By Basma Mostafa

wild waters of the Eastern Mediterranean spread a massive veil over wealthy gas reserves. Countries in the region have become feverish to lift it, claiming a better and bigger portion of resources hidden below the sea bedrock. But their eagerness to dig into the subsea richness often generates disputes and confrontations.

Under the international legal framework, maritime borders separating waters of regional countries are established to define zones of interests, delineate sea areas as part of countries’ sovereign territories, while providing guarantees of peaceful relations among the states. However, at times, they provoke disagreements. In the Eastern Mediterranean, often overlapping maritime lines turn into a point of discord between Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus. Competition over the rights to utilize massive resources seems to be ballooning up the already existing tensions among certain countries to potentially conflictual scenarios.

In April 2010, the US Geological Survey (USGS) estimated that undiscovered, yet technically recoverable natural gas in the Mediterranean’s Levant Basin area amounts to between 122tcf and 227tcf. In recent years, intensive exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea have led to several major discoveries of large oil and natural gas reserves worth hundreds of billions of dollars. It is therefore no wonder that the competition is severe. The region with such wealthy potential has been dubbed a ‘new Persian Gulf,’ as William Engdahl, a US-German geopolitical analyst, put it, adding that the discovery of hydrocarbon resources may have major geopolitical implications for the economies of regional countries and their mutual relations.

Double Claims over Gas Resources

Maritime borders between Israel and Lebanon have been an issue of dispute for several years. Both countries claim an 850-square-kilometer stretch of sea off their coasts, close to an area where US and Israeli firms have discovered two massive natural gas fields, Tamar and Leviathan, which collectively hold an estimated 26tcf of natural gas.

The two fields are important energy sources for Israel as well as for Lebanon. Not only do the Tamar and Leviathan fields have capacity to satisfy Israel’s electricity needs for several decades to come, but they would also allow the country to become a net energy exporter. Previously, Israel has been depending on energy imports and due to political instability in neighboring countries it has been suffering frequent energy supply interruptions, which it is currently seeking to prevent thanks to the new gas fields. Lebanon would also benefit from the two fields as it suffers from a struggling economy, large debt burden, and limited national budget. The country therefore claims it has a share in the Leviathan and the Tamar fields based on the maritime border arrangements. Israel responded to those claims.

Israeli marine law expert, Amir Cohen-Dor, told Israeli newspaper Globes that the Dalit and Tamar gas fields are within Israel’s contiguous economic zone. The expert added that under the 1982 UN Law of the Sea Convention, which was put forth to delineate maritime borders, Israel can make use of any resources found within the earmarked territory. However, unlike Lebanon, Israel has not signed the 1982 Sea Convention. As a reason for this, the country said that it was due to fear that any future conflicts, that may arise, would fall in the hands of arbitrators, as stipulated by the UN Law, and they may be biased against Israel. In addition to lacking international commitment by Israel, the Marefa website wrote that there exist no maps for the disputed area that may help to resolve the discord.

These rampant tensions between the two countries further escalate on occasions. Armed confrontations between the Israeli Defense Forces and Lebanese actors, killing two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish UN peacekeeper, in January 2015, have demonstrated that a relatively minor cross-border incident or attack may lead to a wider conflict. Disagreements over maritime borders and pressuring claim for natural gas resources in the Eastern Mediterranean zone may pose some complications in the foreseeable future.

In regard to that, the two countries have already clearly indicated that if push comes to shove, they would opt for military force to protect their resources. In a report published by Bloomberg, Israel’s Minister of National Infrastructures, Uzi Landau, said: “We will not hesitate to use our force and strength to protect not only the rule of law but the international maritime law.” Similarly, on his part, Lebanon’s Energy and Water Resources Minister, JibranBassil, told The Daily Star that Beirut is “determined to defend them [Lebanon’s natural resources], especially since we are fully committed to the law of the sea. If Israel violates this law, it will pay the price.”

As the Mediterranean Sea is an energy source of major importance to all involved countries in the region, tensions tend to spill over across the geographical borders and keeping simmering on different levels.

Tensions Spreads across the North

In the northern section of the Eastern Mediterranean, disputes over natural resources between Cyprus and Turkey have also escalated, even engaging other countries that found it necessary to intervene.

Cyprus could immensely benefit from gas found within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which holds an estimated 3.5tcf of natural gas. Future exploration may even unveil the existence of additional volumes of gas. When this gas comes on stream, it can provide the country with energy for yet unidentified number of decades and help with its economic recovery. But Cyprus’s geopolitical problems may hinder its ability to benefit from these resources.

As Cyprus’ sovereignty over the island, its maritime territory, and its resources has been challenged by Turkey, tensions between Ankara and Nicosia escalated at times. Cyprus’s northern region has been controlled by Turkey since the 1970s. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and the Turkish government argue that Turkish Cypriots should also take advantage of any development of offshore resources. The area under dispute lies to the east of Cyprus, where both Ankara and Nicosia are claiming oil exploration rights.

Minor confrontations between Turkey and Cyprus surfaced markedly since 2011; however, it was first an incident that took place in October 2014, which showed heated potential of bilateral disputes. Turkey decided to dispatch two of its warships in areas overlapping Cyprus’s EEZ and started its own seismic surveys. Cyprus’s President, NicosAnastasiades, responded by suspending his participation in talks with the leader of the Turkish Cypriot community, DervişEroğlu, which were to find a comprehensive settlement of the issue related to the division of the island.

As a result, two other regional countries – Greece, and Egypt – took a stand on the incident. In their Cairo Declaration of 2014, which aimed at outlining and promoting multilateral cooperation in gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, the two leaders called on Turkey to stop all of its seismic surveys in Cyprus’s maritime areas. This trilateral scheme for energy cooperation with Cyprus had left Ankara standing outside the meeting room doors, which provoked a rather unfriendly response. In its immediate reaction, Turkey declared that its naval troops are permitted to apply the rules of full engagement if Turkish vessels find warships in the oil-rich area of the Eastern Mediterranean, while ignoring to recognize existing maritime borders law. The head of the Turkish navy, Admiral BülentBostanoğlu, revealed he had been handed over new orders in the event of ‘a situation’ involving hydrocarbons in the maritime region. “We will move according to the rules of engagement that have been given us,” he was quoted by The Guardian as saying when asked how Turkey’s navy would react if it encountered a Greek or an Israeli ship in the region.

As Israeli and Turkish exploration companies are already digging deep into the Eastern Mediterranean waters, and their approach is marked with undoubted firmness, uncertainties and maybe even fears over possible escalations make other countries search for allies.

Egypt’s Share at Stake

The trilateral summit of Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus, which was held in November 2014, laid grounds for such a useful alliance that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, and Republic of Cyprus President, NicosAnastasiades confirmed in a declaration. But the pillars of the alliance were again tainted with previous unresolved issues that mostly related again to the maritime borders dilemma.

Egypt is facing disagreements regarding its maritime territory with regard to both Israel and Cyprus. In 2003, Egypt signed a border delineation agreement with Cyprus that has drawn lines for the Exclusive Economic Zones of both countries. However, the agreement did not determine the starting point of the territory on its eastern side along the Israeli shore. When Israel discovered the Leviathan field in 2010, the country’s maritime border with Cyprus was settled, however, lines separating Egyptian and Israeli waters were not clearly determined.

It is no surprise that the re-demarcation of Egypt’s maritime border has become an urgent issue. In 2013, the Egyptian government made attempt to revise the existing situation. This was a decisive moment for the government in Cairo as until then, both Cyprus and Israel were controlling natural gas fields that were reaching closer to the Egyptian coast than to their own.

Under the 1982 UN Maritime Law agreement, the economic maritime borders of coastal countries reach out to a distance of 200 nautical miles, which is approximately 370 km. As Egypt’s then-Assistant Foreign Minister, Ibrahim Yousry, explained, the Leviathan field is about 190 km away from the Egyptian port of Damietta and about 235 km away from the Israeli port of Haifa. This would necessarily mean that the field should belong entirely to Egypt. Similarly, and equally alarming is the current situation with Cyprus. In 2011, Noble Energy, a company already operating in Israel, discovered the Aphrodite natural gas field in an area that had been proclaimed as the EEZ of Cyprus. However, the location of the field with gas reserves estimated at 27tcf, which is worth approximately $120 billion, raised serious concerns. The field is situated at the southern foot of Mount Eratosthenes, which is an area that for over 2,000 years was believed to have been a part of Egypt’s maritime sovereign zone.

According to reports published by Dr. Ibrahim Abdel Kader Ouda, Professor of Geology at the University of Assiut, and Dr.NayelShafie, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts in the USA, the experts believe that both gas fields are located in the Egyptian EEZ. As the Leviathan and Aphrodite fields together contain natural gas reserves worth about $200 billion in total, as Economics Professor at the American University of Cairo, Nawal al-Said, told Al Akhbar, even uninvolved observers may quickly assume that the struggle over maritime borders will continue. It will revolve around countries’ sovereignty, energy security, economic prospects and geopolitical matrix.

Other experts have pointed out that Egypt’s natural resources are being plundered. Amr Helmy, an economist who specializes in financial and stock markets, told Al Akhbar in 2014 that “Egypt has around 123tcm in reserves in the oil fields that are being looted by Israel.”

Apart from questions asked about the Leviathan field’s location, there is another zone in the Eastern Mediterranean that is being exploited, while Egypt’s maritime borders remain at stake. Professor Nawal al-Said also told Al Akhbar that she believes that the Shimshon field is yet another Egyptian maritime field seized by Israel, as the reserves are being extracted from an area close to Egypt’s coast. The field, which is being developed by ATB, the US oil and gas company, lies 114 km north of Damietta and 237 km west of Haifa. Some analysts would argue that Egypt should claim these sites in accordance with the international law. However, others point out that such an endless circle of legal suits may be counterproductive in a short term, and even damaging to national economies in a long run.

In February 2013, Assistant Minister Yousry, filed a lawsuit to the Administrative Court demanding the abolition of the Egypt-Cyprus maritime border agreement. It was first later the same year, when Egypt and Cyprus resolved their discord and agreed to cooperate in developing hydrocarbon reserves along their shared maritime border.

In a similar attempt, Yousry demanded that the maritime border between Egypt and Israel is also re-demarcated, yet the outcomes in this case are still to be negotiated.

Seeking Productive Partnerships

Voices that strongly advocate for multilateral cooperation as opposed to escalating already contentious relations among the regional countries, each with its unique historical burden, are helping to pave a new path towards a better economic prospect. These voices try to explain that the geomorphology of gas reservoirs in the Eastern Mediterranean makes it almost impossible to precisely set international maritime borderlines.

As HamedQarqar, the former Deputy President of the Energy Planning Department of the Ministry of Planning, told Al-Monitor: “The border demarcation will not be sufficient to put an end to the conflict over the gas discoveries in the Mediterranean, as the underground gas and oil reservoirs in this area are located at varying depths and [some] reserves span [international borders]. This matter necessitates partnerships and agreements to distribute shares of gas in common reservoirs among more than one country, and to accurately demarcate the borders to prevent any breaches between the concerned states.”

It is evident that the complexities of natural gas reservoirs should be taken into serious consideration when discussing emerging disputes. Confrontational behavior, as some countries have shown, harms opportunities for reconciliation. Regional energy security cannot be guaranteed without positive and equal contribution from all engaged actors and the international community.

The trilateral Cypriot, Egyptian, Greek summit in December 2015 was an example of such multilateral commitment to reconciliation. As Cypriot government spokesperson concluded: “The energy in our region is the first concern of the leaders following the recent discovery of gas within the EEZ of Egypt. The leaders are discussing how the discovery will now affect the region.” Already in April 2015, President Sisi agreed to the formation of a committee to redraw maritime borders between Egypt, Greece and Cyprus in order to seek mutual trust and aim at exploiting hidden natural gas resources in favor of all regional actors involved.

The Eastern Mediterranean truly promises economic benefits for countries that can exploit the offshore fields. Settlement of maritime borders, while reflecting on geological structures of the bedrock, would thus be the first step towards enabling regional cooperation. Seeking economic expansion to other markets may be another way of going about it. Energy exports targeting the European and Asian customers may give the region a more positive outlook.

In this way, natural gas may prove to have a multiplying effect. The wealth in energy sources that the Mediterranean Sea offers can produce generous economic, geopolitical, social, and security outcomes that will reach beyond the states in the region. For this scenario to come true, it is almost inevitable that the existing tensions in a volatile region be mitigated. Protecting one’s offshore energy interests is not mutually exclusive to seeking multilateral partnerships.