Joined-up piping

David B
25 September 2009

A Qatar-Turkey-EU gas pipeline could become an important part of Europe's and the Gulf's energy infrastructure. The interdependence created by networks like these should be celebrated


Turkey and Qatar have announced that they are forming a working committee to see whether they could build a pipeline to ship Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar to Turkey across Saudi Arabia. This would be a good deal for both parties. Qatar has massive reserves of gas and consistently looks to sell to an ever-wider audience. Turkey would no doubt welcome a relationship with the world's largest exporter of LNG to lessen their dependence on Russia who currently supplies 73% of their gas.

David B Roberts is a doctoral student at Durham University focusing on Qatar. Along with two book chapters looking at aspects of politics on the Arabian Peninsula, he has published book reviews for Millennium Journal of International Studies, Political Studies Review and the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) and has written for the Kuwait Times, Egypt Daily News and Asia Time Online. His blog can be found at www.thegulfblog.com. However, this raises a number of issues. First and foremost, in the past Saudi Arabia has stood in the way of Qatar seeking to expand its pipelines around the region. In 2006 Saudi attempted (and failed) to veto the Dolphin gas pipeline from Qatar to the UAE and Oman in much the same way they successfully blocked a pipeline to Kuwait the year before. This was, however, at a time of significant Qatar-Saudi tension. Riyadh was angry with the powers that be in Doha for, amongst other things, not reigning in Al Jazeera, the TV news channel based in Qatar, from its often savage coverage of Saudi issues. The fact that the Saudi ambassador to Doha was withdrawn from 2002-2008 shows just how critical the break in relations was. Yet, now that Al Jazeera has started to significantly tone down its overtly negative coverage of Saudi Arabia, relations have improved.

Despite this recent rapprochement, there is, nevertheless, little love lost between the two countries. Recently, Qatar has sought to replace Saudi Arabia as a key regional peace and power broker. Tying up peace deals in Lebanon (where Saudi failed), seeking peace in Darfur and Yemen and hosting a rival summit at the start of this year over the Israeli Gaza invasion are just a few examples of Qatar's diplomatic forays. Crucially, these place a tiny country that Saudi used to have significant power over on the world stage, often at the expense of Saudi prestige. Meccan diplomacy is a key strategy of Saudi's international relations and they have not taken kindly to Qatar stealing their thunder. Furthermore, an eclectic bunch of policies such as founding and funding Al Jazeera, hosting the Asian Games in 2006, having limited relations with Israel, generous international munificence and opening the world's best Islamic Art Museum further seeks to permanently and pointedly remove Qatar from Saudi's centuries old shadow.

It does seem, therefore, unlikely that Saudi would allow this pipeline to go ahead. Yet whilst some might not like the ascendance of Qatar, more pragmatically it needs to be acknowledged that it is inevitable and that a constructive relationship is preferable to one that is antagonistic and mutually disadvantageous. Moreover, if Saudi allows this pipeline to go through their territory, it offers them a degree of leverage over Qatar, especially when one considers the logical future for such a pipe.

Indeed, this pipeline, were it to come to fruition, may well come to be of vital importance to Qatar. All the Gulf States fear the closing off of the Straits of Hormuz and a repeat of the Tanker Wars of the 1980s, were some kind of military conflagration with Iran to occur. This would have two immediate implications for Qatar. First, the potential inability to ship their oil and gas would have an immediate and direct affect on their income, which could become debilitating if the blockage of the Strait persisted. Second, if Qatar's LNG ships tried to run the Strait, as many did during the Tanker Wars, then the risk of damage to their new generation $300 million per-ship Q-Max LNG fleet is significant.

USS Bridgeton being towed after hitting an Iranian mine in the Tanker Wars (1)

Therefore, a pipe over Saudi Arabia to Turkey could potentially offer Qatar a way to stave off the worst effects of any closure of the Straits of Hormuz. Moreover, it would seem unlikely that the pipe would simply end up in Turkey. Only in July, Turkey and four EU countries signed the Nabucco pipeline deal to pipe Caspian gas to Europe to hedge against the EU's dependence on Russian gas. Qatar, with the largest gas field in the world, the third largest proven supplies of gas, the world's best LNG infrastructure and a good supplier pedigree would be a most tempting target for a Nabucco-esque deal, assuming that technological hurdles of such a long LNG pipeline could be overcome.

Preferable partners

Moreover, Qatar may well be seen as far more preferable a partner than the Caspian states. Initially, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan will be sending gas Europe's way with Kazakhstan possibly entering at a later date. Whilst these countries are not quite plumbing the depths of despotism as is their neighbour Uzbekistan (boiling dissidents alive according to the former UK Ambassador, Andijan riots etc), they are not overly far away, Turkmenistan in particular.

Qatar, by contrast, whilst no paragon of democracy, has been going to great lengths in recent times to make itself as attractive as possible to, in particular, Western states. Erudite culture has been heavily promoted with Sotheby's, the afore mentioned Islamic Art Museum and the Tribeka Film Festival setting up in the country. Western education has been lavishly funded with the creation of pristine new campuses and - more importantly - unfettered curricula and rigorous entry standards for top US and UK Universities such as Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Cornell Medical School as well as mooted research campus for UCL. Doha investors have also been ploughing money into some of Europe's bluest of blue chip companies such as Barclays, EADS and Porsche. Whilst Qataris are primarily investing for profits, a not insignificant corollary bonus of this is that contacts are fostered between the two sides and Qatar's image as a trustworthy and business-savvy partner is furthered.

Consequently, engaging with Qatar may well prove to be easier than with Caucasus countries in terms of the public and political palatability and the ease of doing business in each country. The fact that Transparency International rates Qatar 28th in their 2008 corruption perception index and Azerbaijan some 130 places below them at 158th and Turkmenistan 13 places off the bottom of the list at 166th, may also give EU negotiators some significant pause for thought.

Interdependence not independence

At a more fundamental level, more interaction, more cooperation and more agreements anchored in long-term gas contracts along with the physical infrastructure required is surely a recipe for stronger bonds, something approaching a better working understanding and a narrowing of common interests.

Recent America notions of seeking some kind of energy ‘independence' are actually quite damaging, but thankfully they are also pure folly too. What America needs to be seeking, as does any large importer of a key commodity, is in fact a form of interdependence. Look at the curiously close bond that had bound America and Saudi Arabia together for nearly a century. Neither a common language, culture, experience, history, manner, heritage nor way of life was and is the basis of their relationship today. This remarkable alliance that survived and rebounded quickly after being on bitterly different sides in the 1967 Six Day War and ensuing oil embargo. If it even withstood the predominance of Saudis in the 9/11 attacks, both in number of attackers and in progenitor of the movement itself, this can be based on nothing whatsoever aside from mutual interdependence. America needs Saudi Arabia just as Saudi Arabia needs America.

Even when one looks towards the Russian-Ukrainian-Europe gas politics, it is easy to forget amid the acrimony and nationalistic dogma that Russia needs European cash. It is no use being an energy superpower if you do not actually sell your wares. A recent study on this very relationship concluded, "the reality of gas trading between Russia and Europe is determined by market principles and the need for a long-term contractual agreements based on credible commitments" (p.29). Whilst there will always be heated feelings between these three actors owing to their particularly colourful and intertwined histories, this kind of energy interdependence is, it can be forcefully argued, the key to a slow but sure rapprochement. For there are surely only so many times that rational actors can go through the same mutually painful recriminations before - eventually - the weight of their common interest finally tells.

Pipes - what are they good for?

There are those that will perennially oppose such joint ventures. People will say that investing at least $5 billion in laying masses of pipelines across disparate, often conflicted and truly foreign lands is not only foolish but a huge investment in yesterday's technology at the time when greener technologies are in need of exactly such an injection. Whilst this is an understandable criticism, there are two significant caveats that must be raised.

First, whilst it might be nice if gas was less critical to European economies and if there was a suitable cleaner replacement ready to usurp its place, wishing does not make it so. Gas not only supplies a quarter of OECD Europe's energy requirements but, being cleaner than both coal and oil, its demand is widely expected to rise to provide at least a third of Europe's primary energy needs in the next decade or two.

Second, Qatar's huge investment in LNG technologies in recent years has spurred on the technology immensely driving costs down and efficiencies up. Their latest LNG transport tankers, for example, carry 80% more cargo and are thought to use up to 40% less energy per given unit of cargo then the previous generation. Whether analogous savings could be made in the piped transportation of LNG over such distances is, of course, impossible to say. Yet, where there is the will to slash costs and boosts efficiencies and the way to do so with large capital investments, such improvements in search of greener gas are not necessarily improbable. An investor today must be pricing in a substantial probability of a carbon content tax, and the LNG pipe will almost certainly have to find a commercial return in an environment that gives climate impacts proper, disuasive penalties.

Some strategic thinking

Yet all of this is completely moot without the initial go-ahead from Riyadh. If Saudi authorities think strategically, they will encourage the pipeline to be built. Whilst the Qatar-EU potential is, as they say, most certainly a pipe dream at the moment, it would surely be considered, potentially offering Saudi not insignificant influence at the forefront of Europe's energy debates. Yet even if it does not come to pass then Saudi are still left with what would most likely be Qatar's largest pipeline crossing their territory, an acute bargaining chip to be used the next time Al Jazeera runs a salacious documentary at Saudi's expense.

As much as Saudi Arabia might gain from this round of pipeline politics, it pales into comparison when compared to the potential strengthening of Turkey's strategic position. The plethora of diverse options at their doorstep for energy supplier is something that most European states can only dream of. Moreover, not only will Turkey take advantage of their closer position to the suppliers lowering their transport and associated costs, but also they will be the key cog in the onward flow of the oil. This is both literally as the distances required mandate frequent pumping stations to keep up the pressure and throughput in the pipes, as well as figuratively. Turkey, if they play it correctly, could find themselves playing a key role at the centre of Europe's energy future. Many already see Turkey as a key intermediary between Europe, the Caucasus and to some extent the Mediterranean countries. Taking up this mantle will not be easy but, based on the bonds that interdependence necessarily fosters, this could well be seen as a significant step on the road to European Union membership.




(1) Robert S Strauss Centre for International Security and Law http://hormuz.robertstrausscenter.org/mines

(2) BBC: Europe Gas Pipeline Deal Agreed http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8147053.stm

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