Turkey is hopping back into the serene waters of the Mediterranean, ambitiously looking for natural gas resources that it can extract to cover its enormous demand for energy. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and senior officials from his government, including the Minister of Defense, Hulusi Akar, saw off the Abdul Hamid Han drilling vessel on August 9th as it started a research mission that will last for three months in an area of 55 sq. km (about 34 sq. miles) off the shores of Antalya.
The Abdul Hamid Han, which will navigate the area extending from Turkey’s continental shelf down halfway into the area claimed by Cyprus as its own maritime zone, is a state-of-art hydrocarbon research vessel. It is equipped with a team of 200 engineers and the most advanced tools of seismic research and drilling machines that can go as deep as 12 thousand kilometers under the seabed. Yet, it is quite unlikely that the vessel can find something worthy of celebration before the deadline of its mission on October 4th. That is perhaps why President Erdogan said that the mission could be renewed in the same area or transferred to another spot in the sea after that date.
“The survey and drilling work we are conducting in the Mediterranean are within our sovereign territory. We do not need to receive permission or consent from anyone for this,” Erdogan said at the Abdul Hamid Han launching ceremony. “Neither the puppets nor the ones who hold their strings will be able to prevent us from getting our rights in the Mediterranean,” he added.
Erdogan’s statements were received by concern in Greece and Cyprus, who fear the renewal of their military tensions with Turkey that had turned the quiet basin of the Mediterranean into a warlike zone in the summer of 2020.
THE ECONOMIC BURDEN
To a great extent, the geological characteristics of the gulf of Antalya are similar to the areas where fossil fuels have been discovered in the waters of the southern Mediterranean and the Levantine basins, according to hydrocarbon engineers who were boarded on the Fatih mission in this area, three years ago. Turkey hopes to discover a reserve as big as the natural gas reserve that Egypt found at Zohr gas field in 2014. President Erdogan and his team assume that the gas to be extracted from the southern waters of Turkey could cover the energy needs of Turkey and its European neighbors, reiterating his ambition to turn Turkey into a hub for energy trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The total cost of Turkey’s annual gas consumption is rapidly exceeding 55 billion dollars that are paid to exporters from the Middle East, Eurasia, and Russia, per long-term contracts that usually extend up to 25 years. Turkey’s average annual consumption of natural gas is between 47 to 50 billion cubic meters. That is a huge amount if compared to Turkey’s geographic size and population. However, Turkey depends on natural gas as a sole source of energy for a myriad of purposes, ranging from household heating and cooking, up to generating electricity and operating industrial facilities. In January, Turkey's daily natural gas consumption hit a record high of 280 million cubic meters, according to a report by the Turkish Ministry of Energy which had justified the increase as resulting from the forced lockdown during the early attack of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Rough estimates indicate that Turkey’s gas demand could increase to a record 60 billion cubic meters by the end of 2022.
This huge gas bill has always been a horrendous burden on the already struggling Turkish economy. The inflation rate in Turkey spiked to 79% in July, with no indication of a decline or any future cool down. The global energy and food crises, resulting from the ongoing war in Eastern Europe, are to be partly blamed for the economic crisis in Turkey and many other countries. However, the use of unorthodox monetary policies on which the Turkish state has been insisting, despite their proven failure, is the main reason for the outlandish depreciation of the Turkish Lira. Turkey had not been able to renew gas import contracts with Iran and Azerbaijan after they expired last autumn.
Turkey offered to partially pay for Russian gas imports in rubles, as part of several economic and political deals that the Turkish President and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, discussed at their summit, which was held in the Black Sea city of Sochi on August 5th. Russia covers 24% of Turkey’s imports of oil, and 45% of total gas imports. There is a network of pipelines that pours gas into the mainland of Turkey, and from there to Europe. The most famous of these is the TurkStream pipeline. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, the Europeans decided to halt gas imports from Russia, and thus supplies passing from Russia to Europe through the pipelines in the Baltic Sea had been stopped. The only pipeline that is still open up until this moment is the TurkStream. Apparently, Putin told his Turkish counterpart that “Europe should be grateful to Turkey for keeping the Russian gas supplies uninterrupted.”
THE GEOPOLITICAL OBSTRUCTION
Given the escalating strategic complications at the Black Sea and Eurasia fronts, Turkey – and the entire world – is now looking at the hydrocarbon wealth of the eastern Mediterranean as an alternative resource for natural gas imports. The geographic closeness of the eastern Mediterranean to Europe is a comparative advantage that promises profitable revenues to the countries of the region. In June, the European Union already signed a trilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Egypt and Israel for the exportation of liquefied natural gas to European countries. Italy, France, and even Qatar, which is the biggest gas exporter among all Arab countries, have started to pour generous investments into Egypt’s gas fields and plants, due to their strong potential.
Turkey, despite being the country with the longest border (1870 km) on the Mediterranean, cannot benefit from this lucrative opportunity because of the Lausanne Agreement that was signed in 1922 during the fog of war. The unfair agreement protected Turkey’s sovereignty on its land against the aggression of world superpowers at that time. Yet, it also stripped Turkey of almost all its maritime rights in the Mediterranean in favor of Greece and Cyprus. According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles (370 km) may be claimed by coastal countries. In case the distance between the shores of two neighbor countries is less than this space, then the maritime demarcation between them should be drawn exactly at the half-line distance. However, this is not the case for Turkey, which is literally cuffed to its own shores, either on the southern area towards Cyprus or the southwest zone towards Greece.
At least since early 2000s, Turkey has been trying to change the reality imposed by the Lausanne Agreement, sometimes by diplomatic negotiations with Greece, and other times through employing military provocations. Up to this day, 63 rounds of negotiations have been held between the two countries, and infinite number of meetings between senior military commanders and diplomats, but all ended in vain.
Even when Turkey tried to claim its rights in the Mediterranean by signing a maritime agreement with the transitional government in Libya in 2019, the situation backfired by prompting Greece to sign an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) agreement with Egypt in August 2020 that intersected with the demarcations sketched in the Turkey-Libya agreement. Then, one month after that, the East Med Gas Forum, which was formed by Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel in January 2020, was turned into a regional organization, purposefully excluding Turkey, and further frustrating its ambitions to benefit from the mineral fortunes of the Mediterranean.
THE SOUTH AXIS
Apparently, Egypt’s alliance with Greece was the alarm that opened Turkey’s eyes to the fact that it cannot succeed in the Mediterranean if political tensions with the main countries in the Middle East remained unresolved. Thus, in early 2021, Turkey started a diplomatic campaign to reconcile with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. In a relatively short time, the diplomatic efforts started to bear fruit, in favor of Turkey’s interests in the eastern Mediterranean.
In spite of the EEZ agreements between Egypt and Turkey’s opponents Greece and Cyprus, Egypt has always been careful not to trespass into the areas which Turkey identifies as sovereign in the Mediterranean. In early March 2021, the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum unexpectedly published an updated map of Egypt’s gas exploration activities in eastern Mediterranean. The new map reassigned the position of Egypt’s bid block “EGYMED-W18” so that it stops at point “meridian-28,” which Turkey identifies as a sovereign maritime zone, and labels it as the boundary line of the Turkish continental shelf.
Turkey’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, immediately welcomed Egypt’s move. “Egypt’s respect for our continental shelf is important. We have many historical and cultural values in common with Egypt. The activation of these values could make a difference in relations in the coming days,” said Hulusi Akar, who also hinted that a maritime agreement between Turkey and Egypt could be created in the near future. Later that year, Egypt started to ship cargos of liquified natural gas to Turkey from its plants offshore the Delta province to cover its needs after the expiry of Turkey’s contracts with Asian exporters.
NEW GEOPOLITICAL BALANCE
When Turkey deployed the seismic research vessel “Oruc Reis” to explore seabed resources in the eastern Mediterranean in August 2020, it basically wanted to make a statement against the members of East Med Gas Forum. The complicated geopolitics of the eastern Mediterranean, the historical dispute between Turkey and Greece over maritime zones, and the heated political and diplomatic tensions between almost all the countries in that region stirred up a conflict that quickly turned the quiet basin into a warlike zone, attracting military interventions by rivals in the Middle East and Europe under the guise of convening joint naval exercises. Eventually, Turkey had to withdraw its research and military ships in December of that year, when it was confirmed that Joe Biden was elected as the new U.S. president.
After a two year hiatus, Turkey decided to quietly return to pursuing its rights lost in the Mediterranean. However, this time, the recent geopolitical balance in this region had apparently altered the situation in the Mediterranean in favor of Turkey. Turkey has been able to fix its relationship with Arab Gulf countries, to balance their growing relationships with other Mediterranean countries. The East Med Gas Forum has been idle for more than a year, proving Turkey’s point that no such organization can succeed if it excludes a key Mediterranean country like Turkey. Israel and Egypt, two key members of the East Med organization, are reviving their economic ties with Turkey. Likewise, the Mediterranean gas pipeline and electricity network projects that were initiated by Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, have been thwarted since last year when the United States announced them to be economically unfeasible.
Meanwhile, Turkey has been playing a tremendous role on the economic, diplomatic, and military levels, in mitigating the influence of the war in Eastern Europe on the rest of the world. Turkey has mediated talks between the Russians and Ukrainians, safeguarded the Black Sea against the consequences of the ongoing war, and is now leading an impressive effort to keep the cargos of wheat traveling from Ukraine to other countries. That is an effort that will greatly contribute to rescuing many countries in the world from famine or total economic collapse.
Turkey’s strategic importance has been steadily growing, especially since the withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan and the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Turkey is the only country, worldwide, that can keep a perfect balance between the competing alliances that it deals with, extending from the United States and Europe, NATO, Russia, Eurasia, to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Turkey has become a key strategic player that none of these power coalitions can do without. That could further strengthen Turkey’s position in the near future regarding its struggle for economic rights in the eastern Mediterranean, and thus enable the current Turkish leadership to reverse the disadvantageous reality that it had to accept at a moment of feebleness, a century ago.