from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Natural Gas Changes the Middle East

April 4, 2013

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Last Saturday (March 30) Israel took a large step toward energy independence, as natural gas from the smaller of its newly discovered Mediterranean gas fields began to flow.

By the end of this decade Israel will not only be supplying its own needs fully, but exporting natural gas to the world market. It will be able to supply itself for at least 50 years and perhaps three times as long--reducing its energy costs, improving its environment, making the cost of production lower, and increasing prosperity and state revenues. This natural gas supply more than replaces what Israel used to receive from Egypt, but Egypt has become an unreliable supplier for Israel (and for Jordan as well).

Of course another country has in recent years begun to move from energy dependence to independence, from importer to exporter--our own. And these facts about both Israel and the United States will have lasting and significant geopolitical ramifications. Israel had already become an economic success story, the "start-up nation," and its success will be reinforced--while around it are political and economic failures like Egypt and Syria, and energy-needy Jordan. The natural supplier of energy for Jordan and any eventual Palestinian state is Israel, a fact that would change the nature of their relationships. In a region where instability is spreading, a stable, increasingly wealthy, powerful Israel will grow in value as an American ally.

Our own relationships with Gulf oil producers like Saudi Arabia were built not on political or cultural affinity but on our dependence on their oil exports. We did not pay attention to what Saudi kings said because we thought they were wise men, but solely because their country was the world’s leading oil exporter. It is true that there is one global price for oil and it matters to us, and true that we have many allies still dependent on Gulf oil. But when we are no longer dependent, the relationship changes; it becomes less intimate, and Saudi influence in Washington must decline over the years.  We will also have to rethink the way we deploy our military over the coming decades, for the need to protect oil supplies has been more important over the last 50 years than it will be in the next 50.

Much that happens in the Middle East appears far more consequential than it really is, creating headlines but no real change. The American and Israeli discoveries of vast amounts of natural gas that will allow both countries to become energy exporters is a different sort of event: more dramatic than it may at first appear, and far more significant in reshaping relationships in that region.

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