x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Turkey’s energy ambitions override political concerns

The problem is that the energy resources are in regions with which Turkey has traditionally had tense relationships, such as Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Amid an increasingly violent and crisis-ridden region, Turkey has emerged as a significant energy broker – and the partnerships it is seeking will have far-reaching ramifications for the ever-changing tides of diplomacy in the Middle East.

It is no secret that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has bold ambitions for his country’s regional and international standing. Traditional adversaries, like Israel and the Kurds in northern Iraq, are now the backbone of Turkey’s strategic future. But how fragile are these relationships?

A strategically placed but energy-poor country, Turkey wants to create a network of gas and oil pipelines criss-crossing through its territory on the way to lucrative European markets. The only problem is that the energy resources are in regions that Turkey has traditionally had tense relationships with, namely Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Despite this, Turkey has been able to hammer out an initial deal with the autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq for an extensive network of pipelines that will usher in a period of massive oil and gas extraction.

But this could come at the expense of Turkey’s relationship with Baghdad, which is casting a cautious eye on the Kurds enriching themselves with massive oil profits. Given the deteriorating security situation in Iraq as well as the increasingly violent Syrian civil war on Turkey’s doorstep, Mr Erdogan is potentially playing with fire in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Yet that doesn’t seem to deter him. This week Mr Erdogan personally invited Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan’s regional president, to visit Diyarbakır, an overwhelmingly Kurdish city inside Turkey. Unthinkable just a few years ago, the visit was cast as a reflection of Turkey’s self-confidence by Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister.

The specifics of the pipeline deal with Iraqi Kurdistan are astounding. An elaborate infrastructure of pipes will be able to handle up to two million barrels of oil per day and at least 10 billion cubic metres of gas per year. The precious fuels will snake their way along Turkey’s 800-kilometre border with Syria before arriving on the Mediterranean coast and onwards to Europe. The pipeline that is being laid between the two partners is going to bind them together at a time when the Kurdish-Turkey relationship is wrought with challenges. Just last week, Kurdish fighters in Syria drove out Al Qaeda-linked jihadists from 19 towns and villages across the north-eastern part of the country. The fighting intensified a week after fighters associated with the main Kurdish militia succeeded in capturing a key Iraqi border crossing from jihadi factions. Since the Syrian civil war broke out nearly three years ago, the question of how Syrian Kurds would react has been a pressing one for neighbouring countries, especially Turkey. Many feared that Kurds would attempt to use the instability of Syria’s internal chaos to carve out an autonomous region in one of the most energy rich areas of the country. Indeed, Kurds in northern Syria earlier this week declared an interim administration, moving them one step closer to a Kurdish state inside of Syria.

Turkey’s reaction to the events was swift. The country began work on an elaborate fence along the border, which would split the Kurdish populations on both sides.

It is this fence along with Turkey’s on-again, off-again relationship with Israel (and its natural gasfields) that underline why Turkey is ready to become a major energy player.

In another underreported form of energy, food production, Turkey is quietly carving out large chunks of market share in lucrative Arabian Gulf markets that, coupled with the fossil fuels flowing through the country, will boost its economy.

It is a smart policy. Roughly 40 per cent of Turkey’s land mass is arable and ideal for the production of everything from grain to livestock. The food produced is already considered Halal and can be quickly shipped to the Gulf.

In the past decade, agricultural production in Turkey has steadily increased, resulting in roughly $62 billion (Dh227bn) of gross domestic product in 2010. Now private investors are looking to this market as the most value-laden export market for Turkey behind energy exporting.

The government wants to achieve $150bn in gross agricultural domestic product by 2023.

The only problem in this picture is finding farm hands to do the manual labour. Due to restructuring in early 2000, employment pools have moved to major urban centres like Istanbul.

Prominent venture capital firms in Istanbul are quietly pushing the government to allow a handful of Syrian refugees to work the farms. Some of the 600,000 refugees are already working illegally but that has some farm owners worried. But if this pressure from the corporate sector succeeds, Turkey might soon be the most progressive country in the region dealing with the refugee crisis.

Ultimately, Turkey is using a regional crisis to entrench a position of energy power. Its relationship with Israel and Iraqi Kurdistan will soon be physically sealed with pipelines. Can the country have its cake and eat it too? That might depend if the cake is made in Turkey.

Joseph Dana is a journalist based in Istanbul

On Twitter: @ibnezra