Natural gas: A new duel in the Middle East

Hassan Tahsin

Published: Updated:

It is as if the countries of the old and the new Greater Middle East are living in peace and harmony and are not missing anything except to jump over history toward a happier and prosperous future. All of a sudden a divine reward surfaced. Natural gas has been discovered in the east of the Mediterranean in unexpectedly large quantities.

The U.S. Geological Survey Authority estimated the quantities of the natural gas under the sea to be around 122 billion cubic meters accompanied by 1.7 billion barrels of oil which could technically be extracted.

When we say the natural gas discoveries in the east of the Mediterranean have economic and security benefits as a safe source of energy, these discoveries may have positive political impact

Hassan Tahsin

This discovery could cause havoc among the countries overlooking the east of the Mediterranean consisting of Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. This discovery might fuel conflict and ferocious competition among these countries to have the largest chunk of the discovered natural gas, especially in the absence of agreements among them to clearly demarcate the boundaries of their territorial waters.

The discovery has regional and international significance. On the regional side, it will uplift the standard of services to the beneficiary countries, particularly that they are relatively poor in energy sources (oil and natural gas). It will provide them with their energy needs and save them the funds they used to spend on importing natural gas. They will become exporting countries, instead of importing ones.

The challenges of exporting

On the international side, the extraction and exporting of natural gas from the east of the Mediterranean is deemed to face big political, security and economic challenges which may impede cooperation among the countries of the region. Israel, which is counting on its military might and American support, will likely want to grab the shares of the other countries in the discovered natural gas. The Arab-Israeli conflict is still continuing. The state of war is still very much alive between Israel, on one hand, and Syria and Lebanon on the other. There are no clearly defined maritime borders between Israel, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. In addition to this, there is a chronic conflict between Turkey and the Cypriot Republic over Northern Cyprus. The implications resulting from the Arab Spring will also have their shadows on the relationships between the countries of the region. The ties between Egypt and Israel have become more complex. Syria is living through a phase of instability for more than two years now. As a result, the development and exporting of the newly discovered natural gas will face serious problems.

The significance of the natural gas discoveries are also reflected by the hectic attempts to control sources. These attempts are not only being made by some Middle Eastern countries like Qatar, which is the second largest natural gas producer after Russia, but also by the European Union countries and China which are main consumers.

Natural gas is a safe and clean energy source compared to nuclear and coal energies. It is the most suitable substitute for nuclear energy being used to operate electricity stations. This has become more obvious after the disaster in the Fukushima electricity station in Japan. It is also a suitable replacement for coal which emits large quantities of carbon. Being a cost-effective source of energy, natural gas is gaining rapid momentum in the world.

Putting gas to use

Egypt needs the discovered natural gas to be able to deal with its enigmatic energy problem and to rectify its deteriorating economic condition. Israel needs it after the semi-free natural gas supplies from Egypt have stopped and also to break its political and economic seclusion resulting from the slackening peace process. Syria needs the natural gas to be able to reconstruct its economy which has been devastated by two years of internal fighting. Turkey, which does not produce either oil or natural gas, needs it not only as an additional source of income but also to give it more importance in the region. Lebanon needs the natural gas to be able to settle its foreign debts which have reached more than $50 billion. Cyprus also needs it to avoid its imminent cash crash.

All the countries of the region, including Israel, should provide huge financial and investment funds to build the basic infrastructure required to produce, transport and export the newly discovered natural gas. These investments may face commercial challenges resulting from the decreasing international prices of gas and also internal political challenges which may result in the unavoidable disagreements on how to exploit the discovered natural gas and if it should be used for local consumption or for export. There are also some security issues involved. Oil and natural gas installations in the east of the Mediterranean must be protected against any possible missile attacks.

When we say the natural gas discoveries in the east of the Mediterranean have economic and security benefits as a safe source of energy, these discoveries may have positive political impact. They may ultimately lead to genuine and lasting peace in the region. How?

First: The establishment of an international company to extract, liquefy and export the natural gas.

Second: This company should be owned by the governments not by individuals or private firms.

Third: The contract establishing the company should clearly stipulate how the dividends will be distributed.

Fourth: The company should have the same status of committing international agreements and treaties.

Fifth: Differences should be settled by international arbitration.

Sixth: Workers in this company should be the citizens of the countries of the region only.

This can be a good start to bring the region’s warring countries together for the first time. It will provide the governments with an opportunity to talk directly to each other to discuss their common issues. The workers will be meeting daily and the senior officials will get together regularly to inspect the workflow.

Some people may jump to the conclusion that I am asking for the impossible and tell me bluntly that this is not the time of miracles. I reply to them that the matter is very simple if there is good intention and a strong political will for peace. There should also be a genuine desire for peace which is not just an empty word to be uttered during formal and diplomatic occasions. It will not be impossible for the officials of the east Mediterranean to get together openly to run their natural gas company, especially that it is no secret that they often meet behind closed doors.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on April 11, 2013.
Hassan Tahsin is a veteran Egyptian writer and a regular contributor to pan-Arab newspapers, including the Saudi Gazette. His writing focuses on Middle East conflicts and global energy issues. Tahsin’s political analysis particularly centers on Arab-Israeli relations on a regional level, and Egypt’s domestic and foreign policies, including ties with the Western world. Tahsin can be reached at htahsin-8@hotmail.com.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.