On Tuesday, September 22, 2020, the East Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), headquartered in Cairo, was officially turned into a regional organization (through an online conference) by the seven-member states (Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, Jordan, and the Palestinians).
As such, the charter of the newly established organization was digitally signed by Egypt’s Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources Tarek El-Molla, Cypriot Minister of Energy, Trade and Industry Natasa Pilides, Greek Minister of Environment and Energy Konstantinos Hatzidakis, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Italian Minister of Economic Development Alessandra Todde, Jordan Minister of Energy Hala Zawati, and the representative of the Palestinian Authority.
The signing of the founding charter comes after a series of meetings between the founding members and negotiation with third parties expressing interest to join or participate as observers. Any state in the Eastern Mediterranean can apply for full membership of the EMGF. Earlier this year, the US and the EU asked to be observers, while France has asked to become a full member.
In addition to the founding nations, the EMGF also features energy companies who take part in various committees discussing technical issues. In this context, 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.
Originally, the main driver for the EMGF was to optimize the production and marketing of the offshore gas reserves of the East Med, cut overall investment needs by combining transport infrastructure, and possibly integrate the regional economies.
The goal of the forum is to establish “a shared vision and systematic and regulated dialogue over natural gas policies… to maximize the region’s resources,” said the joint statement issued after Tuesday’s ceremony. The new organization also aims to lower infrastructure costs and secure a competitive price for gas from the region. Also, the organization aims to “create a regional gas market that serves the interests of its members by ensuring supply and demand, optimizing resource development, rationalizing the cost of infrastructure, offering competitive prices and improving trade relations,” said a statement issued by Egypt’s Ministry of Petroleum in January when forum members first approved the transformation of the grouping into a regional organization based in Egypt. EMGF hopes to ensure cheaper natural gas transport which will, in turn, mean that it will be better for consumers.
Egypt, Greece, and Cyprus first posited a forum to include states that produce and import gas, and transit countries in the East Mediterranean area, in October 2018. The EMGF was officially founded in January 2019, when the seven founding members agreed to form a committee to elevate the forum to the level of an international organization to reinforce cooperation among member states, developing commercial partnerships to invest in the gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean region, as a means to lay the foundations of peace and stability.
On Tuesday, Egypt’s minister El-Molla revealed that 320 trillion cubic feet of gas were discovered in the eastern Mediterranean region which could turn the area into a global center for the gas industry. He added that the founding charter signed on 22 September, “has succeeded in making history and will contribute to establishing peace”.
In the last decade, major gas deposits have been found in the eastern Mediterranean. The US Geological Survey estimates that the Nile Delta has an extraction potential of more than 220 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and the Levant Basin over 120 trillion cubic feet.
“The development of the EMGF as an organization is positive for all member states aspiring to make optimum use of their natural resources,” said Rakha Hassan, a member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.
For Israel, the forum “brings regional cooperation with Arab and European countries, the first of its kind in history, with contracts to export (Israeli) gas to Jordan and Egypt worth $30 billion, and that is just the beginning,” added minister Steinitz.
This move represents an important development for Cairo in its multifaceted dispute with Ankara. Through this step, Egypt achieved a strategic goal that enables it to become a regional energy center and a major gas capital in the eastern Mediterranean and gives it advantages due to its good infrastructure in this field.
Observers said that the members of the organization 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.
Therefore, transforming the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum into an international organization 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.
Overall, supporters consider the organization 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.
Moreover, EMGF supporters assert that the most important characteristic of the forum, compared to many similar organizations, is that it is open to any country or regional or international organization 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.
Turkey’s reaction to the new organization
On September 24th, Turkey and Greece moved to calm tensions over exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean by agreeing to talks aimed at resolving rival claims to potential hydrocarbon riches. The Greek Foreign Ministry said the talks will resume after a four-year hiatus following mediation by Germany, which has launched an intensive diplomatic push to reconcile the two sides. However, Greece did not give a precise date for the talks, but Turkish officials expect them to get underway by the end of this month.
Tensions flared last month after Ankara sent its Oruc Reis seismic survey ship into disputed waters, escorted by gunboats. A Turkish and a Greek frigate collided during naval exercises, increasing fears of an accidental outbreak of hostilities between the two NATO allies. Oruc Reis returned to the Turkish coast, paving the way for an easing of the tensions and raising hopes for a negotiated settlement.
To justify its action, Turkey said the decision to recall the seismic vessel was to allow for diplomacy ahead of a European Council summit on September 22nd at which members Greece, Cyprus, and France were to push for sanctions against Turkey, but that event has now been delayed until October 1st and 2nd.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a video summit on September 22nd with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been keen not to isolate Ankara. On this note, Erdogan said he hoped the upcoming EU summit will give added impetus to Turkey-EU ties which have been under strain amid intensified Turkish exploration efforts in waters disputed with both Greece and Cyprus. Erdogan also called for a regional conference of Mediterranean coastal states, which he said should include the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (recognized only by Turkey) to discuss maritime disputes. The declaration also stated that Ankara preferred to solve disagreements “justly and in an appropriate way” through talks, but added that “futile” attempts to exclude Turkey from plans in the eastern Mediterranean could not succeed.
Recently, Ankara contested a maritime border demarcation pact between Greece and Egypt which in turn opposes a similar agreement signed between Turkey and war-torn Libya. The Turkish-Libya pact covers an area through which the proposed East Mediterranean gas pipeline would be routed, feeding supplies to mainland Europe from gas discoveries in Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus.
In the context of the created organization, Ankara is also unhappy about being left out of the six-nation EMGF. A spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry, Hami Aksoy, described the forum as an anti-Ankara bloc, adding that transforming it into a regional organization is “far from reality”.
This article was edited using data from the following websites: www.al-monitor.com, www.aa.com.tr, www.thearabweekly.com, www.ekathimerini.com, www.financialmirror.com, www.upstreamonline.com, and www.english.ahram.org.eg.