The standoff over Libya’s oil crescent has been resolved for now, following an announcement that Khalifa Haftar’s forces handed control of the country’s eastern ports to the Tripoli-based National Oil Corporation (NOC). One week earlier, they had given the facilities to the unrecognized NOC in east Libya. Prior to the statement by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), NOC Chairman Mustafa Sanalla held a series of meetings, including with representatives of the eastern government. He reiterated that oil sales to unauthorized parties were a red line and could prompt sanctions, given that they would violate UN resolutions. After Haftar agreed to return the oil ports to Sanalla’s NOC, force majeure was lifted at the Ras Lanuf, Es Sider, Hariga and Zueitina ports.
As we noted previously, Haftar conducted his most recent power play by drawing on grievances in eastern Libya over the distribution of oil revenues. He and his forces described their move on the ports as a demonstration for more transparency and less corruption. They also demanded the replacement of the Tripoli-based Central Bank of Libya (CBL)’s de facto governor, Sadiq Kabir. While this demand has not been met, the CBL agreed to an independent review. Head of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) Fayez Serraj requested that the UN form an international committee to review the country’s revenues and expenditures at both the CBL in Tripoli and the rival Baida-based central bank in eastern Libya. In our view, this review is unlikely to happen anytime soon given the situation on the ground. It is more likely to become window-dressing in order to temporarily mollify the grievances in eastern Libya that Haftar exploited.
At the same time, the episode was a major setback for Haftar. Under international pressure, he was forced to reverse his decision on the ports without securing any tangible concessions. It is also troubling for his backers in the UAE, who supported the controversial move to hand control to the unrecognized NOC. The Tripoli-based NOC sent a letter to the UN sanctions committee that implicated several UAE firms and individuals in illegal efforts to sell oil from eastern Libya. In mid-May, an Emirati tanker heading to eastern Libya to load crude – without the endorsement of the Tripoli NOC – retreated after an EU helicopter conducting a human smuggling surveillance mission spotted it. Media reports citing Emirati, European and Libyan officials detailed how the UAE engaged in secret talks with Haftar on his plan, including how to facilitate independent oil sales through Emirati companies.
The UAE, which has flagrantly violated the UN arms embargo on numerous occasions in support of Haftar, bowed to pressure from Washington and Paris and pressed Haftar to reverse the decision. It is rare for the Emiratis to respond to external pressure when it comes to their backing of Haftar, but the threat of UN sanctions is likely to have played a role. Haftar emerges from the episode not only without concessions, but also with his credibility undermined. To the international community, he has acted in bad faith and weakened any pledges made at the Paris conference earlier this summer.
For many Libyans impressed with how he wrested control of the oil crescent from Ibrahim Jathran and returned it to the recognized NOC, Haftar’s decision to turn to the eastern NOC makes him no better than other warlords. Even if the standoff is resolved for now, the competition over the oil crescent is likely far from over. This episode highlights the continuation of an unstable and unpredictable environment in Libya, which does not bode well for the elections that the international community seeks to organize.