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Books on Libya

Update No: 076 - (27/03/10)

Overplaying the Confidence Card
Libya continues to enforce a visa ban for most countries in the European Union, maintaining a tough stance against Switzerland, characterized by no less than an absurd call for Arab countries to launch a Jihad against it.

In March, Libya also demanded and obtained an apology from the United States, even as it launched a provocation against Nigeria, characterized by a significant diplomatic incident. Qadhafi called for Nigeria to be split into two separate states, a Muslim and a Christian one. Given the Nigerian government’s problems in dealing with inter-religious fighting in the region of Jos, Central Plateau state, Lagos considers this a very sensitive issue, prompting a veritable diplomatic crisis between Libya and Nigeria. So much for promoting ‘African Unity’, as Qadhafi often does during African Union summits.

Family Ties
The disputes, of course, have far more to do with the al-Qadhafi family than Libya itself. Ordinary Libyans have nothing to gain, and much to lose, from the disputes, while political representatives, technocrats educated in the West, from the Secretary of the General People’s Council (the prime minister) and the chairman of the National Oil Company (NOC), Shokri Ghanem, have to perform diplomatic acrobatics to spin the situation, such that it makes a minimum of sense. The row with Switzerland started in July 2008 when one of Gaddafi's sons, Hannibal, was arrested in Geneva on charges -- which were later dropped -- of mistreating (beating-up) two domestic employees in a luxury hotel. Hannibal is not new to this sort of dispute, having trashed hotel rooms in a number of European cities. The Swiss don’t care for hooliganism whoever’s son is responsible, and reasonably enough maintain their standards in their country.

Other Qadhafi children, notably Saadi, have also earned bad reputations. The Libyan leader considered the arrest a humiliation. In his mindset and the prevailing mindset of Libya, this was a matter of honour; the family was humiliated and revenge must be extracted (to continue to appear strong in the tribal context).

As the Libyan leader calls for Jihad against Switzerland and a Swiss citizen is being held in a Libyan jail on unlikely residence violations (after being trapped in Libya since July 2008), it is hard to believe the entire crisis is really a private Qadhafi family affair. The episode is a reminder that Qadhafi IS Libya and ordinary Libyans count for very little in the decision making process, despite the ‘pluralistic’ pretensions of the Jamahiriya.

The focus on the ruling family also suggests Libya remains a tribal society, a fact that is crucial in trying to understand its decidedly unorthodox international behaviour. Qadhafi’s need to guard over his family’s affairs helps to explain the sudden isolationist and self-defeatist policies that have been witnessed in Libya over the past few years.
In situations where his family is not directly involved, such as the dispute over the Bulgarian ex-pat medics working for Libya, facing trumped up accusations of infecting 400 babies with the AIDS virus, tribal affairs are also important. In a situation like that, it is important to keep a tribal balance. As leader of Libya, Qadhafi is also constrained by tribal honour notions to protect his family even against common sense and Libyan national interests. Libya’s oil still holds sufficient appeal for the West, particularly for European countries of the Mediterranean, and to the American oil firms that were willing to make sizeable investments in the country, after the start of the US-Libya thaw that began in 2004.

The question remains how far Qadhafi is willing to go to push his family’s agenda? There are faults lines in the Swiss retaliatory measures, seeing as Italy, Malta, Spain and to a lesser extent France, Austria and Germany have been acting in perhaps too diplomatic a fashion trying to appease the Libyan leadership’s whims. Italy, whose oil and gas ENI and various construction companies have significant investments in Libya has been leading the pro-Libya stance in the EU, actually complaining about Switzerland’s approach, which engages all of the Schengen countries. Libya also managed to secure an official American apology for statements made by a US State Dept. official. Philip Crowley commented that: Qadhafi’s "jihad" was ludicrous by any standard (how would a Muslim leader react to a Western president calling for a Crusade against another country because of a private family matter?), comparing it to the disastrous performance given by Qadhafi at the UN General Assembly last September: “one of the more memorable sessions of the UN General Assembly that I can recall – lots of words and lots of papers flying all over the place, not necessarily a lot of sense.” Libya threatened to withdraw oil contracts from US firms in Libya and Crowley was forced to apologize to Libya. No doubt, Qadhafi could ‘bank’ this at home, having managed to score major ‘family honour’ points; how Libyans benefit is an entirely different matter.

Libya needs more exploration and an almost complete overhaul of its oil prospecting infrastructure after years of neglect and a decade of sanctions. Libya is also trying to increase its refining capacity, a prospect that definitely requires the expertise of western oil and oil services companies.

Apart from the issues of honor and tribe, the dispute with Switzerland has also shed light into the kinds of problems that Libya will face at succession time. There are hints of a brewing family dispute. The reform camp typified by Saif al-Islam and other technocrats, who has been considered the true architect of the reconciliation with the West, is competing with hardliners close to Hannibal, who has ties to the security apparatus and the Revolutionary Committees. Saif told the Sharq al-Awsat newspaper, in reference to the dispute with Switzerland, “I feel sad about these quixotic battles”. The hardliners are playing on Qadhafi’s honour and 'grandeur pretentions', perhaps pointing out that the West has not opened up to him and the Jamahiriya as he had expected.

Qadhafi wants attention, positive attention. He cancelled a visit to Canada, while en route to Newfoundland, because of comments made by the Canadian foreign affairs minster, who complained about the hero’s welcome given to Ali Baset al-Megrahi, the sole convict of the Lockerbie bombing, released from a Scottish prison on medical grounds – he is still alive (and doing well apparently). Qadhafi also expected closer ties to the United States under Obama; somehow, though, he fails to understand that making a fuss about pitching a tent in New York, delivering an inflammatory speech at the UN and giving a hero’s welcome to an individual, a career spook that many Americans consider to be a terrorist responsible for the lives of 270 people, is not going to allow any US president to get too close.

Nevertheless, there is only so far even Qadhafi can go; there have been a series of coups in West Africa and the Sahel over the past months; the Libyan leader must be careful not to fuel the family war and not to lose his seat to one of his sons.

Qadhafi’s recent actions, the ludicrous suggestions of calling for a Jihad – even if, as Qadhafi explained, this was not meant as a militant type of jihad – could damage a decade of efforts to try to rebuild ties with the West. While, its oil and gas are important, Libya’s leadership must not overplay its hand. As noted in last month’s update, Iraq could soon resume a very important role as an oil producer, based on their reserves rivalling even those of Saudi Arabia. Oil prospecting is also increasing in other parts of Africa from the Gulf of Guinea to Uganda and the victory of a pro-Russian president in the Ukrainian elections has improved the stability of Russian gas supplies to Europe, since Russo-Ukrainian disputes are far less likely now (Ukraine has also proposed a law banning adherence to NATO). Russia will also be hosting the next winter Olympics in an area close to Ukraine; yet another reason to maintain good relations with its neighbour and reliable gas deliveries to European consumers. So the world needs Libya’s oil, but not at any price!

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