East Med Gas Forum turns into regional organisation, in blow to Turkey

The Mediterranean countries allied under the cover of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum have moved to a more realistic stage after announcing the transformation of this project into a regional organisation that aims to counter Turkish harassment and officially turn Egypt into the natural gas capital of the region.

On Tuesday, representatives of Egypt, Greece, Italy, Cyprus, Jordan and Israel concluded, in Cairo, an agreement to officially convert the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum into a regional organisation. The Palestinian representative missed the meeting which was held via video conferencing.

This move represents an important development for Cairo in its multifaceted dispute with Ankara. Through this step, Egypt has achieved a strategic goal that enables it to become a regional energy centre and a major gas capital in the eastern Mediterranean, and gives it advantages due to its good infrastructure in this field.

A plant’s gas tanks near the Gulf of Suez at the desert road outside Cairo, Egypt. (REUTERS)
A plant’s gas tanks near the Gulf of Suez at the desert road outside Cairo, Egypt. (REUTERS)

Observers said that the members of the fledgling organisation will strengthen their cooperation through developing projects to connect their electricity grids via underwater cables in the Mediterranean extending from Egypt to some European countries, projects that strengthen the idea of ​​cooperation in all forms of available energy such that the deficit in one type of energy experienced by one member country could be compensated by the abundance of the same energy in another member country.

But this move also constitutes a blow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions in the Mediterranean. Turkey has been trying to disrupt this cooperation by all means and methods, such as signing two naval and security memoranda of understanding with the Libyan Government of National Accord months ago to use them as a pretext for gas exploration operations in the eastern Mediterranean.

A new body

The Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum, which was established in January of last year, has become the first international organisation that brings together gas producers, consumers, and transit countries in the world into one entity, unlike many similar international bodies whose membership is limited to exporting or importing countries.

This shared vision gives influence to all actors and those involved in the production and trade of natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean region, in order to coordinate policies aimed at developing a sustainable regional market for gas and to address the ambitions of some countries that see that they have a right to the natural riches of the Mediterranean but without respecting international laws and regional agreements.

Political experts and decision-making circles believe that the fledgling organisation will contribute to supporting and financing the existing and new infrastructure for gas, such as pipelines and export facilities in member states, reducing the cost of production and transportation, and ensuring a steady supply of gas at competitive prices to markets at the heart of Europe and elsewhere from the eastern Mediterranean.

The forum is credited with establishing an advisory committee for the gas industry last November as a permanent dialogue platform between governments and stakeholders, including investors, gas dealers and financing institutions.

The step establishes important pillars for peace and stability in the eastern Mediterranean region, and collectively would repelTurkey’s aggression in case it violates the rights of any of the member states, as Turkey continues its provocations against both Greece and Cyprus, as well as its many skirmishes with France.

Supporters consider the organisation to be a significant historical development that would consolidate the values ​​of peace and cooperation in a tense region, through the efforts of the forum to make energy resources a motive for ending conflicts in the region, especially the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the Turkish-Greek conflict.

The forum also opens promising prospects for cooperation to countries wishing to deal with its assets and objectives in a flexible manner and without infringing on the rights of others or appropriating their wealth.

East Med Gas Forum supporters assert that the most important characteristic of the forum, compared to many similar organisations, is that it is open to any country or regional or international organisation to join, as long as the prospective member adopts the values ​​and objectives of the forum and wants to participate in cooperation for the well-being of the entire region, without resorting to force.

A unified front against Turkey

It is expected that the forum will draw great international interest in the foreseeable future, especially from the Mediterranean countries that have not joined yet, such as Lebanon, Syria and Libya, and perhaps Spain, Portugal and Algeria, and from world importers of gas, such as India, China and Japan, and even Turkey may find itself forced to join at a later stage and submit to its conditions.

France had already requested to join the forum earlier this year, and the United States has become a permanent observer, which gives the forum important international weight.

French and American energy giants, such as Total, Noble Energy and ExxonMobil, have already obtained licenses to extract gas in the countries of the region, which makes Paris and Washington very likely to resort to their military capabilities in the Mediterranean to defend the interests of these companies should the need for such a step arise in the future.

Some observers point out that transforming the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum into a full-fledged international organisation represents a strong blow to the ambitions of Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in eastern Mediterranean gas. Turkey had already received such a blow with the signing on August 6 of a borders demarcation agreement between Egypt and Greece. Before that, Italy and Greece had already signed a similar agreement.

Observers add that there is a tangible shift in the US position towards Turkish policy in the eastern Mediterranean, based on the resumption of arms exports to Cyprus, and the signs of a deal whereby oil production and exports will be resumed in Libya, in exchange for pressure on Turkey in Libya.

Transforming the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum into an international organisation formally protects the interests of its member states, and contributes to the vigorous pursuit of economic integration between them, based on gas and electricity production and trade projects.

The success of the new organisation depends on future developments in the political and geopolitical situations in the eastern Mediterranean, which are experiencing a high degree of uncertainty and instability at the moment, as a result of deep disagreements and chronic conflicts in the region.

This in turn raises major questions about the opportunities available to the East Med Gas Forum countries to make the best use of the promising gas discoveries and reserves. It also raises important questions about the possibility that the institutionalisation of the forum would lead to further escalating the conflicts with Turkey.

An aerial view of the foundation platform of Leviathan natural gas field, in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa, Israel.  (REUTERS)
An aerial view of the foundation platform of Leviathan natural gas field, in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Haifa, Israel.  (REUTERS)

Furthermore, the current conditions of the natural gas market in the European Union and global gas prices represent a major challenge for the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Organization, as international gas prices have recently dropped, due to the slowdown in global demand.

In the event of a normal return to production in global markets, the forum countries will be forced to enter into intense competition with Russian, American and Qatari gas exports, which is the second big challenge that represents a major test of the forum’s effectiveness and its ability to develop a creative vision that enables it to compete internationally.