Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey boycotting natural resources exploitation

Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey boycotting natural resources exploitation

The third out of three analyses on the eastern Mediterranean

The Eastern Mediterranean has become an increasingly important region due to its natural resources. The interests among the countries of this part of the Mediterranean are also reflected beyond its borders and involve other international actors such as the European Union and NATO.

Energy cooperation in the region has always been reluctant. More recently Israel, Cyprus and Greece seem to begin to cooperate. A future involvement of Egypt could be also taken into consideration.

The European Union has clearly showed its interest in exploiting the resources of the region in order to decrease its dependence from Russian and Middle Eastern energy resources.

In this scenario, Turkey is the only country without oil and gas resources and in the meanwhile one of the most important energy hub in the world with several pipelines projects (SCP, TANAP and Turkish Stream) whose relevance could be mitigated by an eastern Mediterranean consortium between Israel, Cyprus and Greece.

The recent growing tensions between Turkey, Greece and Cyprus about old issues and maritime disputes show a further alignment between the policies Turkey is carrying in Middle East and Mediterranean, two vital and interconnected regions for Turkish interests.

Turkey’s difficult relations with its Mediterranean neighbours

Eastern Mediterranean is one of the less explored regions when it comes to hydrocarbon resources. The main gas fields in Eastern of Mediterranean Leviathan and Tamara (Israel), Zohr (Egypt) and Aphrodite (Cyprus) were seen as an opportunity to put under control the instability of the region through cooperation and integration in the energy sector. A southern gas pipeline presented two possible routes. A first option, faster and less costly, through a sea pipeline of 500 km until Ceyhan in Turkey. After the discovery of Aphrodite fields in Cyprus, a second option was taken into consideration with a 2.200 km gas pipeline passing from Israel through Cyprus, Crete, Greece, avoiding Turkey. Despite the higher cost the latter alternative mentioned seems to be at the moment the most suitable for the development of a Southern gas corridor due to the worsening of the relation between Turkey and its neighbours in the Mediterranean.

Egypt’s Zohr represent one of the largest gas fields in Eastern Mediterranean but because of the row between Turkish government and Al Sisi, responsible of the end of Morsi’s rule a close allied of Turkish establishment, any plan to link Egyptian gas resources to Ceyhan hub in Turkey are not taken into consideration.

After the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2009, the relation between Israel and Turkey never recovered completely. The expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Turkey due to the recent clashes in Gaza during the Nakba anniversary is preventing any distension and is affecting heavily the energy relations between the two countries.

A Mediterranean triangular cooperation without Turkey

The consequence of this political rift is a shift in the alliance system in the region. Israel and Greece signed several agreements of security cooperation and started to cooperate on energy, with the inclusion of Cyprus.  The project of a southern gas pipeline involving Cyprus and Greece is a key Turkey’s concern.

Already in 2011, the former Minister of Foreign Affair Davutoğlu, the architect of the “ No problems with Neighbours” policy, announced that Turkey would take the appropriate measures if the project between Israel, Cyprus and Greece will take further steps.

Moreover, old tensions and rivalries in the region are complicating any future scenario. Turkey fears to remain curtailed in its sphere of influence in the Mediterranean owing to the energy cooperation between the other regional actors.

Cyprus remains the core problem for the Turkish Weltanschauung in the Mediterranean. A new southern gas pipeline would make Cyprus a new energy hub for Europe. A closer relation between Cyprus and other prominent countries such as Israel or Greece could strengthen the role of the Greek Cypriots and at the same time delegitimize and weaken even more the credibility of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is unilaterally recognized by Turkey. In February 2017, the Prime minister of TRNC described as unfair the unilateral conduct of the Greek Cypriots administration in the matter of gas exploration without Northern Cyprus, adding that only after an agreement between the two sides of the island any exploration will be legitimized. Turkey backed the statement of Turkish Cypriot prime minister Kudret Özersay by not recognizing as legitimate the actions of the Greek Cypriots government. Later in July of the same year during the World Petroleum Conference held in Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made clear once again the total incompatibility of any deal not including Northern Cyprus by stating: ”What we expect from anyone who takes sides in the developments in Cyprus is that they should refrain from steps that might pave the way for new tensions in the region. I would like to remind them that they could face the risk of losing a friend like Turkey, not just in the region, but anywhere and in any field”.

The Turkish navy from the beginning of 2018 started actively to interfere with the gas explorations off Cyprus, chasing off the drilling ship of ENI, Saipem 1200. In the aftermath of this incident, the American 6th fleet was displaced in order to deter any Turkish initiative against ExxonMobil ships around Cyprus and to an intensification of the activities of the Israeli navy.

Greek- Turkish maritime relations, already affected by border disputes, worsened with denial of extradition by Greece of Turkish officers allegedly involved in the coup attempt of July 2015. Erdoğan historic visit in Greece in late 2017 didn’t bring to any distension between the two Mediterranean countries. Tensions over gas politics resulted in an escalation of aggressive naval activities including a Turkish ship ramming a Greek vessel. Even if territorial disputes and border trespassing are at the centre of the row between Greece and Turkey, the situation in the Aegean Sea has to be connected to the on-going regional tensions around Cyprus.

EU and NATO in Eastern Mediterranean

Tensions over energy issues in the Eastern Mediterranean are causing problem also to actors as the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Energy cooperation is one of the few areas that is not too compromised by the general deterioration of EU and Turkey relations. The need to diversify the origin of its gas resources put the EU in front of a great dilemma. The EU support to new pipelines projects in the Mediterranean that include also member States (Greece and Cyprus) have to be counterbalanced with the importance of maintaining good ties in energy sector with Turkey. In fact, the EU weak reactions against the Turkish gunboat diplomacy against Greece, Cyprus and Italy passed almost unnoticed and shown that the EU is unwilling to enter in direct contrast with Turkey over energy issues.

NATO initiatives in the region such as the Middle East Partnership and the Mediterranean Dialogue are blocked due to the tensions rose around energy resources. The main problem is the deadlock in the Turkish-Israel relations. The efforts made to promote cooperation and integration with Israel, a prominent partner of NATO, are blocked by Turkish veto preventing the development of NATO projects in the region.


Turkey’s aim in Eastern Mediterranean is to boycott any initiative, which will diminish its capacity to capitalise its geographical position as energy partner inside and beyond the region. Turkey misuse of any past and present political tension with Israel, Greece and Cyprus are denying any fast solution on the development of new projects to connect the gas resources of Eastern Mediterranean to Europe. In May 2018, Israel, Cyprus and Greece reaffirm their will to cooperate by signing an agreement to establish a so-called East-Med Pipeline project within the year. This agreement has to be understood as a diplomatic oriented solution more than economic one. A southern Mediterranean pipeline project will rely mostly on private sector, which would probably push to include Turkey, in order to exploit its infrastructure, to monetize at best the resources of the region.

Geopolitics has to come to a more pragmatic and rational approach on energy issues in Eastern Mediterranean to facilitate the exploitation of gas fields in the area. A separation between political rifts and energy cooperation between Turkey and its Mediterranean neighbours is needed to overtake the current deadlock and develop realistic projects over a southern gas corridor.

Jacopo Franceschini

Research Assistant at European Neighbourhood Council


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