Wednesday, 29 December 2010

A Very Tangled Web

No country better illustrates the tangled web of political and economic relations in the Middle East than the Republic of Cyprus. This divided island about 40 miles off the southern coast of Turkey has managed to maintain useful relationships with the Arabs and Israel while simultaneously poking a finger in the eye of its large, implacable foe – Turkey.

The current issue involves the large deposits of natural gas and oil that have been discovered in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Rather than create a deadly free-for-all about who owns what Cyprus has negotiated what it calls Exclusive Economic Zones carefully delineating areas of economic interest with Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt. No agreement with Syria has been reached yet, but Syrian president Bashar al-Assad recently paid a two-day visit to Cyprus to discuss areas of economic cooperation. Given Syria’s close ties to Turkey, this visit has to be counted a major success for Cyprus.

The latest economic zone agreement with Israel annoyed the Turks who went so far as to call in the Israeli ambassador to express their displeasure and note that this agreement interferes with efforts to re-unite the island. As Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil notes, the Israeli ambassador could well have asked why similar concerns were not expressed with Lebanese or Egyptian agreements. Semih Idiz noted in another column that the waters of eastern Mediterranean are heating up with the hydro-carbon discoveries.

Turkey also maintains that these agreements infringe upon the rights of the self-proclaimed statelet of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus and make any reunification of the island more difficult. The only problem is that no country other than Turkey recognizes the TRNC. For the rest of the world the Republic of Cyprus is the only legitimate government of the island.

The island of Cyprus has been divided since 1974 when Turkey landed troops and occupied about 30% of the island. In the Turkish version the landing was necessary to protect the Turkish minority from ethnic cleansing by gangs of Greek thugs. In the Greek Cypriot version the Turkish military landing was an invasion pure and simple. The Turks established something called the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus that is officially recognized only by its patron Turkey. The Republic of Cyprus, meanwhile, is the internationally recognized government of the island and is a member of the European Union.

There have been half-hearted attempts to re-unite the island, but, given their strong international position and thriving economy, it is hard to see why the Greek Cypriots would be interested in a deal. Turkey, on the other hand, would love to see a settlement for at least two reasons. Its refusal to recognize the Republic of Cyprus as the legitimate government of the island is a major block to its EU pretensions. Second, maintaining the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, costs the Turkish treasury $400 million a year – money that could be better spent in Turkey itself. In addition, Turkey continues to station about 30,000 troops in the northern part of the island. The economic gulf separating the two sides of the island is only widening as the 800,000 Greek Cypriots enjoy a per capita income of $28,000 while the per capita income of the 256,000 Turkish Cypriots is less than half that amount.

The Republic of Cyprus also benefits from its 10% corporate tax rate for onshore and offshore companies. It is interesting to note that the European Union is demanding that Ireland increase its similarly low tax rate, but no one says anything about Cyprus. Banks in the Republic of Cyprus have also made themselves useful to Russians looking for somewhere to keep their piles of cash. The TRNC meanwhile has no international trade (other than with Turkey) to speak of, and relies heavily on casinos that attract the high rollers from Turkey where casinos have been banned for several years because of their connection to organized crime.

Despite Turkey’s push to improve ties with the Arab world, no Arab country has reciprocated by daring to recognize the Turkish part of the island. Even Turkey’s cousins in Azerbaijan and close Moslem brothers in Pakistan have refused recognition. Their ties with the Republic of Cyprus, and by extension Greece and the entire European Union, are too valuable. One small example is that when visiting many Arab countries I often recall commenting on the quality of various products imported from Cyprus. This comment would be greeted with hoots of laughter, and I would be told that the product was actually manufactured in Israel. It would be sent to Cyprus, have the labels switched and then sent to countries that officially boycott goods from Israel.

Among other things these agreements clarify Israel’s right to explore and produce gas and oil from offshore fields. The stakes for Israel are very high as the latest discovery indicates reserves of 16 trillion cubic feet of gas at the Leviathan structure, about twice the amount discovered at the nearby Tamar site. These major discoveries could turn Israel into a gas exporter, and could finally contradict the old joke that Moses led the Jews around the Middle East for 40 years and finally put them on the only piece of land that didn’t have oil. Moses said nothing about offshore riches.

The oil and gas discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean are a potential economic ‘game changer’ for the region, and one can only hope that these new economic zone agreements can avoid turning this positive development into yet another reason for conflict.

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