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Latest update : 2017-05-12

How natural gas could be a geopolitical game-changer in the Mideast

It's a discovery that could easily shake up the geopolitical order in the Middle East. Deep under the eastern Mediterranean lies the largest natural gas basin ever found on Europe's doorstep. But the gas fields often coincide with disputed borders between rival nations. Our reporter Marine Pradel investigated this lucrative resource, which everyone wants a piece of.

The billions of cubic metres of natural gas discovered in recent years off Israel, Egypt and Cyprus form what is now called the "Levantine Basin", the largest natural gas reservoir within easy reach of Europe.

The first major deposit, known as Tamar, was discovered in 2009 off the coast of Haifa, Israel, by a consortium made up of Noble Energy (US) and Delek-Avner (Israel). Other gas fields were later discovered in the same zone of the "Levantine Basin": Leviathan (Israel), Aphrodite (Cyprus), but most importantly Zohr, in 2015 off the coast of Egypt: the largest gas field ever discovered in the Mediterranean, larger than all the others combined. It was found by the Italian oil giant ENI, which has already started to exploit it and is aiming to start production by the end of 2017.

Meanwhile, Israel, supported by its US ally, is drilling away, driven by a free-market and idealistic vision: exploiting the gas will oblige the countries of the region to co-operate as business partners, which will in turn create peace and stability.

But the gas under the Mediterranean Sea may also carry within it the seeds of new conflicts. On the divided island of Cyprus, it threatens reunification efforts. In Lebanon, its location - straddling the disputed maritime boundary with Israel - boosts the belligerent rhetoric of the armed Hezbollah group.

It is hoped the gas could be worth billions of dollars, and all eyes are on the highly coveted European gas market, which Russia would like to keep for itself.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 in Washington, the US Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs summarised the situation. “All of a sudden, it’s not just a bunch of fishermen that care about those waters. Suddenly, there’s billions and billions of dollars”, he explained. The stakes are certainly high. In total, nearly 3,500 billion cubic metres of natural gas could lie under the eastern Mediterranean, according to a study by the US Geological Survey.

From Egypt to Syria via Lebanon, Israel and Cyprus, our reporter investigated this precious resource, a double-edged sword that awakens old Cold War reflexes and could well upset the geopolitical order of an already unstable region.

By Marine PRADEL

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