x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

Libyan oil minister Shukri Ghanem flees country for Tunisia

Ghanem’s defection from his position at the top of Libya’s oil industry could indicate that Colonel Qaddafi’s fuel and oil resources are running out, says expert.

Shukri Ghanem, pictured in December last year, is reported to have fled to Tunisia.
Shukri Ghanem, pictured in December last year, is reported to have fled to Tunisia.

TUNIS // Libya's oil minister and the head of its national oil company has reportedly fled to Tunisia as war and international sanctions increasingly pinch off the resources of the embattled Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.

Shukri Ghanem arrived in Tunisia by car in the past few days and, yesterday, was en route to Tunis, the Tunisian capital, according to wire services' reports that cited Tunisian security officials.

While Mr Ghanem's motives remained unclear, Tunisian security officials, said he has defected from Colonel Qaddafi's regime. That claim was supported by Abdel-Moneim al Houni, a Libyan defector and former Arab League representative who said he had spoken to Mr Ghanem, quoted by Associated Press.

If true, the defection would make Mr Ghanem the latest in a string of senior officials to abandon Colonel Qaddafi since anti-government protests in Libya accelerated into armed revolt three months ago. Former foreign minister Moussa Koussa defected to Britain in March, leaving Libya via Tunisia.

Given Mr Ghanem's position at the top of Libya's oil industry, his defection could indicate that Colonel Qaddafi's fuel and oil resources are running out, said John Hamilton, a Libya expert and contributing editor with Britain's Africa Energy magazine.

"The ability of the Qaddafi regime to survive is absolutely linked to fuel, and the person to know about fuel is Shukri Ghanem," Mr Hamilton said. Mr Ghanem's departure "could mean we're entering the endgame, or at least that he thinks we're entering the endgame".

After years of international sanctions imposed in the 1990s in response to Colonel Qaddafi's support for militant groups, Libya's oil industry soared after those sanctions were lifted in the last decade.

Much of that success was due to Mr Ghanem, a western-educated reformist who wooed foreign oil firms.

However, the industry has all but collapsed since the revolt against Colonel Qaddafi broke out in February and the United Nations imposed sanctions on the country.

According to the International Energy Agency, Libyan exports have dropped from an average 1.49 million barrels per day (bpd) before the uprising to some 300,000 bpd today.

Last month, the European Union added 26 Libyan energy firms accused of financing Colonel Qaddafi's regime to its sanctions list.

According to foreign media reporting from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, fuel shortages are forcing Libyan drivers to queue for days outside petrol stations in hopes of filling their tanks.

The deepening crisis may have helped prompt Mr Ghanem to get out of Libya while he had a chance, said Mr Hamilton. "The day when people go to the market and there's no food, when the power station stops working, is when declining living standards will go off a cliff."

That, in turn, could spark chaos and a surge in violence, Mr Hamilton said.

Mr Ghanem, while popular with western investors, faced opposition at home from conservatives.

According to Mr al Houni, "most of the officials remaining in Tripoli are forced to stay under intimidation and pressure. They are not happy with what is happening".

Yesterday, Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Mr Ghanem was in Tunisia, "but we don't know what he is doing there," Britain's Guardian newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, rebel leaders in Benghazi say they have had no contact with Mr Ghanem.

Jalal al Gallal, a spokesman for the rebel National Transitional Council, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying: "For now, he has not let us know that he wants to join us."

A crucial question is whether Mr Ghanem might share information about Libya's infrastructure with Nato officials directing air strikes aimed at dislodging Colonel Qaddafi, Mr Hamilton said. "So much of the military effort is about squeezing Qaddafi's resources. Ghanem probably knows whether refineries are working, whether crude oil is being supplied," he said. "If he tells all that to Nato, it's a matter of fantastic strategic importance."

jthorne@thenational.ae