Transnational oil and gas pipelines form the contour lines of the geopolitics of the 21st century. In the coming months, Jordan is likely to make irreversible decisions regarding its energy future.
By Gal Luft

Jordan is facing a full-blown energy crisis. Its electricity demand is expected to double by 2020, yet, being heavily dependent on Egyptian natural gas for its electricity generation, its power system can barely supply its current needs. The country has been deeply affected by the repeated explosions caused over the past year by saboteurs in Sinai on the natural-gas pipeline there. These disruptions, though most likely directed at Israel, another purchaser of Egyptian natural gas, have already caused severe economic damage to the struggling Jordanian economy. According to Jordanian energy expert Ahmed Al-Azzam, switching to more expensive fuels, such as diesel and heavy fuel oil, would cost the kingdom more than $1.7 billion per year – around 4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

This predicament has not escaped the eyes of the Middle East’s natural gas giants, Iran and Qatar, both concerned, each for its own reasons, about the likely fall of the Syrian Ba’ath regime. For Iran, the loss of Syria as a regional ally and a land bridge to Lebanon would be a serious strategic setback. In preparation for such a contingency, Iran has been exploring ways to increase its presence and influence in the neighboring Hashemite kingdom in the hope of penetrating the West Bank via Islamist proxies, and furthering the encirclement of Israel. Tehran has therefore been courting Jordan since last summer, offering Amman to build a pipeline to carry Iranian gas there via Turkey or Iraq.

For Qatar, Jordan could serve a different purpose: becoming the next permanent home of Hamas’ leadership, which recently left Syria. Qatar has long been a staunch political and financial supporter of Hamas and played an important role in the organization’s takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Last week, Qatar offered to award Jordan with natural gas in exchange for sheltering Hamas, and this week a Jordanian delegation visited Doha to discuss this option, which requires construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG ) terminal off Jordan’s Red Sea port of Aqaba.

The presence in Amman of either Iranian or Hamas elements would undermine American and Israeli interests. More important, over time, such developments could destabilize the Jordanian regime which, as it is, confronts considerable challenges at home.

A simple, yet seminal, decision by Israel and Jordan could solve Jordan’s energy dilemma, eliminating the need to barter its future for either Iranian or Qatari gas. Israel’s recent discovery of several vast reserves of natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean means it will soon be in a position to export gas to Jordan and thus boost bilateral economic relations. The construction of a Trans-Jordan pipeline connecting Israel and Jordan would be far less expensive and faster to build than any of the other proposals currently contemplated by Israel for marketing its gas by transporting it to Asia or piping it to Europe through an undersea export pipeline.

Three potential routes exist for the construction of a Trans-Jordan pipeline. One is a 35-km.-long northern corridor that would connect the northern part of Israel’s existing gas pipeline network to Irbid in northern Jordan, and from there to Amman. Alternately the pipeline could run through the West Bank. This would create the opportunity for Israel to provide gas to the Palestinian Authority as well, which would further develop its economy and create a new and mutually beneficial dimension to the Palestinian-Israeli relationship. The third option is for the pipe to run south of the Dead Sea and north to Amman.

Any of those options would require far less investment and engineering genius than laying a deep undersea pipeline to Europe on the forbidding terrain of the East Mediterranean sea floor.

Around the world, transnational oil and gas pipelines form the contour lines of the geopolitics of the 21st century. Such projects create mutual economic dependencies and contribute to regional integration and stability. A pipeline connecting Israel and Jordan would do just that. Israel is in a unique position to succeed Egypt as the region’s main energy supplier, while Jordan can become an “energy land bridge,” connecting Israel with the markets of Lebanon, Egypt and Syria, which are already interconnected through the Arab Gas Pipeline. With the recent changes in Egypt, these markets need a reliable, long-term supplier – a role Israel can now play should the Trans-Jordan pipeline be built.

In the coming months, Jordan is likely to make irreversible decisions regarding its energy future. Under consideration are the Aqaba LNG terminal, piped gas from its eastern neighbors and even nuclear power. Unfortunately, the Trans-Jordan pipeline is not currently on its menu of options.

Israel, for its part, has also failed to recognize the potential of this option. A joint ministerial committee tasked with forging a national natural-gas strategy by the end of February is torn between those who call to retain all the surplus gas at home for future domestic use, and those who wish to see Israel in the big league of world gas exporters, competing with Russia, Qatar and the like over access to the giant European and Asian markets.

Between those two doctrines lies a perfect, yet largely unnoticed, middle ground: a relatively small market, several kilometers of steel pipe, and a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Jordan and Israel to solidify their fragile peace. But like two ships that pass in the night, Israel and Jordan seem to be sailing toward their energy future without realizing that they may be the most natural solution to each other’s needs.

Gal Luft is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.