Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Eastern Mediterranean: Horn of Plenty or Pandora’s Box

As the world watches the Arab Spring continue its struggle for freedom, an additional factor of instability (or an economic boon in the best case scenario) maybe unfolding before its eyes.  According to the US Geological Survey, the continental shelf in the eastern Mediterranean, which includes Cypriot, Lebanese, Israeli and Syrian waters, has an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet of gas and nearly 4 billion barrels of oil.  This relatively recent discovery has a potential to secure energy independence of its littoral states.
But because Lebanon is still in a state of war with Israel, Turkish and Greek Cypriots (including Turkey and Greece) are in a long-standing dispute over Cyprus, and the relations between Israel and Turkey are strained, exploitation of offshore natural gas is likely to open a fresh can of worms, if it is hijacked by politics.  With global majors scrambling to snatch up exploitation licenses in Cyprus and Israel, it is a crucial moment for each littoral state to define its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) before any offshore exploration and drilling activity begins.  As Nizar Abdel-Kader aptly points out, apart from establishing EEZ, “there may be a need for a regional conference sponsored by the UN with the main task of facilitating negotiations between Lebanon and Israel and between the Turks and Greek Cypriots […] to avoid future military conflict.” 

The tensions already heightened last fall in the eastern Mediterranean, when Turkey threatened to send its navy to prevent Greek Cypriots from drilling gas and to stop Israel’s unilateral exploitation of its offshore hydrocarbons.  In the wake of Israel’s gas discovery, Hezbollah issued a warning that it would defend Lebanon’s natural resources, which elicited a similar response from Israel.  It is the most opportune moment for UN’s assistance to address the maritime boundaries in the Levant Basin before a source of energy supply security turns to a source of another conflict.

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