Turkey’s first natural gas discovery was undoubtedly breaking news. As the world focused its attention on the escalation between Ankara and Athens in the eastern Mediterranean over natural resources and maritime borders, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made the announcement on August 21 that marked the end of Turkey’s unsuccessful quest for indigenous oil and gas. If confirmed, the discovery of a 320-billion-cubic-meter natural gas deposit off Turkey’s Black Sea coast will enhance the country’s energy security and could help shape Ankara’s foreign policy trajectory.
For years, Turkey has been tirelessly looking for oil and gas. To do so, Ankara mainly relied on the expertise of foreign companies. Encouraged by the recent discoveries of significant gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean, Ankara stepped up its efforts in the region as well as the Black Sea. This time, however, the state-owned Turkish Petroleum Corporation (TPAO) decided to explore opportunities on its own. As a result, TPAO purchased three drilling ships — Fatih, Yavuz and Kanuni, all named after Ottoman sultans — between 2017 and 2020, and deployed them in both the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The plan worked: Fatih was instrumental in making the August discovery.
Discovery of Natural Gas Exposes Turkey’s Political Rifts
The finding could alleviate Turkey’s energy import options and equip Ankara with a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations with traditional suppliers. It could also help to transform TPAO into a significant player in the industry. The petroleum company has already made strides in this regard. During the last several years, the TPAO has intensified its efforts in oil and gas exploration and production.
The company has also taken advantage of rapprochement between Ankara and the UN-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli in order to resume projects halted in 2014. Back then, the TPAO announced the successful completion of wells in Sirte and Sebha. In April, partnered with Russian Zarubezhneft, TPAO signed preliminary deals to participate in its upstream sector and has made strides in Algeria by signing up to an onshore project together with Sonatrach and Zarubezhneft. Furthermore, Turkish authorities have been vocal about their intentions to invest in Somalia’s and Ethiopia’s oil and gas sectors.
Given the complexity of deep-water drilling, TPAO’s inexperience when it comes to offshore projects and the costliness of such endeavors, the development of the Black Sea fields may require partnerships with more experienced companies. Turkish authorities have already mulled over a potential collaboration with Russian and Iranian companies, but it seems less likely given the state of Ankara’s relations with both countries. Ankara has diverging interests with Tehran and Moscow in Syria and is also trying to reduce dependence on both Russian and Iranian gas supplies. Therefore, Turkey will likely be reluctant to add another dimension to this complex web of relations by inviting a Russian or Iranian company to the project. It is more likely for Turkish companies to partner with companies from friendly states with experience developing such complex and costly projects.
TPAO has already partnered with the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (SOCAR) in upstream projects in the Caspian Sea. Given the fraternal relations between the two countries, which have only solidified in light of the recent fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, SOCAR’s engagement in the project is not excluded. Ankara’s unequivocal support for Baku in the conflict with Armenia and Azerbaijan’s increasingly growing share in natural gas supplies to Turkey could be easily translated into cooperation in the oil and gas sector as well.
TPAO may also partner with Qatar Petroleum, which has extensive experience in managing such complex deep-water projects. Turkish authorities have already suggested such a possibility. In March, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Ankara is considering a partnership with Malaysian, British and Qatari companies in the eastern Mediterranean. Qatar Petroleum has decades of experience in operating the North Dome, the largest natural gas field in the world. Turkey and Qatar may use the opportunity to capitalize on their political relations and channel the geopolitical alignment into cooperation in the business sector.
If the findings are confirmed, aside from providing a strategic advantage in the energy sector, the deposits will be a crucial element in bolstering Turkey’s foreign policy efforts, such as the Blue Homeland strategy and the pivot to the Maghreb and the Sahel. TPAO’s recent expansion abroad, especially in Africa, indicates the prerogatives of Ankara’s foreign policy goals. Turkey already faces strong opposition from almost all eastern Mediterranean littoral states that have collectively aligned to resist Ankara’s endeavors. To cope with these challenges, Turkey will need to build geopolitical alliances and economic partnerships of its own.
*[Fair Observer is a media partner of Gulf State Analytics.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.