American University of Beirut

Unlocking Peace and Prosperity: How to Resolve Maritime Border Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea?

​​Research Re​port

Roudi Baroudi, Energy consultant, CEO of Energy & Environment Holding (Doha)

Energy Policy annd Security Program, March 2020


The name of “Israel” in this paper does​ not entail by any chance the recognition of the state of Israel by the Republic of Lebanon, the American University of Beirut, the Issam Fares Institute or the author of this document.​

Executive Su​​mmary

The Eastern Mediterranean Sea (East Med) is rimmed by seven coastal states – Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Occupied Palestine (Israel), Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey, along with the special case of Gaza – with an overall maritime frontier area of 464,637 km2, compared to 21 states and 2.5 million km2 for the Mediterranean Sea as a whole. Five new offshore hydrocarbon stores have been recently discovered in the East Med, comprising an estimated 67.1 trillion cubic feet (TcF) and with a present-day value of approximately $200 billion. Despite the promise of significant lucre, only two of the five discoveries are on track to be developed. These are Leviathan, discovered off the coast of Israel in December 2010 and reported to hold over 16 TcF in gas reserves; and Zohr, discovered off the shores of Egypt in August 2015 and reported to be even larger, at 30 TcF.

Under the relevant United Nations guidelines and the applicable Rules of Procedure, the East Med region currently has 12 main maritime boundaries that should be defined in order to fully delineate the offshore spaces belonging to Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Of these borders, only two – Cyprus-Egypt and Cyprus- Israel – have been agreed upon in bilateral treaties, leaving 10 (or 83 percent) of the region’s maritime boundaries unresolved and/or in dispute. This amounts to approximately 220 nautical miles (407 km) of maritime boundaries that are treatied, leaving 1,223 nautical miles (or 84 percent of the total) of the boundary areas unresolved.

As of December 2019, all seven coastal states in the Eastern Mediterranean had active offshore hydrocarbon industries, with 231 available oil and gas blocks covering a total maritime area of 314,600 km2. This area represents about 68 percent of the region’s total offshore waters. Of the presentday blocks expected to be put on offer, up to 40 percent can be classified as “contentious” due to uncertainties regarding the precise locations of the relevant maritime boundaries. Unless the problems surrounding most of these boundaries are satisfactorily resolved, future economic development stemming from seabed hydrocarbon discoveries and exploitation will be negatively affected, thereby reducing overall revenues for the region.

Of vital importance here is the fact that the absence of officially delineated maritime boundaries affects not only exploration and development work, but also the construction and operation of underwater pipelines. In this context, the recently proposed pipeline that would carry Israeli gas 2,000 km from Cyprus to Italy, via Crete and the Greek mainland, may be a nonstarter. Basic feasibility mapping should have revealed that the route crosses “un-treatied” boundaries, including one contested between Greece and Turkey, which will render it unworkable unless and until competing claims are resolved.

The boundary locations have been computed by calculating the “suggested starting positions” (based on hypothetical strict lines of equidistance) favored by international courts and tribunals, as well as by consulting the latest mapping of the relevant countries’ territorial sea baseline models. This highly accurate data will also show how and where the oil and gas blocks defined by individual states overlap with one another based on the computations of suggested maritime boundary locations.

For the purpose of this study, the author wishes to stress the importance of science and law working together to resolve maritime boundary disputes, as outlined in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The Law of the Sea is governed by a special treaty regime consisting of the Geneva Conventions concluded in 1958, along with the UNCLOS document itself, which was signed in 1982 and entered into force in 1994. UNCLOS includes basic rules and principles for the fair and accurate delimitation of the various zones of control described therein: i.e., the territorial sea, the contiguous zone, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and the continental shelf (including the extended continental shelf, or ECS).

As we shall see below, Law of the Sea applications have been used successfully in many different contexts. There can be no doubt: when and if the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean decide to adhere to the UN Charter and resolve their maritime disputes peacefully, they will have the tools to do so. There is, however, n​o ​time to waste, as evidenced by the steady build-up of outside naval forces in the region over the past few years.​

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