To understand how vital energy issues are impacted by and perceived from a broader perspective of political interests and policy priorities located far from Beirut, Executive conversed with Paul Salem, renowned Lebanese academic and director of the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.
E How does Lebanon appear on the various maps of interest that one can find “inside the Beltway,” meaning the circles of power in the capital of the United States of America? Is everything seen through the political lens or are there still human connections to Lebanon?
Everything has been overshadowed by the war in Gaza, so that not much attention [is given] to Lebanon. When you take a step back and look at the US and policies and relations to Lebanon, there are several things to note. I would mention here firstly that Lebanon and the Lebanese are part of modern American history for over 100 years and play a role in the American conscience, where they are generally viewed positively. Secondly, some Americans who matter have been to Lebanon at different points of recent years. Those who have gone, whether they are journalists, politicians, or business people, come back with a positive impression.
On a more political-strategic side of things, [the question is] how the US policy community looks at Lebanon. There again are different layers to this. On one layer, the US looks at Lebanon as a place to contain, counterbalance and push back on Iran, and Hezbollah. Part of the [American interest] in Lebanon is to try and make sure that Iran and Hezbollah do not completely take over the country. Secondly, there is a concern that [Lebanon] does not completely fall apart and becomes another collapsed state in the Middle East that becomes a headache of exporting refugees and importing terrorists. [Lebanon] is a problem but so far one that is manageable and contained. In a kind of a negative concern, [the Americans] don’t want it to become more of a problem. Thirdly, the strategic location of Lebanon is one of being next door to the Russians and ISIS in Syria. It is a place on the Eastern Mediterranean where [the US] can keep an eye on Eastern Mediterranean issues. It is an anti-Russian, anti-terrorism, Eastern Mediterranean kind of strategic location.
More recently, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the energy and offshore gas issue has become strategic for both the US and Europe. After the Russian war on Ukraine, gas has become a very strategic issue for NATO and the Western Alliance and so the US sent Amos Hochstein many times to broker a deal with Israel over the gas fields [that lie offshore their territories].
On the other hand, there are [some on the rightwing of the US political field] who look at Lebanon simply as Hezbollah country. Those people, who are still a minority in congress, often say and [try to push decisions] that [the US] shouldn’t fund Lebanon and its army. [They say that] it is all controlled by Hezbollah. The US should not be there, should not be spending any money or helping anybody there because this all benefits Hezbollah, [they argue]. This is a voice in congress, but it is not a dominant voice.
E Given the US administration’s perspective of regarding Lebanon, as you describe it, as strategic location in the Middle East and bulwark against terror, how does the issue of energy figure? Does energy in the Eastern Mediterranean actually play a role in American thinking?
Energy has become one of the elements that the US is interested in and concerned about, but I would not say that the [strands of] thinking have become perfectly integrated to first of all allow Israel to extract its energy but also to allow Lebanon to extract so that eastern Mediterranean gas can become part of the energy imports of Western Europe. This, yes, is an overall US strategy, but is it perfectly integrated? If you look at Washington, there is one administration but there are different power centers and relationships. For example, the Department of Defense has strong and deep, positive and personal relationships with the Lebanese Army. The Pentagon is always a big defender of aid to Lebanon and the Lebanese army when this issue is raised in Congress. The Department of Energy thinks all the time about energy. The Department of the Treasury thinks about sanctions, money laundering and terrorist financing. There are different relationships in this complex web of relationships.
E Prior to looking for the Eastern Mediterranean maritime border demarcation, it seemed to me that Lebanese thinking on oil and offshore exploration was insular, not thinking much of the regional interactions and transnational aspects of the oil and gas potentials. Do you see a shift in the Lebanese approaches before 2020 and those between 2020 and 2022?
I would say that the main obstacle in Lebanon, as for many things in the country, is the fight among different political factions over who gets to do what, and who gets which prize. Lebanon could have begun exploring [offshore gas reserves] years ago, regardless of whether it wanted to use gas internally or externally. The political system is just too divided and dysfunctional.
E The maritime agreement was signed, and the blocks were opened for exploration, but do you that the Lebanese readiness for actually capitalizing on the demarcation agreement was present?
There were two dynamics as to why Lebanon did finally make a deal. On one side there was American interest that came [about] after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The US had been mediating before, but I don’t think mediating with the same urgency and vigor. On the Lebanese side, the final round of negotiations happened after the Lebanese economy collapsed and the entire population became destitute, and Hezbollah and its allies were carrying the blame for the economic collapse. This meant that Hezbollah would be more eager to make a deal that would provide economic promise so that it could say, ‘look, we are working for you, working for you by making a deal that opens gas’. Also, on the part of President [Michael] Aoun and Gebran Bassil, the President had an interest in having some positive news before the end of his term and Bassil, I think, is still trying to find a way out of sanctions.
E The crisis has created a huge impetus for renewables in Lebanon at a time when the global focus is on climate risk mitigation, but at the same time it seems clear that energy security cannot be reached either globally or locally without accessing conventional sources. Do you see the exploration of offshore gas potentials as very important for future energy security in Lebanon?
You are talking about energy security in a country which does not even have current energy. Usually, you talk about energy security in a country when you [assess] your energy [sufficiency] and look down the road [asking] ‘where could I lose my energy and what is my security?’ It is obvious that Lebanon has very, very little energy, and this is one of the major reasons that is keeping the economy at a standstill. We don’t have energy. Offshore natural gas, which will take many years to come online, would be an obvious way to get onto the energy grid with significantly cleaner hydrocarbon energy production and cleaner fuel than oil. Lebanon with its almost non-existent resources and non-existent capacity to plan or implement [economic projects] is in a very poor situation with offshore gas as the only thing that is out there. When you think longer term and regional energy transition, you first of all have to think regionally. Ideally, this would be achieved on a region-wide level. Electricity grids would be integrated throughout the Middle East, as some countries have a lot of solar, some countries have hydro, some will have wind, others will have cleaner hydrocarbons. The situation that we want to get to by 2035-40 would be an integrated Middle Eastern energy network, but with the way Lebanon is today and how Syria is today, you can’t really imagine that.
E In your opinion, can regional energy security be stabilized after the conflict in Palestine ends?
There has been a temporary interruption where the Tamar field stopped production in a period of heightened insecurity as Hezbollah and Israel starting trading military blows. But my broader sense is that this [situation], even if it looks to go on for more than a few months, does not affect the overall picture. The overall picture is being affected by the fact that the Eastern Mediterranean has not yet figured out the most cost-efficient and sustainable way for getting [its] gas to Western Europe in particular. There has been talk of an underwater pipeline for gas, which has not happened, and talk for an electric cable to transport the energy. It is also not yet resolved how Eastern Mediterranean [gas] forum countries deal with Turkey, which would open options [for transporting Eastern Mediterranean energy] through Turkey.
E Do you have any prophetess or prophet at the Middle East Institute who can tell us if we will ever have energy security in Lebanon?
Lebanon’s problem is sovereignty and governance. It is not the absence of energy options. So, I can easily imagine many scenarios where Lebanon definitely obtains first of all energy sufficiency, and, with proper arrangements, energy security. A lot of that in my view would hinge on the offshore gas and using that to feed the stock inside the country and use some of it to develop the clean fuels that it needs to supplement [fuel imports] and a share of energy. Lebanon is a very small country. You are not talking about energy security for China but for a country that is the size of a municipality in some other countries. It is not a big challenge, but our governance is so miserable that we are not even able to pick up the trash, let alone produce the right energy.