Delay in reaching a political solution to end the Libyan crisis leads to the widening of the conflict over oil resources in this country, given that Libyan oil accounts for 93-95 percent of the total public revenues of the Libyan budget, and covers 70 percent of total spending. The continuation of the conflict has led to a decline in Libya's total daily oil production, from 1.6 million barrels per day before 2011 to 1.25 million barrels per day in 2020, after the resumption of oil production which was halted several times due to the intensification of the conflict. Libya is a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). While Libyan production falls within the minimum limit of the agreement to reduce production, which was estimated at 1.7 million barrels per day in September 2020, Libyan production constitutes an important factor in the oil price wars in the region.
This paper analyses the reasons for the increase in competition and conflict over Libyan ports, reviews the objectives of internal and external powers active in the Libyan conflict, especially those related to the energy sector and oil ports in this country, and explores the prospects for a political solution to the Libyan crisis and its potential implications for the ports sector.
Why have competition and conflict increased over the Libyan ports?
Libya has six major oil ports, four of which are located in the oil crescent area, namely: Sidra Port, Ras Lanuf Port, Zueitina Port and Brega Port, in addition to the port of Harika in the city of Tobruk, and the port of Zawiya, which is the only one located in western Libya. The map below shows the locations of oil and gas fields, pipelines, and major export ports in Libya, while Table 1 shows the status of the main oil terminals in late January 2020.
Source: "Map: Libya's oil and gas infrastructure", S&P Global Platts, 29 Jan 2020. Available at: https://bit.ly/2WRNkPB
The intensification of competition and conflict over the Libyan ports, especially the oil ones, is due to a number of reasons, the most important of which are the following:
1. Increase of the relative importance of Libya and the eastern Mediterranean region, especially after the massive discoveries of natural gas therein, and the increase in investment opportunities in the field of oil discoveries.
2. The maritime border demarcation processes between the countries of the region to take advantage of the region’s oil wealth have led to an increase in the strategic importance of the oil ports as the region is a promising market for oil and gas.
3. The importance of the region intersects with the axes of global strategies, especially the Chinese Silk Road, which is the largest global economic project, as it aims to connect 68 countries in Asia, Africa and Europe through several land and sea routes and railways. .
Conflicting powers over the Libyan ports
The conflict over Libyan ports includes three intersecting and complex levels in terms of different and competing interests between the parties to each level. The first level is the internal conflict between the Libyan parties themselves; the second level consists of the conflict of competing regional alliances/axes in the Libyan arena; and the third level is the conflict between European countries and international powers keen to secure their interests in Libya and control its ports.
First: the Libyan parties
Libya is currently living under the weight of a bloody conflict between the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the armed militias allied with it, that is, between the governments of the East and West. Until now, efforts to reach a political solution between the two parties have failed, including the Skhirat Agreement in 2015, the Cairo Declaration in June 2020, and the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) in Tunis, which ended on 16 November 2020.
1. The LNA, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, and the Salafi Madkhali groups allied with it. These forces control eastern Libya in addition to the oil crescent areas on the Mediterranean coast, meaning that they control the largest share of the oilfields. The most important of those fields are the following: Amal, Sharara, Farigh, Zelten, Sarir, Messla and Nafoora. The production share of those fields is estimated at 900,000 barrels per day. The LNA also controls the most important Libyan ports on the Mediterranean, namely Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, Sidra, and Raslanuf oil. Thus, the LNA controls the most important strategic sites of Libya, and imposes its control over the coast, which gives it the upper hand in influencing the Mediterranean basin as a result of its narrowness in the middle due to the presence of the islands of Sicily and Malta, which is known as the Strait of Pantelleria. Besides, whoever controls the Libyan coast influences entrances to the Aegean Sea and the Adriatic Sea.
2. The GNA led, by Fayez al-Sarraj. Its forces control the Libyan west. While the areas controlled by the GNA lack oilfields, it contains a significant number of ports, the most important of which are the ports of Misrata, Zliten, Tripoli, and the Zawiya oil port, in addition to a number of refineries that depend on the flow of oil from fields in the west. The National Oil Corporation (NOC), which is controlled by the GNA, handles the sale of crude oil to countries. The sale of oil and the supervision thereof by the GNA are the most prominent obstacles to negotiations to resolve the Libyan crisis, given that Haftar demands the existence of an independent body that supervises the sale of oil and the collection of its revenues. The GNA also controls ports and cities of strategic importance to both the US and NATO, such as the city of Tripoli for its proximity to the US naval air base in Sigonella in Italy, which is used by the US to secure the lateral and rear depth of NATO. It can also be used in the attack on Russian bases in the eastern Mediterranean, if the need arises.
Second: competing regional alliances
The pace of regional interventions in the Libyan conflict has increased through two competing regional alliances, the first of which includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the second includes Turkey and Qatar. Each alliance supports one of the Libyan parties. The strategy of each alliance can be clarified as follows:
1. The Tripartite Arab Alliance (Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE)
The three countries formed an alliance to protect the depth of Arab strategic security on the one hand, and prevent the fall of the central state in Libya and protect its oil wealth on the other hand, especially after Libya and its oil ports gained greater strategic importance after the US Geological Survey (USGS) announced in 2010 the existence of gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean region estimated at 122-220 trillion cubic feet, the proportion of Egypt thereof being estimated at nearly 115 trillion cubic feet. The amount of Libya's share has not yet been estimated due to the instability of its conditions and the delay in exploration operations in its territorial waters.
The three countries supported the efforts of the LNA, led by Field Marshal Haftar, to prevent its local opponents and their regional sponsors, especially Turkey and Qatar, from controlling strategic targets in Libya, including the oil fields and ports in eastern Libya, specifically the oil crescent region. Egypt's declaration of the city of Sirte and the Jufra base as a "red line" that was not to be crossed came in implementation of this strategy. The tripartite Arab alliance also seeks to support the path of the political solution in the framework of the current negotiations as reflected by the LPDF in Tunis. Saudi Arabia and the UAE had previously supported the Cairo Declaration issued in June 2020. Besides, the tripartite alliance announced support for the LNA during the Berlin Conference held in the beginning of 2020.
2. The Turkish-Qatari alliance
The Libyan oil and oil ports are of economic and strategic importance for both Turkey and Qatar. Turkey wants to gain a foothold in the Mediterranean and benefit from the abundance of low-cost oil in the light of the economic crisis it suffers from. On the Qatari side, the discoveries in the Mediterranean have undermined the Qatari hegemony over the global gas market and resulted in the loss of the European markets, especially with the growing Egyptian discoveries, in addition to the investments in infrastructure such as refineries and distillation and liquefaction plants, and the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF). Hence the importance of Libyan oil and ports, as Qatar's control over them, through the GNA, would enable it to launch gas price wars and limit the importance of the Egyptian Mediterranean discoveries or any Libyan discoveries that the tripartite Arab alliance could exploit as a pressure card against it.
The Turkish and Qatari strategies in Libya are based on the idea of supporting the establishment of a central government through which they can secure their economic, political and strategic interests. Therefore, they support the GNA and the Presidential Council. Turkey has concluded security and military agreements with the GNA to serve as a legitimate cover for Turkish military intervention in Libya.
After signing the agreements, Turkey sent military advisers to the GNA, and provided it with unmanned aircraft and advanced air defense systems, in addition to the transfer of thousands of Syrian mercenaries allied with Ankara to the fighting axes around the capital Tripoli. This support enabled the GNA forces to regain control over western Libya and ensure its control over the capital Tripoli. The Qatari support takes the form of political and economic support for the Turkish position in Libya and the GNA itself, by rejecting the Cairo Declaration or providing support for the GNA position during the LPDF in Tunis.
Third: the competition between European countries and the major powers
International engagement, whether at the European level or within the framework of the Russian-US competition, takes a more complex and divided form compared to regional positions, as a result of the different and conflicting interests, which led to a decline in the degrees of European influence on the path of the political solution to the Libyan crisis. While the European powers, especially France, Italy, Germany and the US, share their concerns about the Russian-Turkish rapprochement and coordination, the divergence of their respective interests weakens their position on that rapprochement. This can be explained as follows:
1. Rivalry between European powers
A. France: France’s role in the Libyan crisis is summarised in the need to secure its oil investments in the Sahara countries, especially in Mali, Chad and Niger. Mining investment operations are active in those countries, especially the extraction of petroleum materials through the French company Total, and the extraction of low-cost uranium used in energy production processes in France, which depends on it for more than 60 percent of its energy production. That is why France has found in supporting Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar since 2014 a suitable option for it, his being Libya’s strong man who is capable of fighting terrorism and confronting the armed militias, and thus securing French interests. In addition, its close relationship with him would enable it to obtain oil extraction concessions and investment contracts in Libyan territorial waters.
B. Italy: Italy considers Libya a historical area of influence for it. Rome adopts a pragmatic policy towards the Libyan issue that is governed by Italy’s own interests. For example, it sees in the presence of the French company Total a real threat to the Italian company Eni which has had investments in Libya since 1959. That is why, at the beginning of the crisis, Italy supported the GNA politically, but not militarily, given the failure of the Sarraj government to control the Misrata militias, and to maintain Italy’s balances with the LNA and preserve its oil investments in the LNA-controlled Libyan fields. Italy also sought to coordinate with Turkey to counter the French influence, although it rejected the security and navigation agreements and the demarcation of the borders between Turkey and the GNA due to their negative effects on its interests. Since the beginning of 2020, Italy has been pursuing a policy of openness to all parties out of its desire to play a greater role in Libya, and thus obtain oil exploration concessions in Libyan territorial waters, in case a political solution to the Libyan conflict is reached.
C. Germany: Berlin is adopting a consensual policy in pursuit of reducing the intensity of the conflict in Libya and reaching a political solution to the crisis. Therefore, it tried to urge the conflicting parties to hold an international conference with the aim of limiting the flow of arms to Libya and protecting the Libyan shores from infiltrations, illegal migration and the movement of fighters, and protecting oil ports, especially that Germany has investments worth 2 billion in the Libyan oil sector. Besides, the German company Wintershall has been conducting oil exploration and refining operations in Libya since 1958. Despite Germany’s success in holding the Berlin Conference at the beginning of 2020, the Conference did not succeed in resolving the crisis. Rather, it was limited to ordering the launch of Operation Irene to monitor Libyan shores and support the arms embargo imposed on Libya.
2. The US-Russian rivalry
At the beginning, the US did not show great interest in the Libyan situation and left the matter to NATO. However, starting from April 2019, things have changed for two reasons: the first is the fact that the forces of Field Marshal Haftar headed towards Tripoli which has a comparative advantage for the US, as mentioned earlier. The Second reason is the escalation of the dispute between Moscow and Washington over Libya in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), given that Moscow obstructed the adoption of a draft resolution providing for a cessation of fighting, proposing instead amendments to the final version of the resolution, which was opposed by Washington.
Thus, the main motive for the increasing US interest in Libya was the increasing Russian relative weight in the Libyan crisis and the expansion of Moscow's influence in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, which is considered by the US as a new threat to its influence and the influence of NATO in this region. Russia’s goal in intervening in the Libyan conflict was to secure a foothold in the southern Mediterranean to influence the policies of the European Union (EU), especially in the field of energy, and to bargain with international parties over the conflict issue in Libya in order to keep the upper hand in the course of the Syrian crisis. For this reason, Russia has sought to support the LNA and Field Marshal Haftar in order to influence the oil and gas policies through Libyan ports, and to ensure that Libyan oil and gas are not used in waging price wars against it. From this standpoint, Russia allowed sending Wagner fighters to participate in the fighting alongside the LNA against the GNA in Tripoli.
Prospects for a political solution to the Libyan crisis and its possible repercussions for the port sector
Upon tracing the course of the Libyan crisis over the ten-year period since its inception and the attempts for a political and diplomatic solution, namely the initial efforts of UN envoys. the outputs of the 2015 Skhirat Agreement, whose provisions were not abided to by the GNA, and the outcomes of the Berlin Conference in January 2020, the Cairo Declaration in June 2020, and the LPDF held in Tunis in mid-November 2020, it can be concluded that the Libyan crisis is difficult to resolve, given the large number of actors within the conflict (there are ten active states that have divergent interests over Libyan ports and oil), and the absence of political mechanisms to implement the outcomes of conferences and initiatives emanating from the actors.
In view of the outcomes of the recent LPDF held in Tunis, and despite agreement by the Libyan parties to hold new national elections at the end of 2021, define the government's powers, separate powers, and develop a new Libyan constitution, no consensus was reached yet on the working mechanisms as there was no agreement on the criteria and conditions for running for the upcoming elections, and there was no agreement on the mechanisms for the selection and work of the constitution drafting committee, nor on how to remove foreign fighters from the Libyan theatre. With regard to the oil sector and oil ports, there has been no agreement on the mechanism of the ports' work, given that the LNA demands the establishment of a neutral body to manage the sale and collection of Libyan oil revenues.
Therefore, it is difficult to consider the recent LPDF a marked step in the course of resolving the Libyan crisis unless all the actors in the Libyan theatre are fully agreed on the various outstanding issues, and international and regional support is provided for the success of the political solution course, which may be difficult to achieve given the current divergence in the interests of the parties to the conflict and their vision for a final solution. This indicates that the prospect for ending the Libyan crisis is still far away. The continuation of the conflict entails serious challenges for the Libyan oil sector and ports, the most important of which are the following:
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