x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Libya's oil chief steps down in support of uprising

Libya's oil minister formally defected in a blow to the regime of Moammar Qaddafi, casting doubt on Tripoli's ability to persuade international oil companies to work with it in the future.

Shokri Ghanem, Libya's top oil official, changed camps from the Qaddafi regime to the rebels. Massimo Percossi / EPA
Shokri Ghanem, Libya's top oil official, changed camps from the Qaddafi regime to the rebels. Massimo Percossi / EPA

Libya's top oil official has backed the popular uprising and resigned as head of its national oil company, delivering another blow to the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

Shokri Ghanem gave a press conference in a Rome hotel this week in his first public appearance outside the North African nation since civil war erupted in February.

"It is unbearable," he said on Wednesday. "One cannot continue working, and therefore I left the country, and I decided also to leave my job and to join the … Libyan youth to create a modern constitutional state respecting human rights and building a better future for all Libyans."

His departure further erodes the legitimacy of Col Qaddafi, whose officials have been steadily defecting, and places in question the ability of a Qaddafi-led government to rebuild the oil industry if it stays in control.

Libyan oil production is at a fraction of its pre-conflict levels of 1.6 million barrels a day, and Saudi Arabia has since stepped in to maintain world supply.

Mr Ghanem is credited with opening up the country's poorly managed oil and gas resources to foreign investment in the previous decade.

He came to the Qaddafi government after eight years at Opec's headquarters in Vienna, where he sometimes stood in for the secretary general of the organisation of oil exporters. In 2003, he was appointed prime minister and in 2006 the chairman of National Oil Corporation, the state oil company.

"He's been Libya's main oil diplomat, in the sense that he's been the one understanding oil companies and what they need - and not everyone in the Qaddafi regime knows how to do that," said Samuel Ciszuk, a regional analyst at IHS in London. "He was seen as a guarantor for the companies."

Rumours of his defection emerged two weeks ago, when Mr Ghanem was sighted in Tunisia. The Qaddafi government insisted he was abroad on a government mission.

His appearance on Wednesday falls a week before an Opec meeting in Vienna, where delegates are expected to discuss raising output targets to make up for Libya's shortfall.

Mr Ghanem usually headed the country's delegation at such meetings but said he would not represent Libya this time. He was not available for further comment yesterday. The transitional national council that governs the Libyan rebels has said it intends to send delegates to attend the Opec meeting.

A government spokesman in Tripoli said it would send someone else to Vienna and played down the significance of Mr Ghanem's departure. "This is a country, a state, a government, not just one person," Mussa Ibrahim told Reuters. Mr Ciszuk said the transitional council was not eager to work with Mr Ghanem because he was seen as being close to the Qaddafi regime and was slow in jumping ship.

Two years ago, Mr Ghanem was also reported to have resigned from the National Oil Corporation after clashes with more conservative leaders in the government. But he reappeared at his post without explanation.

On Wednesday, Mr Ghanem seemed to try to justify why he had stayed on with the Qaddafi regime for so long.

"I have been, as you know, working in Libya for so many years believing that we can make a lot of reform from within," he said. "Unfortunately, this became not possible, especially now when we see the spill of blood every day in Libya."