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The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth
The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Libya: Amid Political Limbo, Time to Rescue the Economy
Libya: Amid Political Limbo, Time to Rescue the Economy
El-Sharara oil field, Libya, 24 March 2015. CRISIS GROUP/Claudia Gazzini
Report 165 / Middle East & North Africa

The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth

The imminent collapse of Libya’s economy could impoverish millions, foster chaos and more radicalisation. At the heart of Libya’s misery is frenzied competition for control over the country’s oil resources. Ongoing UN-led talks should urgently prioritise economic governance, local ceasefires and armed defence of oil facilities.

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Executive Summary

Libya’s economic conditions could turn sharply for the worse, as rival authorities vie to control rapidly shrinking national wealth. The struggle affects oil fields, pipelines and export terminals, as well as the boardrooms of national financial institutions. Combined with runaway spending due to corruption and dwindling revenue because of falling exports and energy prices, the financial situation – and with it citizen welfare – faces collapse in the context of a deep political crisis, militia battles and the spread of radical groups, including the Islamic State (IS). If living conditions plunge and militia members’ government salaries are not paid, the two governments competing for legitimacy will both lose support, and mutiny, mob rule and chaos will take over. Rather than wait for creation of a unity government, political and military actors, backed by internationals supporting a political solution, must urgently tackle economic governance in the UN-led talks.

The Prize: Libya's Hydrocarbon Wealth

In this video, our Senior Libya Analyst, Claudia Gazzini, explains the complex overlapping issues around the fight for Libya's energy wealth and how we went about researching the topic. CRISIS GROUP

Since the Qadhafi regime fell in 2011, Libya has been beset by attacks on, labour strikes at and armed takeovers of oil and gas facilities, mostly by militias seeking rents from the fledging central government. Initially brief and usually resolved by government concessions, the incidents gradually took on a life of their own, in an alarming sign of the fragmentation of political, economic and military power. They show the power accrued by militias during and since the 2011 uprising and the failure of efforts to integrate them into the national security sector. The dysfunctional security system for oil and gas infrastructure presents a tempting target for IS militants, as attacks in 2015 have shown.

One aspect of the hydrocarbon dispute is a challenge to the centralised model of political and economic governance developed around oil and gas resources that was crucial to the old regime’s power. But corruption that greased patronage networks was at that model’s centre, and corrupt energy sector practices have increased. A federalist movement some consider secessionist controls a number of the most important crude-oil export terminals. It exploits the situation by pursuing its own sale channels, adding to the centrifugal forces tearing Libya apart.

This complicates efforts to resolve a political conflict that in July 2014 triggered a split between rival parliaments, governments and military coalitions – one based in the capital, Tripoli, the other in the east, and both with support from competing regional players. Convinced of its legitimacy, each fights to control key institutions. As the most important, the Central Bank of Libya (CBL) and the National Oil Company (NOC), are under Tripoli’s control, the internationally recognised parliament in Tobruk and its government in al-Bayda are trying to set up parallel institutions. The sides also contest the assets of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA, the sovereign wealth fund), in international courts. In anticipation of a unity government, most regional and all other international actors with a stake remain committed to the established CBL, NOC and LIA. They understand that these institutions jointly represent upwards of $130 billion and have senior technocratic expertise critical to rebuilding the state.

The longer negotiations stall, however, the greater the risk the Tobruk/Bayda authorities (which consider the Tripoli-based CBL and NOC biased against them) will be able to create rival institutions or weaken the existing ones. At the same time, Libya’s once-significant wealth (derived almost entirely from oil and gas sales) is haemorrhaging, due to corruption and mismanagement. Combined with reduced crude-oil exports because of damage to production and export sites, pipeline and other infrastructure blockades and the sharp decline in international oil prices, this makes remedial action urgent. Poor economic management already causes some shortages of fuel and basic goods; a wider economic crisis like a sudden, uncontrolled devaluation of the dinar, would severely harm millions. This would likely cause new security crises, encouraging more predatory behaviour by militias whose salaries the state pays, increasing the importance of the parallel economy (notably smuggling) and spurring new refugee flows.

Even as UN-led negotiations for a Government of National Accord (GNA) continue, several steps should be taken, including at a minimum:

  • reiterating international determination that there can be only one CBL, NOC and LIA, with a GNA to appoint their senior managers; and oil sales or related contracts outside official channels will not be tolerated;
     
  • prioritising economic governance in the UN-led talks so as to secure agreement on short-term economic policy and interim management of key institutions. This should be done in a separate negotiating track, including representatives of both authorities and with the support of international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank;
     
  • brokering of local ceasefires in the UN-led talks’ security track, or other channels where relevant, to increase revenues in the short term by allowing reopening of blockaded oil fields, pipelines and export facilities. Security arrangements for repair and reopening of damaged facilities should be negotiated in the longer term; and
     
  • making the question of the armed groups guarding oil facilities another priority security-track topic. Some of these have considerable arsenals and allies across Libya and are largely autonomous, so cannot be ignored. Including these armed groups could also help improve the protection of oil and gas infrastructure against attacks by IS affiliates.

The slow progress of the UN-led talks on political questions should dissuade neither the belligerents nor the internationals from encouraging such interim steps. That Libya has kept, against all odds, a minimum level of economic governance and even briefly increased oil exports shows that interim economic arrangements are possible; they could even deliver political gains by building confidence and demonstrating that compromise can be mutually beneficial. But this needs a push from outside, the resolve of both local and international actors – notably regional powers that have oscillated between backing a political solution and supporting one side or another – to maintain the integrity of the financial institutions and perseverance from negotiators. Above all, it entails convincing the two sides they are fighting over a rapidly diminishing prize and would be better off agreeing to these steps so as to share a bigger pot.

Tripoli/Brussels, 3 December 2015

Libya: Amid Political Limbo, Time to Rescue the Economy

As the UN-backed effort to form a unity government is yet to bear fruit, the conflict in Libya could face further escalation in 2017. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to first focus on supporting a political settlement, which will contribute to solving the wider issues of uncontrolled migration flows and instability in the region.

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

The Libyan conflict will most likely continue without a decisive political and military settlement in 2017. Various political actors contest the legitimacy of the Government of National Accord, but a lack of consensus – among Libyans, neighbouring states and international stakeholders – on what should replace it suggests it will remain in place even as its effectiveness deteriorates and its opponents consolidate their positions. In this state of suspended animation, the European Union (EU) and its member states should make it their top priority to help stabilise Libya’s economic situation. The country’s financial collapse would cripple its few functioning and critically important institutions, precipitate a humanitarian crisis, fuel the war economy, complicate efforts to tackle migrant and refugee flows and, more broadly, further hinder international attempts to put the country on a more stable political footing.

Stalemate, But For How Long?

The interim government created by the Libyan Political Agreement on 17 December 2015 has had limited success in imposing its authority since its arrival in Tripoli in April 2016 and is unlikely to survive in its current form. But what will replace it? And how?

A best-case scenario would see its composition, organisation and responsibilities renegotiated – and Prime Minister Fayez Serraj and other core Presidency Council members replaced – to meet the approval of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, whose endorsement is required to implement the agreement in both letter and spirit. This is not a silver bullet; it would need to be accompanied by a bottom-up process based on local governance where possible, with the aim of linking the urgent need to rebuild the central state with the reality of diffuse local power. At the very least, stabilising the centre offers opportunities to build institutional capacity and improve service delivery until solutions to thornier issues, such as demobilising militias and restructuring the security sector, can be found.

In the absence of concerted international pressure on Libyan factions to negotiate a new political deal, a breakthrough is unlikely.

The worst-case scenario is that forces under General Khalifa Haftar, bolstered by recent military successes in Benghazi, the Gulf of Sirte “oil crescent” and southern Libya, make good on his pledge to try to retake Tripoli. This would lead them into a major military confrontation with Tripoli-based Islamist militias and forces from Misrata that have been fighting the Islamic State.

The more likely scenario is that Libya remains in limbo. This is because Haftar’s forces are unlikely to advance significantly toward Tripoli, even with Egyptian, Emirati and perhaps Russian backing, as they lack sufficient support in western Libya. At the same time, in the absence of concerted international pressure on Libyan factions to negotiate a new political deal, a breakthrough is unlikely. The question then becomes how to stop the economic situation from deteriorating further until an opportunity for a political breakthrough arises.

Map of Libya. International Crisis Group.

The Oil Must Flow

Whatever its ideological and geopolitical dimensions, the conflict is largely about control of hydrocarbon resources and access to state funds. According to the National Oil Corporation (NOC), oil sector closures have cumulatively cost over $100 billion in lost revenues from oil exports since 2013, resulting, according to the Central Bank of Libya, in a fiscal deficit of 56 per cent of GDP for both 2015 and 2016. The Bank’s foreign-currency reserves are estimated to have fallen below $40 billion, compared to $75 billion in March 2015. Oil production has increased since September 2016 – when Haftar-aligned forces seized most oil facilities in the Gulf of Sirte – from around 250,000 barrels per day (b/d) to 700,000 (still far below the 1.8 million b/d of 2010). Even if production reaches 1 million b/d by the end of March 2017, as the NOC projects, the economic outlook remains bleak. With crude oil prices at $50 a barrel, production increases will not cover expected government expenditure of around $40 billion in 2017. Libya could be bankrupt by the end of the year.

Even before then, without careful economic stewardship and proactive government measures, the economy is likely to worsen and hardships increase for a population mainly dependent on government salaries. The liquidity crisis (with banks unable to dispense much cash) could worsen, the dinar could come under further pressure, and basic services such as electricity could face severe constraints due to poor management and cash-flow problems.

Political factors make the outlook even grimmer. Rifts and rival claims for control of the NOC, Central Bank and Libyan Investment Authority (LIA, the sovereign wealth fund, with over $60 billion of assets) could limit the activities of these key institutions, constraining public spending. Moreover, the Central Bank appears unwilling to authorise transfers to the government because the latter lacks parliamentary recognition. The government’s consequent inability to access and use state funds could undermine the loyalty of security forces, whose salaries it pays, and stimulate the illegal economy, including trafficking of migrants and subsidised goods.

Focus on the Economy (and Security Forces)

Europe has two strategic priorities in Libya: ensuring that the country is not a source of regional instability and finding a partner able to reduce the migrant flow. For both objectives, a political settlement is key. It may seem elusive now but will be far more difficult to accomplish in a collapsing economy, as warlordism and zero-sum calculations intensify. Such deterioration would not only increase the flow of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa but also see the number of Libyans trying to cross the Mediterranean continue to rise, a trend that started in 2016.

Economic troubles are negatively affecting the security forces, including those tasked with countering illegal migration. Some units are suspected of taking bribes to look the other way or even becoming party to the people-smuggling. This in part enabled over 160,000 migrants to cross the Mediterranean from Libya in 2016 – a record high, alongside a record number of deaths. Seeking agreements from the government on migration control, as the EU and its member states are doing, is a fool’s errand as long as it has no effective control over the security forces (even leaving aside human rights concerns). The government will not be able to exercise that control without a peace settlement based on a political process accompanied by a security track that involves key military actors and addresses disputes on security forces’ structure and chain of command.

The EU and its member states should [...] channel their energy toward addressing the economy.

While the EU and its member states should not walk away from the overarching goal of a comprehensive solution to the conflict, they should at the same time, and urgently, channel their energy toward addressing the economy. In particular, they should intensify efforts to broker an agreement on the disbursement of the 2017 budget between the government, House of Representatives and Central Bank. To resolve the internal rifts within the Central Bank and NOC, they should urge Prime Minister Serraj to promote talks between the rival chains of command in these institutions, as he did in 2016.

The EU and its member states should continue to make clear that they will not tolerate oil sales or related contracts outside official channels and ensure, through more careful vetting and improved monitoring, that Libyan security forces participating in EU anti-migration efforts are not involved in, or profiting from, people-smuggling or maritime trade of subsidised fuels. They should also ensure that any greater reliance on Libyan authorities for anti-migration measures does not result in migrants being denied the protection to which they are entitled under both international and European law.