x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Libya's ex-oil chief found dead in Danube

The body of Shokri Ghanem, a former chief of Libya's oil industry who defected from the Qaddafi regime, was found floating in the River Danube in Vienna on Sunday.

Shokri Ghanem's rise to the top began and ended in Vienna. Reuters
Shokri Ghanem's rise to the top began and ended in Vienna. Reuters

The body of Shokri Ghanem, a former chief of Libya's oil industry who defected from the Qaddafi regime, was found floating in the River Danube in Vienna on Sunday.

Ghanem, 69, had drowned, Austrian police told news agencies yesterday after a post-mortem examination. The body was found on Sunday near Ghanem's home in Vienna.

His death is one more development in the unravelling of the old oil industry in Libya, which is rebuilding after the eight-month civil war that Muammar Qaddafi from power.

As the prime minister and later the chairman of the national oil company, Ghanem opened up the biggest oil reserves in Africa to foreign investors and sought to push reforms to modernise an economy reliant on handouts.

He also held close control over the petroleum industry, creating a chain of command that required even decisions at minor oil subsidiaries to be approved at the very top, said analysts.

"Ghanem's personality centralised decision-making in Libya's oil industry," said Henry Smith, a Libya analyst at the consultancy Control Risks.

Since Ghanem's defection last June and the end of the civil war four months later, Libya's oil sector has been unmistakably reshaped even as it restored production that had dropped from 1.6 million barrels per day (bpd) to 45,000 bpd during the conflict.

The interim government has created an oil ministry to work separately from the national oil company, separating the roles of operator and regulator that had previously been overseen by one man - Ghanem.

Subsidiaries of the national oil company, in particular from the former rebel headquarters in Benghazi, have also gained more operational independence.

This year, the Libyan general prosecutor launched in investigation into transactions between the national oil company and international traders as part of a nationwide sweep against Qaddafi-era corruption. The investigation threatens to dampen the enthusiasm of foreign companies to invest or return to the country.

Ghanem had helped Libya to negotiate some of the most generous terms for an oil-producing country in the region.

"There is a sense … that Libya may have to offer more favourable terms to keep foreign investors' interest there," said Mr Smith.

Today, Libya pumps 1.5 million bpd, close to its pre-war level, according to Abdulrahman ben Yezza, the current oil minister.

Ghanem's rise to the top levels of Libya's government began and ended in Vienna.

A graduate of the University of Libya in Benghazi and later at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Ghanem joined the Opec secretariat in 1993 as the director of research.

In the years that followed, he forged a close friendship with Saif Al Islam, one of Qaddafi's sons who was studying in Vienna.

In 2001, the younger Qaddafi persuaded his father to appoint Ghanem the minister of economy, and later prime minister. There the technocrat pushed forward reforms to liberalise the economy and welcome foreign investors.

Last June, four months after the beginning of the uprising, Ghanem used a business trip to Vienna as a pretext to leave the country.

He announced his defection and decision to back the rebels in the basement of a hotel in Rome.

"It is unbearable," he told journalists. "One cannot continue working."

 

ayee@thenational.ae