BEIRUT — Libya’s oil production has almost completely halted because of a political stalemate, officials told media, during a time of heightened global concerns over the supply of crude.
The drop in production, initially reported by Bloomberg, places further pressure on a global market that has already seen a 50 percent jump in the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil this year, up to nearly $120. It also comes at a time when Europe is desperately seeking alternatives to Russian energy from sources in Africa and the Mediterranean.
The blockade of oil facilities is driven by a political rivalry between two main factions in the country over control of Libya’s government. Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah, who took office in a U.N.-backed process, refused to hand over power to Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed prime minister in March by the eastern-based parliament, which is in turn backed by the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).
The LNA is led by Khalifa Hifter, an eastern-based warlord who controls significant territory. In 2019, his forces launched an offensive against Tripoli, where a U.N.-backed government has been in power.
The struggle has also featured extensive involvement of foreign powers, including Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and the Russian mercenary outfit known as the Wagner Group.
A much-anticipated parliamentary election in December was postponed, dashing international hopes for a vote that could help lead Libya out of the decade of chaos that followed the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi in the 2011 revolution. In the years that followed, Libya descended into chaos as rival camps battled for control of the oil-rich nation — with the facilities at the heart of the country’s wealth turned into bargaining chips.
Hifter’s group controls many of the country’s major oil fields and terminals. Groups of protesters closed two major oil fields in April, halving the country’s output to 600,000 barrels a day at the time, according to Bloomberg. The continuing shutdowns are ostensibly the work of local protesters demanding that Dbeibah hand over power, at the LNA’s behest, Reuters reported.
A video statement then by protesters at the Zueitina oil terminal demanded both the ouster of Dbeibah and the sacking of Mustafa Sanallah, chairman of the National Oil Corporation, because the company had sent oil revenue to Dbeibah’s government.
Hifter’s use of tribesman to close oil facilities aims to starve the U.N.-backed unity government in Tripoli, said Anas El Gomati, director of Libyan think tank the Sadeq Institute, as well as putting pressure on the United States and Europe into backing Hifter’s rival government.
It is not the first time Hifter has employed such a tactic toward international powers: In 2020, a months-long blockade cost Libya heavy financial losses in Hifter’s attempt to put pressure on his rivals during peace talks.
“It is notable that Russian Wagner Group mercenaries working alongside Hifter’s forces since 2019 have long held influence” in some oil facilities since 2020, Gomati said. “Russia stands to benefit as Europe remains reliant on Russian energy and starved of alternatives in the Mediterranean.”
“It emboldens Hifter and his Russian backers to strong-arm the international community in Libya, and could destabilize the country’s fragile cease-fire,” Gomati added.
The Ministry of Oil and Gas could not be immediately reached for comment. In a post on its Facebook page on Saturday, the ministry emphasized the negative effect of these blockades, “especially with the unprecedented rise in prices in the global oil market.” The blockade, it continued, will make Libyans lose out on much-needed revenue.