Libya since 2011: Bias and International Oil Interests

Libyan politics and governance have been unstable and chaotic for the past eight years. Because of the country’s significant position as one of the largest oil-producing countries in the world, the Libyan political situation has always been highly scrutinized by the international community, ever since oil was initially discovered in the country in 1955. The Arab Spring—which Amnesty International labeled an “unprecedented outburst of popular protests and demand for reform”—erupted in 2011 in neighboring Tunisia and inspired the gathering of rebel forces against Muammar Gaddafi’s longstanding Jamahiriya government (Gaddafi’s political system of “state of the masses”). His execution in October of that year was clearly linked with Western oil interests in Libya, and European and American concerns for political stability in Libya since have been dominated by oil companies’ business interests in the region.

When the flow of oil from Libya began to be threatened by political instability in 2011, the international community suddenly took action. In July, after the outbreak of uprisings inspired by demonstrations in Tunisia (the beginnings of the Arab Spring), the International Contact Group—also known as the Friends of Libya—formally announced the recognition of the main opposition group, the National Transitional Council (NTC), as the legitimate government of Libya. The International Contract Group (ICG) was an international collective established to provide support to the Libyan NTC in their effort to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi and his regime. This committee was hosted by Western nations and by members of the Arab League. The creation of ICG clearly signaled that the international community had taken a stance against Gaddafi by siding with the rebels from an early stage in the crisis. By September 2011, 60 nations had recognized the NTC as the new Libyan authority. Britain and France were the most active foreign countries in the Libyan oil industry during this period. Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, confirmed that BP France had already held private discussions regarding oil agreements with members of the NTC in 2011. Shell, the large British-Dutch oil company, and Total, were also running operations in Libya before the civil war broke out.

The fact that the conflict, which lasted from June to October 2011, had stopped Libya’s existing oil production was one of the driving forces behind European involvement in the Libyan civil conflict. Libya is a major oil-producing country, producing over 1.6 million barrels a year: 2 percent of the world’s total oil production. It is no coincidence that oil production under the NTC spiked immediately following the end of the civil war, which was orchestrated with the help of Western countries. In fact, France, Britain, and the USA actively attacked Gaddafi’s forces through air and missile strikes. A French missile strike gave the decisive blow, however, by shooting over Gaddafi’s escaping vehicle, and exposing him to armed rebel forces.

"When the flow of oil from Libya began to be threatened by political instability in 2011, the international community suddenly took action."

Memos from Hillary Clinton’s emails, which were released in 2015, demonstrate the explicit consideration of oil interests on the part of the United States when crafting policy towards Libya. A memo explained that “the DGSE officers indicated that they expected the new government of Libya to favor French firms and national interests, particularly regarding the oil industry in Libya.” The two leaders of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil and General Abdul Fatah Younis, had “accepted the offer” in return for French help in overthrowing Gaddafi.

In August 2012 the NTC collapsed and the country has since found itself in utter political chaos. There are currently nine different territorial zones (parts of the country politically controlled by different factions) in Libya, only one of which is recognized by the United Nations and other Western countries: the Government of National Accord (GNA). In fact, in the aftermath of the civil war, the UN and the international community sought to bring stability back to the country by creating this governmental entity and placing it in Tripoli. In 2016, the Battle of Sirte, between the Islamic State and the GNA, was another step towards securing control over more oil reserves for the global actors. The Sirte Basin happens to be the most oil-rich region of the country, explaining why the GNA decided to attack this region over other territories. As a result of the GNA’s victory in Sirte, Libya’s oil revenues nearly tripled to the U.S. $14 billion in 2017. The country was able to gradually recover the oil business, reaching one million barrels for the first time since 2013.

Currently, the main opposition to the GNA in Libya is the Tobruk-based territory backed by the Libyan National Army (LNA) and General Khalifa Haftar. This territory spans over Benghazi and much of the Eastern region of the country. Haftar’s government controls key oil terminals, which the GNA and Western oil companies have no access to. France is once again involved and has been a mediator between the two parties; in July 2017 Macron, Sarraj (the leader of GNA) and Haftar met in Paris to discuss the situation in Libya. The French president claims that “civil war in Libya is not inevitable” between the UN-backed GNA and Haftar’s government. At this meeting, the two leaders announced an agreement, which would lead to a nationwide ceasefire, except against terrorist groups.

France’s involvement is doubtless linked to the country’s oil interests in Libya, rather than concerns for the protection of civilians caught in the middle of the conflict. The subjective selectivity of conflict intervention makes this clear: the conflict in Syria has caused over 500,000 casualties since the war started in 2011 and barely any effort has been made to stop it by the international community. In Libya, the international community immediately intervened.

The “international community,” which is dominated by European and American influence, has clearly demonstrated to be invested in the Libyan political situation as long as their position benefits the national companies’ oil interests. It is not a coincidence that, notwithstanding the numerous parties and territorial governments currently present in Libya, the United Nations and the majority of Western countries have supported the government which would allow for the greatest amount of oil exploration and extraction operations in the country.

The meddling of economic interests with the functioning of the UN is extremely concerning. The UN created and supports the GNA, rather than promoting the process of formation of internal independent peace-making agreements. This phenomenon is evidence that sovereign representation within the UN is unequal, and is biased towards the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: USA, UK, France, Russia, and China. What is most concerning is that the UN prioritizes safeguarding the economic interests of these countries over putting an end to horrific human rights violations.

About the Author

Anna Corradi '20 is the Associate Section Manager for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Anna can be reached at anna_corradi@brown.edu

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