The relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem fans the flames of the historical Arab-Israeli rivalry, fueling the indignation of Arab leaders and some major powers. Some senior Arab officials even threatened to launch an attack on Israel, when they said: “Relocation of the US embassy speeds up Israel’s annihilation.” However, until now, there has been no concrete move in assisting the Palestinian side on changing the status quo. This is not a coincidence, but a brewing new consensus under new circumstances in the Middle East.
For the Middle East, the tumultuous 20th century started with the discovery of oil and natural gas reserves at the beginning. The region thus turned into a staging ground for strategic rivalry. Almost a century later, major natural gas discoveries in recent years and the prospect of substantial hydrocarbons resources beneath the Eastern Mediterranean have engendered remarkable transnational interest. If developed successfully, they may significantly change the energy landscape in the larger Mediterranean. They may also be a bellwether to promote energy security, economic prosperity and regional cooperation.
Though the first offshore gas discovery was made in 1969 in Egypt, massive development of gas fields started around 2000 in shallow waters west of the coastal town of Ashkelon in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Further exploration led to three large discoveries: Tamar and Leviathan fields in 2009 and 2010, offshore Israel, and Aphrodite in 2011 off the southern coast of Cyprus. The next big discovery came in 2015 with the giant Zohr gas field in a deep offshore zone of the Mediterranean, off the coast of Egypt’s Port Said, a junction of the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean, increasing Egypt’s explorable reserves by almost 50 percent. Extensive seismic research by Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey is on with some early success.
More importantly, the region remains one of the world’s most under-explored or unexplored areas and has good prospects for additional gas, and even oil, reserves. Two assessments by leading international agencies – one on the Nile Delta and Mediterranean Sea sectors of Egypt, the other on the Levant Basin Province – point to almost 10 trillion cubic meters of technically recoverable undiscovered gas potential in the region.
Though posing enormous technical, administrative, security, legal and political challenges with geopolitical implications, exploitation and export of these resources led to a variety of economic and diplomatic initiatives, even among once belligerent countries.
To cover the embassy relocation in Jerusalem, a People’s Daily journalist took the 1-hour “paper flight” (unmarked aircraft to prevent identification) operated by Egypt Air from Cairo to Tel Aviv. The direct flight is a result of the cold peace between Egypt and Israel in the late 1970s. The countries cooperate on many issues in a discreet way. It was not until the last moment that Cairo and Tel Aviv confirmed a $15bn deal to export natural gas from Israel to Egypt. Cyprus is also close to signing an agreement to export gas from the Aphrodite gas reservoir, partly owned by Israeli company Delek, to Egypt.
Two tripartite alliances have emerged in the past decade. One is between Greece, the Republic of Cyprus (RC) and Egypt, and the other between Greece, RC and Israel. Meetings periodically bring together top officials from Greece and RC with their Israeli and Egyptian counterparts, which increase the level of trust in politics. RC, for example, traditionally took a pro-Palestinian stance, but recently started leaning toward Israel. As for Israel, natural gas serves as a bargaining chip with neighbors.
For extra-regional powers, this also provides a rare opportunity to minimize time-to-market and maximize access to more valuable markets, which may produce optimal investment decisions, such as the joint development of infrastructure for fields in different countries. The burgeoning hydrocarbon production in this region also has special security implications for EU and the US. With a lingering fear of another Russian gas supply cutoff, the EU would be more than delighted to see supply sources and routes diversified within more of its member states. With Greece and Turkey being part of NATO and Israel being a key US ally, increasingly converging strategic and economic interests help consolidate the existing security architecture while containing the expansion of Russia in recent years.
The new developments are fostering a community of common destiny in the Middle East, compatible with China’s Belt and Road initiative, in benefiting many countries with better infrastructure, while making the regional setup more open and inclusive. There would be at least major areas of cooperation between China and the region: infrastructure connectivity (by upgrading the existing 16+1 mechanism with Eastern and Central European countries), financial connectivity, joint collaboration to help the other nations (along with other extra-regional powers), and offer of services to resolve cross-border commercial disputes.
The author is Cairo-based correspondent of People’s Daily.