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The race for hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean changing political alliances

The relations between the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean are, to say the least, a tad complex. Centuries of invasions, occupations, liberations and alliances have carved a map that is both ill-defined and often disputed. In recent years, the major gas discoveries under the sea floor and the prospect of more to follow have added new intricacies and calculations to the region’s geo-political hodgepodge. 

The countries at the table of the Levantine hydrocarbon bonanza are at different stages of exploration and production, and the dynamics being forged between the major players encompass a cocktail of saber rattling and fraternal embracing. The fact that the lines demarcating ownership of the sea floor and what lies underneath have not all been agreed upon further complicates the unfolding play.

“You’re always going to have problems when there are discoveries before the maritime borders have been agreed upon, and then you have regional disputes such as Turkey and Cyprus or Lebanon and Israel,” says Walid Khadduri, the energy and geopolitical risk editor at The Middle East Economic Survey

Cypriot sprint hampered by Turkey

At the nexus of the Levantine basin is the island of Cyprus, whose territorial waters border those of Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Greece, Israel and Egypt. In late 2011, the discovery of somewhere between 85 and 250 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas, and potentially additional oil, in the Cypriot Aphrodite field marked a major step forward for the island’s hydrocarbon sector, and they are now pushing ahead toward production and further exploration. But as Greek Cypriots have progressed with exploration, Turkey has raised the alarm on behalf of the northern, Turkish portion of the island, crying foul and seeking to hold back Nicosia’s endeavors. 

“Turkey can make a lot of noise and flex their muscles but I don’t think they will be able to delay Cyprus’ progress as their train is very much on track,” says Bassam Fattouh, director of the Oil and the Middle East Program at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Ankara has repeatedly called for a freeze on Cyprus’ hydrocarbon activities and responded to the first drillings in Cypriot waters by sending warships into the island’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

Turkey has, from two fronts, argued that certain blocks within the Cypriot EEZ are still contested and therefore not game for exploration. In response to the Greek-Cypriot government’s advancement into the second offshore licensing round in February 2012, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) awarded a concession to Turkish Petroleum (TPAO) for the exploration of hydrocarbons in areas that overlap with seven of the 12 oil and gas research blocks in the Republic of Cyprus’ EEZ to the east and south of the island. The move by the Turkish authorities is based on a weak legal argument that has elicited little serious response from global players. This is primarily due to the fact that their claim is premised on the continental shelf rights of the TRNC, which is not recognized by the international community. 

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