Pipelineistan: dream or reality?

Oil and gas then, still seems to be major factors in today’s geo-economics


Aneela Shahzad May 01, 2020
The writer is a geopolitical analyst. She also writes at globaltab.net and tweets @AneelaShahzad

It is true that oil and gas pipelines are not the only reason why states are at war, there are also other over-arching reasons of dominance and prestige that bring with them a moral authority over global issues and in turn make for agency in global economics. Yet, it cannot be denied that energy nevertheless does play a vital part in both geopolitics and geo-economics, even in today’s times.

Going slightly back in history, it is well known that in 1953, the CIA and MI6 jointly arranged a coup to oust then Iranian prime minister Muhammad Mosaddeq because he had attempted to nationalise the oil industry and kick British Petroleum out of Persia. Later, when Khomeini did the same post-Revolution, a bitter rivalry against Iran ensued once again, that goes on to this day.

One would bethink that after so many technological advancements, when the world is talking about alternative energies, would oil and gas pipelines still matter so much? Yet this January, when Erdogan and Putin inaugurated the TurkStream pipeline, laid in the Black Sea, the geo-economic significance of energy routes became apparent again.

The TurkStream pipeline has a significance because with a Middle East mired in conflicts, an array of pipeline plans that have come to the fore from time to time could not come to fruition. Among them were the Arab Gas Pipeline that would go from Egypt to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey; the Qatar-Turkey Pipeline that would pass through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria; and even the Islamic Gas Pipeline from Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Why have all these pipeline dreams failed and why have the TurkStream and its parallel, Nord Stream, been fulfilled, explains the way geopolitics has moved around the Arab Spring era. When the Russia-Ukraine gas transit dispute became deeper with Ukraine’s tilt towards joining the EU and NATO, Russia got to fully assert itself on Europe. On the one hand it made conditions for Ukraine such that joining the EU would not be a viable option anymore, and on the other it sent the message to its European consumers that it will be doing business with them on its own terms now. Consequently, in spite of all the resistance from EU members, who had lately made exaggerated promises of aid to Ukraine, they could not convince Russia not to make alternative routes for gas to reach Europe. In fact, Russia made three routes in place of one with two of them passing through Turkey.

Making Turkey a part of the route has a significance. Turkey is perhaps the only European NATO member unwelcomed in the EU. This makes Turkey turn its interest towards its east, and strategically ally with Russia as opposed to the EU — a move that has helped increase its leverage in the region. Together, they have ousted the US from Syria and are now the major contenders in Libya too, dislodging the US and Western interests from a war they had planned for since the Reagan Doctrine, in one of the most oil-rich states of Africa. The Russian pipeline through Turkey traps Europe in a double tangle, that will force it to submit to the two adversaries it has despised the most.

But there is more to the Pipelineistan tale than this. Turkey’s new alliance with Qatar — a country which has been banished from the Arab fraternity for its aggressions, such as building ties with the Iranians — coupled with Russia’s closeness to Iran and Syria, has made the long-held pipeline dream through Syria a possibility now.

It is worth remembering that post-WWII, when the British controlled Iraq and Jordan, there was a dream of a Tapline (Trans-Arabian Pipeline) that would take Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean via Syria. But the Arab-nationalist government in Syria disallowed the dream to be dreamt. Now, with all the related players in line, eventually the Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline seems to be a possibility. And perhaps Qatar may link its oil to this pipeline too, finding the shortcut for its oil to Europe via Iran, bypassing the Arabian Peninsula. If the plans for Syria’s $200 billion reconstruction goes through — a reconstruction that will most probably be funded by Russia, Iran and China — then the prospects of the Islamic pipeline will be more certain.

In hindsight, in spite of all the anti-rhetoric for such a pipeline by the US and its threats of sanctions, Europe may see the Islamic Pipeline as a desirable, that would help balance out and diversify from Russia’s Gazprom. Europe would have nothing to lose. It always wanted this shortcut route and wanted to consume Persian oil. The real dilemma is for the US who would not only lose its prestige; but also gain the resentment of the Saudis, who trusted them so blindly; and face the further abandonment of the dollar as Iran and Iraq would be more than willing to trade in alternate/local currencies for their oil and so would their friends in Russia and China. The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) agreement, signed earlier this year, already shows their intention in this regard.

Going one step further, Turkey has also smashed another pipeline dream in the making. With the discoveries of offshore gas across the Eastern Mediterranean in offshore Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, there was the plan of an EastMed undersea pipeline that would take oil from Israel and Cyprus to Greece and Italy. But Turkey’s recent agreement with Libya over a conjoined maritime zone that comes in the way of the EastMed, means it will disallow Israel to cross through, making sure that the only oil and gas that reach Europe are via Russia and Turkey, or maybe perhaps from Syria too.

Oil and gas then, still seems to be major factors in today’s geo-economics. With a Pipelineistan of their own choice, Russia and Turkey have made a rather tacit alliance that is defeating the most advanced military powers with a war-by-other-means, pushing them out of the lands they had attempted to surmount by their wars-by-other-means.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2020.

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