By Tankut Öztaş & Ferhat Polat

The report will provide an analysis of the multilayered dynamics underpinning Turkish – Libyan relations from economic, political and security perspectives.



The toppling of the Gaddafi in October 2011 and the subsequent destruction of Libya’s government resulted in a power vacuum, leading eventually to widespread violence, a refugee crisis, the exacerbation of tribal rivalries, economic instability, and the collapse of social welfare.

Today, Libya is fragmented, polarized and mired in instability. In many respects it is a failed state, lacking a unified, representative and legitimate government able to exercise authority or hold a monopoly over the use of force.

Libya’s complex political and security situation has presented significant challenges to the achievement of a comprehensive political settlement between rival factions within the country.

The 2014 civil war split Libya’s political spectrum into two main factions: the UN- backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its rival in the country’s Eastern region.

On April 4, 2019 General Khalifa Haftar, leader of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) from the Eastern region began an offensive to take Tripoli from the internationally recognized government. However, the outcome of Haftar’s offensive to the capital has brought more conflicts.

The interference of international powers and regional actors has been a significant factor in the deepening political fragmentation and polarisation of Libya.

Interventions designed to serve foreign states’ political or regional interests have been a constant feature of the country’s post-revolutionary conflict.

Turkey’s approach to Libya in recent years has largely been value-based. Since the fall of Gaddafi’s regime, however, Turkey together with Qatar, has been more proactively involved in the resolution of the conflict in Libya. In particular, Turkey is the prominent supporter of the UN-backed GNA.

Recently, Turkey and Libya’s internationally recognized government signed two separate memorandums of understanding (MoU), one on military cooperation and the other on maritime boundaries of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean.

These agreements paved the way for additional military and logistical cooperation by launching ‘Defense and Security Cooperation Office’ in both countries.

For instance, some of the provisions after these arrangements are being able to provide military training, consultancy, technology transfer, combat planning and material support, collaboration on intelligence sharing, holding joint peace operations and the establishment of an immediate reaction force covering the police and military responsibilities in the case of request.

Hence, the maritime deal delineates an exclusive economic zone between Turkey and Libya to give drilling rights to both countries for exploiting and trading hydrocarbon resources.

In this context, the report will discuss the impact of Turkey’s current policies in Libya to respond to the needs of the Libyan people and encourage a resolution to the conflict.

The report will provide an analysis of the multilayered dynamics underpinning Turkish – Libyan relations from economic, political and security perspectives.

In the following sections, it will move on to the question of how Turkey’s geopolitical and strategic posture towards Libya has shifted from a position mainly focused on soft power to a proactive and pragmatic stance.

At last, the report will evaluate the complex paradigm of relations that have emerged and subsequently devolved into a proxy conflict in Libya among local, regional and international actors.

Dynamics of the Economic Relations

The relationship between Libya and Turkey has historically been based on mutual interests. Geopolitical factors appear to have provided the main initiative for this partnership.

The first strategic rapprochement between two countries happened in 1974 when Turkish military forces launched a military operation in Cyprus as a guarantor state to stop the massacre of the Turkish population of the island, carried out by the junta under the command of Nikos Sampson.

Turkey’s Peace Operation in Cyprus received the strong support of Libya.

Libya provided the urgently needed military equipment and materials such as airplane spare parts through series of covert operations that could not procure and get supplied due to the USA embargo.

After the war, Libyan Prime Minister Jallud paid a visit to Tukey, and both countries held their first ever high-level meeting after Gaddafi came to power in Libya. At this meeting, both countries concluded several economic partnership agreements and established a joint ministerial committee on various policy fronts.

Following the conclusions of these agreements, the trade volume between the two countries rapidly increased and several co-projects and companies were founded.

For instance, the Turkish-Arab Bank was established in 1978 in Istanbul and it provided credit to many organizations such as the Turkish Central Bank, Turkish Airlines, Agricultural Bank etc.

Among the agreements, the target of enabling Turkish workers to work in Libya was the most ambitious one.

In the course of these discussions, the chief Libyan negotiator reportedly announced that his country needed at least 650,000 Turkish workers. This ambitious target was never met, however, over the years the number of Turkish workers in Libya has increased significantly.

By the end of 1976, Turkish workers in Libya reached to 60,000 from a mere 6000 before. The Libyan Minister of Agriculture stated in 1984 that there were 120,000 Turkish guest workers, working for as many as 150 Turkish companies in Libya.

Libya ranked second after Germany for the highest number of Turkish workforce abroad.

In the late 1980s, however, Turkish-Libyan relations were challenged due to changing geopolitics of the region. The fall in world oil prices and the Western pressure on authoritarian regimes were two main obstacles that brought problems to Turkish businesses in Libya.

For instance, Libya’s debt to Turkish contractors was estimated at $700-800 million and, since many of the Turkish contractors operated in Libya at that time were under-capitalized, they became highly vulnerable to cash flow problems when payments by the Gaddafi government were delayed.

As a result, in 1985 the Turkish government intervened to regulate its overseas contractors after the payment problem with Libya led to the collapse of a number of small firms and convinced Gaddafi to agree on terms for the use of Libyan oil exports to repay debts to Turkish contractors.

Prior to Gaddafi’s fall, overall trade relations between the two countries had a positive trend for four decades. This is visible when these four decades are considered comparatively.

While the accumulated trade decreased in the 1990s in comparison to the 1980s, in the following decade, the total trade volume between the two countries nearly doubled from $5.932 to $15.706 billion.

More importantly, despite the political upheaval in the country resulting in Gaddafi’s overthrow and subsequent conflicts, the volume of trade did not substantially change in the 2010s.

In comparison to the first decade of the 2000s, the second decade saw an increase in the trade volume. Increasing as much as $1.138 billion, the trade budget in total reached to $16.844 billion.

From a “micro” perspective, Turkish exports to Libya include jewellery, textile, furniture, medicine, carpets, cement and other construction materials, while the basic Libyan exports to Turkey are crude petroleum and liquid petroleum gas, gold, scrap metals, aluminium, mineral oils, methyl alcohol and fertilizers.

Up until the first decade of the new millennium, the trade balance between the two countries was consistently in favour of Libya. However, after 2007 this trend began to shift in favour of Turkey.

For instance, while the accumulated trade volume between two countries was $2.786 billion, Turkey was faced with a trade imbalance of $180 million in 2006.

The following year the trade volume declined to $1.043 billion, however, Turkey’s accounts balance with Libya shifted from decades of negative balance to a surplus.

The major reason for this such a drastic change was that the Turkish government in 2007 opted for a policy of diversification in its energy imports such as increasing the share of oil import from Russia, which significantly reduced its oil imports from Libya.


Tankut Oztas is a Ph.D in International Political Economy from King’s College London. He specialise in global security, geopolitical risks and the politics of transnational economic affairs.

Ferhat Polat is a Deputy Researcher at the TRT World Research Centre. He is a PhD researcher in North African Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies in Exeter with a particular focus on Turkish Foreign Policy.


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