x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Mediterranean gas fields are flashpoint

When it comes to disputed gas fields, jingoism has trumped economic interests.

Last September, the Greek Cypriot government announced offshore drilling in a gas field near a newly agreed maritime border with Israel. The very next day, and in clear response, Ankara signed a deal with the Turkish Cyprus North paving the way for its own offshore gas exploration.

Since Israeli commandos killed nine activists aboard the MV Mavi Marmara during the 2010 Gaza aid flotilla, relations between Turkey and Israel have been in decline. The dispute over gas fields near Cyprus, where Turkish jets chased an Israeli plane out of the airspace at the weekend, has become an obvious point of contention.

On Friday, Ankara sent a clear message to foreign companies working with Greek Cyprus on oil and gas projects in the area: cease operations or face strong reprisals. The statement came after Greek Cyprus announced 29 companies had bid for drilling contracts in the offshore oil and gas reserves.

It is a fractious neighbourhood, with the Cyprian divide dating back to 1974, and Israel and Turkey lining up on opposing sides. But the real problem is that the maritime borders, and the potentially lucrative gas fields underneath, are poorly demarcated, if at all. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, where there is ambiguity, Israel has rushed in to take full advantage.

This latest confrontation is just one of a series in the politically charged eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon and Israel, who have no agreed maritime border, dispute large energy reserves in contested areas. In 2009 and 2010, Israel announced the discovery of two major offshore gas fields, Tamar and Leviathan, with combined reserves of 24 trillion cubic feet; Lebanon says that it has rights to the fields as well.

And in the 13 years since gas fields were discovered off the coast of Gaza, and despite backing from international firms, not one cubic foot has been produced. Israel, which would be the primary customer, has refused to pay market prices. Exploration of the reserves could, in theory, turn Gaza from one of the world's poorest areas into one of its richest. Israeli policy ensures that prospect remains as far away as ever.

The Gaza example is another symptom of the poisonous occupation. But each of these cases shows how jingoism has trumped economic interests. Stakeholders have a real interest to agree on borders and resource sharing to develop these new-found fields. The alternative, of course, is possible conflict and unutilised resources that benefit no one.