarbon reserves. The EMGF’s goals are to make it easier to exploit the natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean by utilizing the region’s existing infrastructure and to promote further exploration by enlisting the private sector and financial institutions in an effort to improve monetization capabilities. In fact, enhancing monetization potential is essential for luring investors and promoting further exploration efforts. This is one of the key areas where the EMGF may contribute value.
One aspect in which the forum can contribute is the realization of projects of cooperation. Among the many projects which find support in the EMGF, the East Med Gas Pipeline is maybe the most important today. This pipeline is projected to supply gas from Israel to Europe, passing by Cyprus and Greece, and to finally arrive in Italy. In this way, Europe could satisfy its need of diversification of e energy supply, the aim that the EU is working at. In particular after the Ukraine invasion, this project took the spotlight, as it could solve the major problem in Europe at the moment.
THE EFFECTS ON THE BALANCE OF THE REGION
It is evident the absence in the EMGF of three Eastern Mediterranean countries: Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. If Syria’s participation in international affairs was minimal due to the ongoing conflict, Lebanon was invited to join the EMGF more than once but refused due to the presence of Israel. In any case, the most noticeable absent country from the forum is Turkey. For many years, the country has worked towards a leadership role in the region, but its foreign policy has attracted the hostilities of the countries of the EMGF, which allied and formed an anti-Turkish axis. Consequently, the exclusion from the EMGF has been seen by Turkey as an attempt to the security and integrity of the country. The escalating tensions between Turkey and Cyprus prompted the formation of a common front of interconnected security ties between Greece, and Israel. Subsequently, each Turkish act of gunboat diplomacy, France, Italy, and the United States, which have financial stakes in Eastern Mediterranean gas, grew to back this unified front militarily.
To overcome this, from the Turkish point of view, unacceptable action of hostility towards it, Turkey has shifted its foreign policy from one relying on soft power to a more aggressive and muscular position. As a result, Turkey chose a breakaway strategy by creating an open, official partnership with the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. Each EMGF member experienced an increase in aggressive Turkish foreign policy over the past ten years, which has led to a realignment in the area to counteract perceived concerns from Turkey. Egypt. Israel, Greece, and RoC fueled the geopolitical dimension of the Forum with a specific and clear anti-Turkish alignment.
It is too soon to predict how the forum will develop or whether it will be able to fulfill its purpose and establish itself as a reliable player who could help the region monetize its resources. From a geopolitical standpoint, excluding a few nations from the discussion may or may not have unintended repercussions. However, there are other risks involved. It might motivate countries who feel excluded to band together and coordinate their policies. In fact, alignments and counter-alignment are unnecessary in the region because they can exacerbate present trends and increase frictions that foreign players could exploit and fuel. The development of Turkey’s relations with its neighbors could also have an impact on Egypt, in particular.
Mitchell G., Israel’s Quest For Regional Belonging in the Eastern Mediterranean, The Scramble for the Eastern Mediterranean, ISPI, Milan, 2021.
Mitchell G., The Eastern Mediterranean Gas forum: Cooperation in the Shadow of Competition, MITVIM, 2020.
Sukkarieh M., The East Mediterranean Gas Forum: Regional Cooperation Amid Conflicting Interests, Natural Resource Governance Institute, 2021.
Autore dell’articolo*: Sara Isabella Leykin, esperta di geopolitica e Medio Oriente. Middle Eastern Studies, Università “La Cattolica” di Milano.
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