While the Levant region has long been one of the world’s most resource-barren, recent offshore hydrocarbon discoveries have the potential to change this. While several states seek to dispute ownership of the various regional oil and gas fields, two states are seeking to cooperate for mutual benefit. In this piece, Edwin Tran examines Cyprus and Lebanon’s cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean.
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On June 10, 1973, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir uttered a scathing critique of the Biblical figure Moses. At a state dinner with the West German Chancellor in attendance, Golda Meir claimed: “Let me tell you something that we Israelis have against Moses. He took us 40 years through the desert in order to bring us to the one spot in the Middle East that has no oil!”
While Golda Meir was speaking from an Israeli context, it is no secret that the Levant is considered a resource-poor region. While other Middle Eastern nations like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been able to exploit copious oil reserves in their de jure territory, Levantine nations like Israel and Jordan have been less fortunate in such endeavours. Lacking such resource-driven wealth has resulted in less economic flexibility in establishing extensive government institutions and has created a pressing need for other avenues of economic development, such as seen in Israel’s booming technological sector.
For Lebanon, these concerns seemed to have been miraculously alleviated in 2010 with the announcement of the Levantine Gas Field. Although located in the Mediterranean Sea, this gas field has the potential to provide countless hydrocarbon resources to whichever country could claim and exploit it. World Bank data claims that the overarching field has “1,689 million barrels of oil” and the Aphrodite Gas Field, a regional section of the Levantine Gas Field, is reported to have “roughly 129 billion cubic meters (bcm) of natural gas.” Consequently, much attention has been placed on the dynamics between Israel and its neighbours over who would stake a claim first. In fact, key Lebanese politicians strongly reacted against Israel’s potential takeover of the gas fields, and in June 2010, parliamentarian and Amal-leader Nabih Berri claimed: “Israel is racing to make the case a fait accompli and was quick to present itself as an oil emirate, ignoring the fact that, according to the maps, the deposit extends into Lebanese waters… Lebanon must take immediate action to defend its financial, political, economic and sovereign rights.”
While much of the focus has been placed on the geopolitical dynamics between Israel and Lebanon, there is another set of bilateral ties that need to be assessed. In the wake of these developments, the relationship between the Republic of Cyprus and Lebanon has grown immensely. It is important to understand the two countries have worked together before the unearthing of these gas deposits, with some of the oldest bilateral dealings between the two countries occurring in 1994. However, contemporary wisdom would believe that the finding of limited and valuable resources would result in tension, or even conflict.
Fig 1.0 – Eastern Mediterranean hydrocarbon basins, with the Levant basin highlighted
In the case of Lebanese-Cypriot relations, the finding of gas deposits in the Mediterranean resulted in a warming of ties. In 2014, Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Gebran Bassil conducted special meetings with the Republic of Cyprus. These were followed by other key meetings with diplomats and politicians from both countries in 2016-2018. In fact, these bilateral moves were conducted beyond the political sphere, and into the realm of civil society. In February 2016, the Cyprus-Lebanon Business and Professional Association conducted an economic forum with over 150 Lebanese and 200 Cypriots participating. While discussing topics such as investment opportunities and Cypriot-Lebanese business cooperation efforts, one key theme that emerged in the forum was the benefit of growing ties between the two nations.
By 2017, key developments were occurring in the geopolitics of the Levantine Gas Field. Although Lebanese politicians and businesses had hoped to begin drilling as early as 2013, little progress was made in that endeavor, as internal political issues and sectarian tensions paralysed the country’s efforts. Recognising that Lebanon was now years behind its neighbours, the country was forced to reach out internationally for assistance. The Republic of Cyprus, as a result of these bilateral movements, was an obvious choice, and Lebanese officials were quick to ask Cypriot counterparts for assistance in exploiting these resources. In December of that year, Lebanese Ambassador Claude El Hajal declared that: “Lebanon and Cyprus are neighbouring countries with a shared history which dates back to Phoenician times, and we continue to work together to enhance the relations on all levels… We are already reaping the fruits of closer cooperation in the fields of counter – terrorism cooperation, military and security cooperation, refugee and migration issues, energy, economic cooperation, cross investment, Lebanon EU relations, tourism, agriculture, maritime transport, cooperation on environmental issues including forest fire fighting and cooperation on cultural issues.”
These efforts have ultimately coalesced into more concrete plans between Lebanon and Cyprus over the drilling of oil and gas deposits in the Aphrodite Gas Field. Meetings conducted in early April 2019 resulted in what is being described as “an oil and gas alliance” between the two nations. Rather than peacefully divide the deposits into zones, discussions have been focused on more heightened collaboration. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has instead “suggested that any gas or oil discovery between us shall be invested in joint projects.” On the Cypriot side, Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides and Minster of Energy George Lakkortypis both agreed that these developments were agreeable for the Republic of Cyprus, and both individuals maintained that further cooperation between Lebanon and Cyprus would only result in stronger ties. In conjunction with these political discussions, many Cypriot business leaders arrived as a delegation in order to promote many of the same economic principles as were emphasised in the 2016 Cyprus-Lebanon Business Forum.
When examined in their holistic contexts, key geopolitical motivations can be identified. For Lebanon, antagonistic relations with each of its neighbours over maritime resources would leave it isolated. The military clout of Israel’s armed forces and Cyprus’s ties with the European Union give both countries significant leverage in accessing the Levantine Gas Field. Lebanon must embrace liberal international relations with Cyprus, a neighbour that is much less antagonist and more amiable towards cooperation, in order to ascertain its place in the resource game or else be blocked off. The reality of such pressure is exemplified by Gebran Bassil’s plea following the most recent bilateral discussions: “[Lebanon] cannot waste more time.” For Cyprus, the international ramifications are just as serious. The ever present presence of Turkey is a weight that cannot be understated. Although strong in its European connections, Cyprus finds itself with less allies in its immediate presence. Growing relations between Lebanon and Cyprus provides the republic with one more ally in its ongoing conflict between Turkey. In fact, following the most recent discussions over oil and gas rights, Cypriot Foreign Minister Nicos Christodoulides declared that a “trilateral summit between the leaders of Cyprus, Greece and Lebanon” would be held later in 2019. When asked about the purpose of such a meeting, Christodoulides emphasised economic relations as the main motivator, denying that the summit was “directed against any other country.” When read between the lines, it is clear that Lebanon’s inclusion serves to act as a warning to Turkey. By bringing Lebanon into the fold through diplomacy and economic relations, Cyprus has been successful in creating another key regional ally in its ongoing strife with Turkey.
By engaging in close bilateral relations and through streamlined cooperation in the business sector, both countries stand to receive massive gains should things play out as anticipated. Liberal international relations between the Republic of Cyprus and Lebanon has the potential for major economic gains. Should things pan out in this fashion, it would stand to highlight the benefit cooperation has in the international stage. While much of the world has begun to shy away from the liberal order of multilateral relations and close international ties, the growing connections between Cyprus and Lebanon may act as a key example in why such relations matter.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Conflict & Prosperity: Geopolitics and Energy in the Eastern Mediterranean (Menahem Blondheim, Andreas Stergiou & Kivanc Ulusoy)
- Hostage to History: Cyprus from the Ottomans to Kissinger (Christopher Hitchens)
- Israel’s Mediterranean Gas: Domestic Governance, Economic Impact, and Strategic Implications (Sujata Ashwarya)
- A History of Stability and Change in Lebanon: Foreign Interventions and International Relations (Joseph Bayeh)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2019 reading list
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Edwin Tran is an independent writer focusing on geopolitics and the Levantine region. He is a graduate of the University of Nevada, Reno with degrees in History and International Affairs, and has published work in various sites from newspapers to academic journals. Edwin has spent time living and researching in the Levant region, and specialises in hybrid organisations and their historical contexts in order to understand their popularity and political successes within civil society.