The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has joined a regional alliance centred around exploiting gas reserves in the eastern half of the Mediterranean Sea as the Gulf state’s interventionist foreign policy faces setbacks elsewhere in the Middle East.
In mid-December, UAE, an oil producer, was given an observer status at the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), an organisation that seeks to jointly promote offshore gas fields discovered in the past decade.
EMGF includes Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Jordan and Palestine - the countries which share the eastern Mediterranean’s shoreline. Italy is also part of the forum because its petroleum major ENI is actively involved in offshore hydrocarbon exploration and production in the region.
“UAE is getting increasingly involved in the Mediterranean because its ability to contain Turkish influence in the Middle East has faced a lot of obstacles,” said Samuel Ramani, a non-resident fellow at the Gulf International Forum, a think tank.
In Libya where a conflict has been raging for years, UAE and Turkey back opposing sides. In recent months, Khalifa Haftar, the militia leader bankrolled by Emirates was forced to retreat by the Ankara-aligned Government of National Accord.
The Tripoli-based GNA is also backed by the UN.
UAE tried, but failed to exert influence in Syria where Turkey was forced to send in troops to stop the advance of the YPG militia. The YPG is a Syrian offshoot of the PKK, a far-left terror group behind the killing of 40,000 Turkish civilians and soldiers.
“Its soft power in the Middle East has eroded by normalisation of ties with Israel and abandonment of the Palestinian cause,” said Ramani told TRT World.
“So UAE is now looking to confront Turkey in a new area which is the Mediterranean and they see it as an easy access point. They have already made a coalition there against Turkey with France.”
While France is not part of the EMGF, it is bent heavily in favour of Greece and sent warplanes and navy ships to the divided Cyprus island in early 2020.
A pipe dream?
Turkey, the region’s largest economy and major gas consumer, has warned against being excluded from efforts to exploit petroleum reserves buried under the seabed.
Greece, Israel and Southern Cyprus have used maritime agreements to demarcate offshore gas blocks between themselves - without including Turkey which has the longest shoreline on the Mediterranean Sea.
A major issue is the exploration work being carried out in the waters claimed by South Cyprus. The tiny island has been divided since the 1970s into two parts - one under the influence of Greece, and the other inhabited by Turkish Cypriots.
Ankara says that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) must have a share in the offshore resources.
The Greek Cypriot Administration has awarded exploration concessions to multinational companies in offshore regions west and southeast of the island without consulting with the TRNC.
Since 2009, Egypt and Israel have hit major gas finds, encouraging neighbours to intensify offshore drilling. Egypt’s Zohr field is producing 2.7 billion cubic feet (bcfd) of gas per day - that one field alone is more than half of Pakistan’s total gas output.
But EMGF’s main purpose to develop a common market and export gas via a pipeline to Europe hasn’t materialised, said John V Bowlus, an Istanbul-based energy analyst.
“The forum hasn’t achieved anything. I see it strictly as a political act against Turkey. The gas pipeline doesn’t seem feasible in the next two years at least,” he told TRT World.
Experts doubt if the planned undersea pipeline, the longest in the world, that aims to carry gas from Egypt to Europe, will ever come off the drawing board.
A slowdown in global economic growth, shift to renewables and new discoveries have created gas glut, making it harder for Egypt to export its own gas.
“The market is completely oversupplied. That’s not going to change anytime soon,” said Bowlus.
The US and Russia are already competing to sell gas to the EU, he said. “So (EMGF) is facing massive headwinds against two of the major powers of the world. Both want to export gas to Europe. They will not give away their market share.”
EMGF’s only big achievement is the deal in which Egypt began importing gas from Israel in early 2020 via a pipeline. But that raised eyebrows as Egypt itself is sitting on vast reserves.
Bowlus said he doesn’t expect any major business breakthrough at the forum.
“It’s a political grouping,” he said.