No EEZ Solution: The Politics of Oil and Gas in the Eastern Mediterranean

Article excerpt

The discovery of oil and natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea has the potential to exacerbate conflicts in the area. There are many possible ways to prevent this from happening, but each requires the states of the region to cooperate, which is unlikely for numerous reasons. This article reviews the various conflicts that have emerged or are emerging over this issue and suggests possible solutions.

Since the 1990s, the hydrocarbon resources of the eastern Mediterranean Sea have greatly increased in importance. Advances in seismic search and drilling technology, as well as rising energy prices, have led to massive exploration and significant finds of oil and especially natural gas. Recent discoveries have made clear that this region stands to become one of the world's most important sources of natural gas over the next half-century. An oft-cited US Geological Survey report estimated that the area beneath this region's ocean floor contains at least 122 trillion standard cubic feet (tscf) of natural gas.1 These vast reserves will serve as a source of energy not just for residents of the region but potentially for those of Europe and other areas.

With these discoveries has come a significant rise in tensions between the countries in this area. Existing feuds, including the Turkish-Cypriot dispute and the Arab-Israeli conflict, have become more heated over the past few years. Previously warm Israeli-Turkish relations have cooled since 2009 amidst a series of crises in their bilateral relations. The inter-state relations in the region have been further complicated by the wave of revolutions that has swept across the Arab world since early 2011, overturning several governments. Although none of these issues was caused by the new discoveries, the resources present in this region have the potential to exacerbate these conflicts as countries argue over the ownership and distribution of the gas and oil, the value of which will certainly be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

At least initially, few seemed to consider the oil and gas resources scattered across the area as a regional problem due to a combination of factors. New reserves have been found in several different geological areas in the Mediterranean, including the Nile Basin, the Levant Basin, and the Cyprus Basin, which means that countries are contesting many different sources of resources, rather than one giant oil and gas field. The lack of diplomatic relations between states such as Lebanon and Israel, and strained relations between pairs of countries such as Egypt-Israel, Turkey-Cyprus, and Greece-Turkey, have long kept this group of countries from acting as a single region. Thus, although there is an increasing tendency to write about the conflict from a broader regional perspective, many of the media reports on, and academic studies of, this issue have been written from a narrow, nationalist perspective or have focused on the needs of one country alone.2

This article argues that the increasing tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean are best understood as a part of a developing regional conflict over resources.3 Although wars in the Middle East have long been connected to the presence of natural resources, recent events represent a new development in this area. During the first decades of the Arab-Israeli conflict, oil and gas revenues from the Gulf states and North Africa funded militaries and militant groups throughout the region. On certain occasions, such as the 1991 Gulf War, the conflict concerned resources overtly, but in other cases it was only a contributing factor.4 These new oil and gas reserves have the potential to serve the former function. In other words, these resources may be the object of future conflicts, rather than simply a means to their continuation.

This article makes a contribution to the study of the issue by discussing the possibilities for both conflict and cooperation in the region, arguing that the evolution of the situation will reflect how countries balance their economic interests with the sensitive political issues that are upsetting the region's inter-state relations. …