x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Libya seeks urgent release of $160bn

The interim government wants funds linked to the former Qaddafi regime to restart its economy.

Sultan Nasser Al Suweidi, the Central Bank Governor, attended the meeting of Arab central bank governors in Doha. Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters
Sultan Nasser Al Suweidi, the Central Bank Governor, attended the meeting of Arab central bank governors in Doha. Mohammed Dabbous / Reuters

DOHA // Libya has called on governments to unlock faster US$160 billion (Dh587.66bn) of frozen assets linked to the former Qaddafi regime as it seeks to get its economy moving again.

The country has asked Arab central bank governors for financial assistance and technical support, said Abdulla Saudi, a representative of the Libyan central bank.

"There's been some good amounts [of assets unfrozen] to get things moving," he said. "Maybe we would like to see the speed at a better rate."

The central bank was focused on unlocking the assets rather than seeking bridging loans to support funding needs, he said.

Mr Saudi, a banker based in Bahrain, has stepped in to help to relaunch Libya's central bank under the National Transitional Council (NTC).

He was speaking on the sidelines of a gathering of Arab central bank governors in Doha after a period of turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa in which three leaders have been deposed. After sweeping Col Qaddafi aside last month, the new authorities in Libya have been seeking an unwinding of sanctions tying up $160bn of the country's investments around the world.

That process is slowly beginning. It was reported on Wednesday that diplomats at the UN Security Council hoped to vote this week on a draft resolution intended to ease sanctions against the country.

Libyan assets have been frozen by governments in the West and the Arab world this year under sanctions against Col Qaddafi's government.

But as the post-Qaddafi era begins and stability slowly returns, focus is shifting to rebuilding the shattered economy. The NTC, the interim government, needs money to pay public-sector salaries, buy medical supplies and support other services.

"There's different needs," said Mr Saudi. "Things to keep everything going, to make available for the man on the street, and then there's the development of big projects. This will take time."

Progress is under way on another important priority for Libya's economy: relaunching the country's oil activities.

Oil exports would restart in "three or four days", Mr Saudi said, earlier than other recent reports. Exports of Libya's main revenue earner have been suspended since the country's civil war broke out this year.

Production is increasing slowly. The oil company Agoco reportedly confirmed on Monday that it had started pumping oil from its Sarir field in eastern Libya, ahead of a restart initially proposed for yesterday.

Before the uprising began in February, Libya pumped 1.6 million barrels per day, supplying an estimated 80 to 92 per cent of government revenue.

Such production helped the country's GDP accelerate by 10.3 per cent last year, according to the IMF. But citizens complained of missing out on the benefits from the rapid growth.

It was too early to forecast the outlook for the economy, said Mr Saudi. "When we get rid of what is left behind from the old regime, we'll be able stabilise the economy and re-establish it at a proper rate to cope with the means that is available for the country."

Libya would be open to investment from Gulf states, but it was up to the Libyan government to decide on the priority for investment, said Mr Saudi.

While Libya is slowly moving towards stability, some other Arab economies are still engulfed in turmoil.

Syria is the target of European and US sanctions aimed at isolating the government of Bashar Al Assad, the president, because of violence against protesters.

But Tayseer Erbini, the deputy governor of the Syrian central bank, said he was not worried about sanctions endangering the country's $18bn of foreign exchange reserves. Syrian officials have previously said a large portion of the country's assets are in the Arab world.

Asked whether he was concerned about Arab governments freezing the country's assets, Mr Erbini said: "We don't feel that Arab countries will be against us."

He said the Syrian "economy was growing". Most of the country's reserves were in euros, with US dollars next, he said.

Prior to recent sanctions, the EU was Syria's main trading partner.

tarnold@thenational.ae