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The Arab gas pipeline: an energy corridor to Lebanon, bypassing Iran?

By Michael Harari*

The exacerbating crisis in Lebanon is deeply troubling to the regional as well as the international arena and is producing creative attempts designed to help Lebanon, while at the same time, is preventing the strengthening of Iranian influence in the country.

On September 8th, a rare meeting was held in Amman, between the energy ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. As part of the meeting, an ambitious roadmap was agreed upon, with the purpose of supplying Lebanon with gas to produce 450 megawatts of electricity. The gas is supposed to come from Egypt, through the Arab gas pipeline, and the financing would probably be through the World Bank.

The rationale behind the move in question focuses on the clear interest in preventing the supply of Iranian oil, using tankers that will reach the shores of Syria, thereby projecting achievements to Iran and Hezbollah, in the intra-Lebanese and regional arenas. The move was initiated and supported by Washington, with the involvement of Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, who failed in his attempt to form a government in Beirut in recent months.

The path that emerges: Natural gas will flow from Egypt to Lebanon (to Tripoli) through the Arab gas pipeline. The gas pipeline in question is a land pipeline (the small part of which is underwater), with a total length of 1200 km, intended for the export of natural gas from Egypt to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

Contacts for laying the pipeline to Aqaba in Jordan began in 1998 and were completed in 2003. The section goes from El Arish to Taba, and from there in a submarine pipeline, 15 km long, to Aqaba. The second section, from Aqaba to al-Rahab, south of the Syrian border, was completed in 2005. The third section connected the pipeline to a power station near Homs in Syria, and the last part connected to Tripoli in northern Lebanon.

It must be said that the pipeline never operated at full capacity, both for energy reasons (the energy sector in Egypt has been in a severe crisis for quite a few years) and for security reasons, due to terrorist attacks in its sections, especially in Sinai.

The challenges facing the emerging outline are not negligible:

Politically: The Syrian angle is a significant obstacle. Such a move will, after all, give legitimacy to the Syrian regime, a process that has indeed been taking place in recent months. Moreover, the US sanctions don’t allow financing a project involving the Syrian regime.

Economically: The cost of the project, presumably, will not be negligible, as will the inability of the Lebanese government to pay for the aid in question. Therefore, there is a possibility that the World Bank will finance the project. This will also make it possible to somehow circumvent the US sanctions on the Assad regime (after all, the Syrian angle is necessary for aiding Lebanon in the format in question).

Technically: It is likely that the Arab oil pipeline is not fit for its various parts, and appropriate work and testing will be required.

Security-wise: it is presumable that various actors will try to damage the pipeline in an attempt to thwart the ambitious venture, and thus it is very important to ensure the integrity of the pipeline along a long and complex path.

Despite these obstacles, it is in many respects, a win-win for all the countries involved, and first and foremost in view of the common interest in curbing the assertive Iranian foreign policy in the region. Moreover, each of the players concerned has complementary interests:

Egypt: Egypt is establishing its status as a regional energy hub, a status that was strengthened with the establishment of the Regional Gas Forum and will now have a tangible political-strategic-economic expression (even if it is not a very significant economic deal) if such an outline will be realized.

Jordan: King Abdullah raised the idea to President Biden, according to various reports, during his recent visit to Washington. Jordan’s strategic position in this context will illustrate its centrality, in more necessary circumstances than ever for the Hashemite monarchy.

Syria: Syria sees this project as a golden opportunity to strengthen the legitimacy of the Assad regime in terms of the regional and international arena. The same is true of the Lebanese arena. While this may create some embarrassment for Damascus against Tehran, it is not a challenge it will not be able to meet.

Lebanon: Without going into too much detail about the different Lebanese players (although this is a very relevant angle), this is a regional-international move, designed to help the country, and illustrates the interest of the international community in what is happening in Lebanon. The external actors involved, as outlined above, are supposed to help the government overcome the range of difficulties and obstacles.

The United States: Obviously, its interest is in preventing an Iranian achievement, as well as Hezbollah’s, including the possibility of harnessing a number of Arab countries for a political-economic move, which could have important consequences along the way.

Russia: While it is unlikely that Russia will be enthusiastic about the success of a move on an American initiative, the message behind it in strengthening the Assad regime makes up for it. Presumably, for her, too, a certain containment of Iranian foreign policy in the region is desirable.

And what about Israel?

This is a fascinating political-energetic initiative, which deserves to be examined from two main angles:

  1. The struggle against Iran: A meeting of interests, which brings together a number of players as we mentioned above, is good news for Israel, and especially if it contributes to halting, albeit limited, its influence in Lebanon. Such a move would prevent Hezbollah from strengthening its image of the “Lebanese savior” and this too is not negligible.
  2. The energy angle: It is too early to assess the consequences of its operation, or the use that will be made of the Arab gas pipeline, on Israel and the region. However, this could have a fascinating potential for further possible alternatives to the “regional energy map”. There is no need to rush to conclusions, but creative potential in itself is not a trivial matter.

In conclusion, this is the beginning of an ambitious and creative experience, with significant political and energetic implications. The difficulties and obstacles are many, and the chances of success are not clear at all. However, it is worth “relaxing in our seats” and watching the possible developments. We shall return and update on the matter.

*Michael Harari is Israel’s former ambassador to Cyprus and a Mitvim Institute fellow.

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