Israel and five other states signed a charter for an Egypt-based energy forum on Tuesday, giving formal status to a group that seeks to promote natural gas exports from the eastern Mediterranean, and that Israel hopes will strengthen ties with its Arab neighbors.
In a virtual ceremony hosted by Cairo, Egypt, Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Jordan established the East Mediterranean Gas Forum as an intergovernmental organization.
The group unites regional rivals of Turkey, which has been locked in a bitter dispute with European Union members Greece and Cyprus over gas drilling rights in the region. The Palestinian Authority is also part of the forum, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement.
France has applied to join, with the United States and European Union requesting observer status.
For Israel, the forum “brings regional cooperation with Arab and European countries, the first of its kind in history, with contracts to export [Israeli] gas to Jordan and Egypt worth $30 billion, and that is just the beginning,” added Steinitz.
“Today is a historic moment,” Egypt’s oil minister, Tarek el-Molla, was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying. “Once the organization is up and running, we will soon see important projects that add value to all our countries.”
EMGF was founded as a joint Israeli-Egyptian undertaking amid large discoveries of natural gas in East Mediterranean waters. Joined by other countries, they agreed in January 2019 to set up the forum to create a regional gas market, cut infrastructure costs and offer competitive prices, and a year later adopted the institutional framework.
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The 2015 discovery of the giant offshore Zohr field had unlocked interest in Egypt’s energy market and encouraged Cairo to promote itself as a regional hub. Egypt began importing Israeli gas from the Tamar and Leviathan fields at the start of this year. In a vote of confidence in the region’s future, the U.S. energy giant Chevron agreed to buy Noble Energy, the Texas-based company that has stakes in the Israeli fields.
However, development of the region’s reserves has been hindered by low global energy prices and by the rivalry between Turkey and eastern Mediterranean neighbors Greece and Cyprus. Large funds offshore Cyprus have yet to be put into production, while plans to construct an undersea pipeline linking East Mediterranean gas to European markets face daunting technological and financial obstacles.
On Monday, Greece said it was close to resuming talks with Turkey over maritime zones, after Ankara this month recalled an oil and gas exploration vessel from disputed Mediterranean waters in a move welcomed by Athens.
NATO members Turkey and Greece bitterly disagree over maritime jurisdiction and energy exploration rights in the eastern Mediterranean, based on conflicting views about the extent of their continental shelves.
Turkey infuriated Greece last month when it sent the Oruc Reis seismic survey vessel to the area. Ankara says the boat has now been recalled for routine maintenance.