The Coming Naval Arms Race in the Eastern Mediterranean

The clouds of conflict are gathering over the Eastern Mediterranean. The discovery of significant gas reserves and subsequent efforts to delimitate exclusive economic zones (EEZs) have raised tensions between regional countries. And now, Greece and Turkey – historical geopolitical rivals – are locked in an intense naval arms race.

Gas Development as a Factor of Interstate Enmity

The Eastern Mediterranean is the new natural gas frontier. Israel, Egypt, and Cyprus have the potential to become important gas producers. The Leviathan field with estimated reserves of 22 trillion cubic feet (tcf) is located 80 miles off the Israeli coast, while the giant Zohr field with estimated reserves of 30 tcf is approximately 120 miles north of Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. In recent years, gas reserves have also been found off the southern coast of Cyprus; the Aphrodite field contains 5 tcf of recoverable natural gas.

Against this background, Greece’s location makes it a natural hub between the gas-rich Eastern Mediterranean and gas-consuming Europe. Indeed, Athens has negotiated the construction of the Eastern Mediterranean Pipeline (EAP) with Nicosia and Jerusalem, which would connect Israeli and Cypriot gas fields to Europe via Crete and mainland Greece. The EAP is not just another geopolitical pipe dream: the three countries signed an agreement on the project in January 2020, although the final route is still under consideration. Energy interests have brought Greece closer than ever to Israel and Egypt. In September 2020, the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum was established in Cairo to foster gas development and transportation in the region.

After the oil crises of 1973 and 1979, it became clear that energy could contribute significantly to the redistribution of power between states. Countries that achieve energy self-sufficiency can improve their position in the international system. Because of their energy wealth, some small states like Norway and Qatar exercise levels of influence that are disproportionate to their population size.

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