LSE: The Energy geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean and the role of Greece

By Emmanuel Karagiannis, Senior Lecturer, Department of Defence Studies, King’s College London

The Eastern Mediterranean is once again in turmoil. Turkey is becoming increasingly assertive in pressing its claims and strengthening relations with the Muslim world. Greece and Cyprus faced a severe financial crisis from which they have only partly recovered. The Syrian civil war has turned into a regional crisis, drawing other neighbouring countries into it. Post-Mubarak Egypt has sought a regional role as a leading Arab country, but the current confrontation between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood is threatening the country’s stability.

Against this geopolitical background, a new factor has been added to the equation. Due to the recent natural gas finds, the Eastern Mediterranean will soon become the new energy frontier. The region has an estimated 122 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of undiscovered, but technically recoverable, natural gas.

Both Israel and Cyprus could become major gas exporters. More importantly, energy development could have far reaching geopolitical implications for the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond. Indeed, energy has already impacted regional patterns of amity and enmity. Relations between Ankara and Nicosia have deteriorated due to disagreements over the exploitation of offshore gas deposits south of the divided island of Cyprus. Simultaneously, energy cooperation has been the driving force behind the emerging Greek-Israeli-Cypriot partnership, leading in turn to cooperation in the field of defence. Security considerations often take precedence over economic benefits deriving from gas transportation.

The discovery of the Eastern Mediterranean gas resources comes at a time when world demand for energy is growing rapidly, many are questioning the reliability of supplies from the Persian Gulf and Russia, and Western governments are encouraging the diversification of supply to ensure energy security. The Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves are looked upon by Western governments and companies as a strategic priority for three reasons:

Most of this gas is intended for export since the needs of Israel and Cyprus are relatively low;
The gas could cover a significant part of Europe’s energy needs and thus decrease Europe’s dependence on Russia and Algeria;

The fact that Israel and particularly Cyprus lack the capital and the technology to precede independently to the development of these gas reserves offers Western energy companies considerable investment

Greece has positioned itself as an energy hub because its location makes it a natural bridge between the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean and the energy-consuming Europe. While it looks like there is a national consensus on energy, many questions remain answered. What is the Greek strategy in the Eastern Mediterranean? How different foreign policy actors understand the role of Greece in the region? How theories of international relations and Foreign Policy can help explain the energy geopolitics of the Eastern Mediterranean?

Dr Emmanuel Karagiannis is a Senior Lecturer in King’s College London’s Department of Defence Studies.