Energy games in the eastern Mediterranean
The land of Aphrodite was again on the news recently; this time with rising concerns over Greek Cypriot moves for off-shore energy exploration and Turkey’s naval move to block them. Although recent upsurge in violence in the Syrian civil war and the U.S.’s announcement to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem by May have recently dominated headlines in the region and around the world, tension has been rising around the island for some time, as the Italian energy firm ENI’s drilling ship, “Saipem 12000,” has been moving toward the region to which the Republic of Cyprus had allocated exploitation rights.
While the start of production in the Zohr field of Egypt by the end of 2017 and the recent agreement between Egypt and Israel on exporting Israeli gas to Egypt have increased prospects for regional hydrocarbon enrichment, the dispute between Turkey, the Republic of Cyprus and Turkish Cyprus over territorial waters and exclusive economic zones continue to hinder it.
Although a suitable atmosphere for solving the most challenging issue in the eastern Mediterranean — the Cyprus problem — earlier last year had come about as a result of intense talks between the two sides, the reunification talks yet again eluded hopes last July. After elections were completed on both sides, the focus shifted to domestic politics. Finally, while Nicos Anastasiades won a second term in the Republic of Cyprus as president on Feb. 4, a new four-party coalition government was approved in Turkish Cyprus by President Mustafa Akıncı on Feb. 2.
A new push and strong international backing are now needed to revive the talks. It is easier said than done, as the new process first requires “a change in the mindset” on both sides, and then a new “consensus on the grounds and parameters for negotiations,” as the new foreign minister of Turkish Cyprus, Kudret Özersay, who doubles as the deputy prime minister and had earlier served as the Turkish Cypriot chief negotiator, pointed out.
Amid all this uncertainty, any attempt to enter the disputed “Block 3,” where the Republic of Cyprus’ and Turkish Cyprus’ exclusive economic zones overlap, for exploratory drilling was bound to elicit a response from the Turkish side, which came on Feb. 9 in the form of Turkish warships blocking ENI’s drilling ship. Turkey then announced the extension of its previous Navigational Telex (NAVTEX) and declared the disputed area as naval exercise zone until March 10.
In fact, Turkey has been raising objections for unilateral hydrocarbon exploration in the region since the first maritime delineation agreement was signed between the Republic of Cyprus and Egypt in February 2003 without due attention for Turkey’s and Turkish Cypriots’ rights. Although there is still doubt over economic and commercial feasibility of the natural gas off the island, the inauguration of the Zohr field, the largest in Egypt and the Mediterranean so far, has encouraged international energy companies to express interest for further exploratory drilling in the region.
The gas production in Zohr was achieved in a record-breaking timeline. It took only 28 months between the discovery and the start of production, while it usually takes six to eight years to reach that stage in similar discoveries around the world.
The existence of such resources and fields are considered as game changers in global energy diplomacy. Many hope that it will do the same for conflict resolution diplomacy between Greek and Turkish Cypriots on this beautiful island in the eastern Mediterranean.