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What does the Libya-Türkiye hydrocarbons deal mean?

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TRIPOLI, LIBYA - A view from Martyr's Square in Tripoli, Libya on October 21, 2022. (Hazem Turkia - Anadolu Agency)
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Oct 25, 2022 - 08:12 AM

TRIPOLI, Libya (AA) – Top Turkish officials on a surprise one-day visit to Libya’s capital Tripoli earlier this month signed major documents to boost cooperation between the two countries, particularly on hydrocarbons.

The two countries committed to developing bilateral scientific, technical, technological, legal, administrative, and commercial cooperation on land and sea in the field of hydrocarbons with the memorandum of understanding, signed on Oct. 3.

Steps were also taken to strengthen collaboration in the fields of energy, defense, trade, and communications during the visit by Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez, National Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Trade Minister Mehmet Mus, Communications Director Fahrettin Altun, and presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin.

Implementation phase begins

These agreements came after a previous memorandum of understanding in November 2019 that marked the maritime boundaries between Türkiye and Libya in the Mediterranean Sea, while also setting the stage for increased security and military cooperation.

With the latest deals, the measures in these memorandums have now entered the phase of implementation.

Speaking later, Cavusoglu said the agreement on hydrocarbons was aimed towards cooperation between Turkish and Libyan companies including in the areas of exploration and drilling, “with a win-win understanding both on land and at sea and in our jurisdictions.”

Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, leader of the Tripoli-based unity government said that according to the maritime agreement signed with Ankara, oil exploration work would be carried out.

It can now be concluded that Libya and Türkiye have jointly entered the exploration and drilling phase of their agreements, both at sea and on the land. Türkiye is expected to launch seismic survey activities in Libya’s exclusive economic zone soon.

Ankara’s discoveries in both the Mediterranean and Black Seas with its powerful energy fleet of four drilling vessels and two seismic research vessels served as an important reference point for this deal.

Critical timing amid global energy crisis

With the current energy crisis across the globe, the hydrocarbon fields in the Eastern Mediterranean are once again situated at the center of a power struggle.

The safe transfer of potential hydrocarbon resources in the Mediterranean to Europe has been a critical matter to Israel, Greece, and the Greek Cypriot administration for a long time now. In fact, the EastMed Pipeline project, which excluded Türkiye, was proposed for exactly this transfer, though the project collapsed after the US withdrew its support.

On the other hand, gas leaks in the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, which were built to transport natural gas from Russia to Europe, have raised the issue of the safety of natural gas transported from Libya to Europe via the Green Stream line, spanning 510 kilometers (317 miles). According to Italian news reports, that country’s Navy will start working to protect this gas line with mine-searching ships, frigates, and maritime patrol aircraft.

The reason behind Italy’s concern is the presence of the Russia-backed paramilitary group Wagner in Libya and the possibility of sabotage of the gas flowing to Italy from the North African coast.

According to reports, Wagner does not control the areas where Libya’s Mediterranean natural gas platforms are located. This gas is exported to Italy and is extracted from areas close to the majority of onshore Libyan fields.

However, Wagner can stop production at onshore fields and ensure that gas extracted from the Mediterranean is used in the domestic market, instead. This could cut off the energy flow from Libya to Europe.

On the other hand, Türkiye’s exploration and drilling activities in Libya’s exclusive economic zone may cause crises between Türkiye and Italy in the coming period.

Regional effects

By signing the 2019 deal on maritime boundaries, Libya showed that it was not giving up its rights in the south of Crete. Greece and Egypt responded to this move by signing an agreement of their own on the “limitation of maritime jurisdiction” in 2020.

Türkiye’s latest treaties with Libya received criticism from both Greece and Egypt, with Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visiting Cairo just six days later for a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart and asserting that they were “ready to respond to any provocation” from Türkiye.

Greece’s opposition to the agreements stems from three main issues. Greece, which is already raising tensions against Türkiye in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean, does not want Ankara to operate in the south via an agreement with Libya.

Another inconvenience for Athens is that Libya is acquiring its rights to Crete’s south through its agreement with Türkiye in the international sense. It should be noted that by signing the two deals with Türkiye, Libya added 16,700 square kilometers (about 6,450 sq mi) to the area of its maritime control in the south of Crete compared to the terms in its agreement with Greece.

Referring to this matter, Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh said: “We will not give up our right to the territorial waters in the south of Crete. The signed protocol will strengthen our major oil wealth and related investments in our regional waters.”

This situation also shows that there is a win-win situation, refuting claims by various actors that the consensus only focuses on Türkiye’s interests.
Geopolitically, Greece does not want the Türkiye-Libya maritime border to cut off its access to the Eastern Mediterranean and does not want Ankara’s agreement with Tripoli to set a precedent for other countries.

On the other hand, how Greece will react if Türkiye starts exploring for hydrocarbons in Libya’s economic field will be a major issue in the coming period. Ankara is expected to protect the drilling and exploration ships that it will send to the region with the frigates currently off the coast of Libya.

Egypt, another country that met the agreement negatively, harbors concerns about Türkiye’s strengthening economic and political position in Libya, especially in the east of the country, while its influence in Libya flags.

Türkiye in contact with all Libyan parties

With the agreement, Türkiye has sent a solid message to international actors on its position in Libya.

International actors, especially the US and EU, have been taking a passive and risk-free approach to instability in Libya for a long time. With the world’s eyes focused on the Russia-Ukraine war, Türkiye’s move has strengthened its footing in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, while building confidence in the Libyan actors.

Today, as energy security is as vital as energy itself, Türkiye’s move towards becoming a “safe” central country in energy is a measure of how close it is to its goal.

Speaking after the agreement, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu said: “We are also meeting with all parties in Libya. All the Libyan groups with whom we have differed in the past strongly support this agreement.”

A visit in August by Aguila Saleh, the Tobruk-based speaker of the Libyan House of Representatives, to Türkiye for a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as well as his previous contacts with Türkiye’s Ambassador to Tripoli, Kenan Yilmaz, in Benghazi can be considered as evidence of these words.

The House of Representatives had elected Fathi Bashagha as the country’s prime minister at a sitting when most of the deputies from the west of the country were absent on Feb. 10.

They did so on the grounds that the current National Unity Government’s mandate expired on Dec. 24 last year, giving a vote of confidence to Bashagha’s government weeks later, with him later unsuccessfully attempting to overthrow the Tripoli government by military and political means.

By signing this agreement, the Turkish government has thus demonstrated that it will continue to support Tripoli.

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