May 6, 2020

Natural Gas Ignites Geostrategy in the Eastern Mediterranean

By Monim Benaissa

A third of the world’s production of hydrocarbons is now offshore and taken from the bottom of the sea. From the Arctic to the Mediterranean, offshore reserves are estimated to be between a quarter and a third of global supplies. New gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean have disrupted the hydrocarbon market, which was once dominated by traditional producers, and open up new prospects for the states of the region. The usurpation of these hydrocarbons is a source of tension. The already existing conflicts between the riparian States and the non-delimitation of maritime borders further complicate the situation (Andoura and Koranyi 2014).

The Eastern Mediterranean has become a strategic energy zone, offering potential economic spinoffs for the countries of the region and presenting a new source of supply for Europe, the world’s leading natural gas consumption region. Indeed, the exploitation of these resources has rekindled tensions over the delimitation of maritime borders. An issue framed by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1982). States in the region seek to overcome legal challenges by prioritizing economic interests.

Rising Tensions Between the States of the Eastern Mediterranean

Naval maneuvers, escorting exploration boats, multibillion-dollar trade deals: the discovery of gas in the eastern Mediterranean gives rise to great hopes, but also generates tensions in an already fragile region of peace. When the first reserves of natural gas were discovered off the coast of Israel, Cyprus and Egypt a few years ago, there was hope and uncertainty at the same time, as Analysts were optimistic about this discovery saw that the alleged prosperity could contribute to peace. However, the contingency was that natural gas reserves could be an additional reason for more discord and international crises. Geopolitical history has shown that attempts to acquire energy resources have sparked several military conflicts (Corten 2003).

In the context of regional influence and maintenance of power between the States of the Eastern Mediterranean region, and in the light of the agreement to demarcate the maritime border between Turkey and Libya, Israel cannot extend the gas pipeline and inaugurate its project to Europe without the approval of Turkey, being the coastal transit state. The two states cut diplomatic, and therefore trade and strategic, relations. At the moment there are no negotiations on this subject. In addition, the realization of the Mediterranean gas pipeline is not in the interest of Russia which wants to keep the monopoly of export of gas towards Europe but to use gas as a deterrent against the European anti-Russian foreign policy. A slide into the conflict would endanger the maritime trade routes of the Mediterranean. Indeed, Israel is faced with a thorny problem because the vast majority of this country’s international trade passes through the Mediterranean (Johnson 2018).

With the start of production in the Levantine field by Israel in 2010, gas began to flow to Egypt and Jordan first. For its part, Turkey considers itself oppressed and claims to have unsuccessfully insisted on the need for equity in the exploitation of energy reserves. Turkey imports about 99% of its gas from Russia and Qatar, and 94% of its oil from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran after the reintroduction of American sanctions against this Country. In addition, exploration vessels under the Turkish flag have been searching for natural gas for months without obtaining approval from Cyprus and despite European Union (EU) sanctions. In this context, Turkey has led to the signing of an agreement delimiting the continental shelves with Libya. This agreement provoked a reaction in Athens which considers it contrary to international law (Baccarini 2019).

For its part, Cyprus began in 2011 the first explorations in collaboration with Israel, with which it signed a treaty delimiting their respective Exclusive Economic Zones. Turkey calls into question the agreements between these two countries because the Republic of Northern Cyprus was ignored in the agreements concerning the delimitation of the Exclusive Economic Zone; it is recognized in the world only by Turkey. On the other side of the island, Turkey claims the right to operate its own drilling and to stop the exploration and exploitation of all Cypriot sites; in addition to the fact that it wants to carry out explorations in the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone, it wishes to assert itself as a power in the Mediterranean (Auge 2018).

Exploitation of Natural Resources Off-Shore According to International Law

The maritime area comes under different jurisdictions, each having its own legal system according to UNCLOS. The Convention determines the general framework governing the terms of use and delimitation of maritime areas and borders. In this case, the sovereignty of any coastal State extends to an adjacent maritime area, called the territorial sea, which can reach a maximum limit of 12 nautical miles. In addition, the coastal State shall determine the rules and methods to be applied to define the baselines from which the breadth of the territorial sea, normal baselines and straight baselines should be measured. The territorial sea is followed by the Contiguous Zone of 24 nautical miles wide with partial sovereignty (Vincent 2008).

UNCLOS recognizes the right of coastal States to delimit an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which can reach 200 nautical miles. UNCLOS ensures the sovereign rights of coastal states with regard to the exploitation, conservation and management of biological and non-biological resources in this area. They can fix the admissible quantity of biological resources. Unlike the territorial sea, a coastal state has limited authority over the EEZ, however, it retains sovereign rights over living marine resources, as well as customs, health and safety. An extension of the EEZ is possible from 200 to 350 nautical miles provided that the seabed is a continental shelf (Vincent 2008).

States were allowed to request the extension until 2009 after the ratification of the UNCLOS by filing a scientific dossier with the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS). The CLCS decides whether the scientific data is sufficient to justify the correlation of the extended EEZ with the natural extension of the continental shelf of the coastal State. In these large EEZs, the coastal States enjoy sovereign rights over the resources of the seabed, but not over the water column resources, which are part of the High Seas. In the EEZ, it is the coastal State which has jurisdiction over the conservation and management of biological resources. Beyond this area, the High Seas do not belong to any state.

In this case, the Mediterranean is described as a semi-closed sea, it has a special status under the UNCLOS. (art 122). Because it is a strategic sea for international navigation, no Mediterranean State has delimited the EEZ. First, there is nothing in the law of the sea to legitimize such an approach, then if the Mediterranean states proceed to claim their EEZ or their Continental Shelf, there is no international water left. In addition, even if the UNCLOS recognized for the riparian States specialized competences aiming at the prevention of pollution in the EEZ, however, the latter cannot hinder the freedom of navigation. Obviously, the declaration of jurisdiction over environmental protection zones by the Mediterranean States has no impact on that of mineral or fossil resources, maritime navigation, or other rights in the waters of the High Seas. Under UNCLOS the sovereignty of the Mediterranean States can conditionally reach a geographical limit of 200 nautical miles, beyond this space, the waters escape their jurisdiction. Noting that three eastern Mediterranean states have not yet ratified the 1982 UNCLOS, those are Israel, Turkey, and Syria.

The Mediterranean Gas Cooperation Forum: A Model of Regional Organization

With the rise of economic globalization, the institutional landscape of international economic law is characterized by the evolution of regional economic organizations, but also by the establishment of instruments more adaptable to circumstances. We are talking about the development of normativity in international economic law. So, we can say that international law fulfills a double objective; the regulation of human behavior, and the maintenance of balance between state interests. The emergence of the energy interests of the Eastern Mediterranean States is a geopolitical reality that is gradually turning into legal evidence. For this reason, the stakes can be raised within a regional organization to complete or reinforce the implementation of the provisions of the UNCLOS, that of the elaboration of a regional treaty in order to regularize the exploitation of marine resources to protect the environment. The complexity of maritime issues in the Mediterranean mainly reflects the reflection on the creation of a regional energy organization on the model of OPEC. The process and the structure of the establishment of this institution are at the heart of the emergence of the interests of the States of the Eastern Mediterranean (Psaropoulos 2010).

In this context, six Mediterranean States, namely; Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Authority managed in January 2019 to create a regional organization to oversee the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. The participation of all these States in a geopolitical dimension insofar as this organization brings together rival parties. The membership list for this institution is not exclusive. Work is still underway to include two other important states in the region despite political differences. These are Turkey and Lebanon. The recent discoveries of natural gas have led several countries to multiply strategic partnerships, this is the case between Turkey and Libya, and the case between Egypt and Israel, but sometimes gave rise to tensions on the rights of exploitation and delimitation of maritime borders. In Cyprus, discoveries of deposits have rekindled tensions with Turkey. It was expected that the role of this organization will not be limited to energy issues, but to include the political component as much. As an example, it is a precious opportunity for the Palestinian Authority and Israel to unblock the peace process, and to advance the dialogue between Greece and Turkey on several issues (Kalehsar 2019).

The US-backed Mediterranean gas pipeline project is an alternative for the EU to reduce its dependence on gas from Russia. This approximately 2,000-kilometer pipeline departs from the Israeli coast through the waters of Cyprus and then Greece, and then distributes on the European continent through Italy. Annual gas production is estimated at 11 billion cubic meters. This quantity will meet 10% of the needs of European consumption of natural gas. On January 2, 2020 the EastMed pipeline agreement was signed in Athens by Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Indeed, this region needs a policy based on a constructive dialogue between states in order to achieve an economy that benefits everyone (Lavignon 2020).


Energy is a major economic issue, but also a politically determining strategic privilege. This situation is the result of strong consumer demand. For the producing countries, it is a question of seeking financial incomes, for the consuming countries it is a question of maintaining economic prosperity. Between them, energy is used as a means of political pressure as it was during the supply crisis of the 1970s, as well as in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. In this sense, in the eastern Mediterranean, gas is still igniting the situation between countries which are divergent on the ideological and political levels. Indeed, the prospects for the future after this discovery remain uncertain.


-The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), 10 December 1982, UNTR.9 (Effective: 16 November 1994).

-Jean Salmon, (2001). Dictionnaire de droit international public. Bruxelles, Bruylant. p 333.

-Philippe Vincent, (2008). Droit de la mer. Bruxelles, Larcier, p 4.

-Olivier Corten, (2003), Retour des guerres préventives, Labor, Bruxelles.

-Blandine Lavignon, (2020). Turquie; à la conquête du gaz en méditerranée orientale. Le vent se lève.[ online] Accessed at :

-Benjamin Auge, (2018). L’Égypte, nouvelle plateforme gazière en Méditerranée orientale. Notes de l’ifri, ifri.

-Omid shokri Kalehsar, (2019). The geopolitics of natural gas resources in East Mediterranean. Daily Sabah.

-Gulden Ayman, (2009). Turkey Courts Russia on Energy. Institute Thomas More.

-Sami Andoura, David Koranyi, (2014). Energy in the Eastern Mediterranean: Promise or Peril? Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and Atlantic council, Academia press, Brussels.

-John Psaropoulos, (2020). Why Greece is Key to US plans to sell more natural gas to Europe. Al Jazeera.

-Keith Johnson, (2018). Curb Your enthusiasm, the Eastern Mediterranean energy patch is hot-unfortunately, in more ways than one. Foreign Policy report.

-Luca Baccarini, (2019). Enjeux économiques et sécuritaires de la production de gaz naturel en Méditerranée orientale. IRIS. [online] Accessed at:

-L’équipe Gazprom Energy, (2018). Géopolitique du gaz: comprendre ce qui se passe en Méditerranée orientale. Le Magazine, Marchés et analyses-News.[online] Accessed at :

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