Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Thirteen years have passed since Libya’s pivotal Arab Spring uprising in February 2011, yet the nation still finds itself ensnared in a web of political discord, rampant corruption and ascendant militias that have effectively transformed into quasi-state actors.

Amid this fragmented landscape, European governments are seeking to deepen their oil and gas partnerships with Libya, largely to diversify away from Russian energy supplies. Yet by neglecting these internal factors, they may jeopardize their own objectives as well as Libya’s own path to political stability and economic recovery.

In a stark reminder of its precarious state, the United Nations special envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, recently warned the Security Council that the country is teetering on the brink of “disintegration.” He urged rival factions within the country to put aside “their interests” and pursue a collective effort “to restore the dignity of their homeland.”

Libya’s predicament is due to the political deadlock between its rival governments in Tripoli in the west and Sirte in the east. Though violence has been minimal since a U.N.-brokered cease-fire in October 2020, their standoff has delayed elections to unify the government that were originally slated for December 2021. In the meantime, the country’s state of limbo has hamstrung its prospects for progress and growth.

The tragic collapse of the Derna dam in September 2023—described as “Libya’s 9/11,” with casualties estimated at 5,300 to 20,000—raised some slim hopes that the two rival governments might set aside their differences and cooperate for the sake of the country. But those hopes were short-lived. Instead, factions on both sides sought to fashion themselves as Libya’s “saviors” and boost their popularity by exploiting aid and recovery efforts.

Also hostage to the political quagmire is Libya’s oil sector, which is the backbone of its economy, making up 98 percent of government revenues and 60 percent of its GDP. The country holds the second-largest oil reserves in Africa, and its reserves per capita are among the highest globally.

Despite its vast reserves, however, Libya’s oil production has fluctuated over the past decade, largely influenced by the civil war’s trajectory. Still, its exports have steadily grown from just under 300,000 barrels of crude oil per day in 2015 to just over 1 million in 2021, reaching an average of 1.2 million barrels per day in 2023. The Libyan National Oil Company, or NOC, has set an ambitious target of around 2 million bpd by 2027, but reaching it will require stability and increased investment—around $17 billion per NOC estimates.

International investment would certainly help achieve this goal. Yet amid the negotiations between European energy giants and the NOC, Libya’s rival factions have seized on opportunities to extend their influence and gain concessions themselves, creating an even more difficult investment environment. Existing pipelines and facilities have been shut down or threatened with closure, threatening the flow of energy to Europe. Moreover, a landmark $8 billion deal signed in February 2023 between Italy’s Eni and the NOC was characterized as “illegal” by Libya’s Oil Ministry, because it was not signed by the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, or GNU.

In January, popular protests led to the temporary closure of Libya’s largest oil field, El-Sharara, which has the capacity to produce around 300,000 bpd, as well as the nearby El-Feel field. While protesters voiced demands such as better job opportunities and sufficient oil supplies for domestic use, reports indicate that the sit-ins were in fact ordered by Saddam Haftar, the son of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who commanded the armed forces fighting on behalf of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, or HoR, during the civil war. These allegations follow past efforts to extract concessions from the NOC and Tripoli authorities, aiming to increase revenue flows to the Sirte-based Government of National Stability, or GNS, which Haftar and the HoR now support.

Indeed, Haftar’s forces have blockaded oil facilities in the past to protest what he calls the Tripoli government’s disproportionate share of oil revenues, despite most of Libya’s oil reserves being in the east. The blockades also serve as a tool to enhance his standing.

But while Haftar’s stronghold may be in the east, the loose umbrella of militias that make up his forces also exert influence in southern and western Libya. And Haftar loyalists are even present within the NOC, including its current boss Farhat Bengadra, who was appointed in July 2022 after an agreement reached between Haftar and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah of the GNU. That underscores not only the indirect sway that Haftar holds over the GNU, despite not recognizing it as a political entity, but also the blurring line between militias and official or civil bodies.

Beyond Haftar, other groups continue to exploit Libya’s fragmented status quo, including in Tripoli. There, the three major groups that continue to dominate the scene are the Deterrence Apparatus for Combating Organized Crime and Terrorism, or DACOT; the self-styled Stability Support Authority, or SSA; and the 444 Brigade. In addition to engaging in violent clashes among themselves, these groups have committed a host of violations against Libyan civilians and officials, as reported by Amnesty International and other NGOs.

Highlighting additional threats to Libya’s oil sector, the recent abduction of the head of the General National Maritime Transport Company—following similar incidents with previous executives—underscores the vulnerability of this increasingly profitable entity. These incidents jeopardize its operations, such as managing and expanding overseas shipments of oil, which are crucial for bolstering Libya’s export capabilities.

Libya has also been the object of international competition, which has long hindered its post-Arab Spring hopes for stability. Russia has been one of Haftar’s key allies, but the Wagner Group professional military company has also reportedly used the country as a pass-through to smuggle Russian oil into Europe despite European Union sanctions. That black market, however, undermines Libya’s own revenues, hinders investments and distorts the domestic market, with significant repercussions for Libya’s oil industry development.

Now the bilateral approach adopted by EU members states in dealing with Libya risks further undermining efforts toward stability, due to their divergent and often competitive stances. Though France has recently called for stability in Libya following discussions between the U.N. and French special envoys in February, it is simultaneously seeking to deepen cooperation between the French oil and gas giant TotalEnergies and the NOC. But accusations that Paris was actually backing Haftar during the civil war mean that France is not seen as an impartial actor.

Meanwhile, under Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, Italy has viewed Libya as an important Mediterranean partner for its recently launched Mattei Plan, which includes exploration for new gas and oil contracts in Africa as part of a broader economic development partnership. Yet Meloni, who ran on an anti-migrant platform, has also sought to collaborate with Libyan factions to prevent irregular migration to Italy.

Indeed, the EU’s own migrant policy has also involved partnering with Libyan militias, some of which have been involved in people-smuggling. Numerous reports have indicated that the EU’s border control agency, Frontex, and Maltese authorities shared information with the Tarek bin Zayed faction, run by Saddam Haftar, in order to block migrant vessels leaving Libya and return those that managed to do so. The result is that the EU and its member states all have an interest in reducing the instability caused by Libyan militias, but have tolerated and even cooperated with some factions in order to control the flow of asylum-seekers into Europe.

There have been some signs of a more promising trajectory. Indeed, following an agreement with Spain’s Repsol company, the El-Sharara field was able to resume production of around 260,000 bpd in February. However, such deals are more like putting a band aid on a bullet wound, should wider efforts to address Libya’s political and security deadlock falter.

There are various proposed steps the international community, including the U.S. and EU, could take, such as sanctions on certain factions to deter them from jeopardizing the democratic process. Other measures that have been tabled include a disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, or DDR, program, which the U.N. Support Mission for Libya, or UNSMIL, has advocated for, to give civil society more control over militia factions.

Implementing such measures may help pave the way toward a more optimistic future for the country, while also fostering deeper and more productive ties between Libya and Europe. But absent any progress, Europe’s efforts to forge energy partnerships with Libya could end up undermining the very stability they are ostensibly seeking to support.


Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a British analyst and journalist whose work has focused largely on Gulf Cooperation Council affairs, as well as geopolitical and economic issues pertaining to the wider Middle East and Indo-Pacific. He has worked with or written for a wide range of think tanks and publications based in the U.S., the U.K. and the Middle East.


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