A two-day Libya conference is starting in Palermo, Italy – an event widely perceived as a counter to a similar gathering organized by France in May – as two European countries compete for the fractured nation’s oil and gas assets.
The meeting in Sicily is meant to bring together key stakeholders involved in the ongoing turbulence in Libya. The North African country, which once prided itself for high standards of living that were paid for by oil exports, remains in chaos seven years after a NATO-backed uprising ousted long-time leader Muammar Gaddafi. There are two rival governments in Libya and numerous smaller players with various tribal, ideological and political affiliations playing their own games.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte denied that the meeting organized by Macron last May had placed the two European countries at odds over Libya. However, Italy traditionally considers its former colony to be within its sphere of influence. France, which briefly occupied the southwestern Fezzan area after World War II, sees this part of Libya as important for the French presence in Central Africa.
The two nations are also competing for Libya’s energy reserves, with both Italian Eni and French Total buying additional assets in the country’s struggling oil and gas industry. It remains the holder of the largest proven oil reserves in Africa, and is a major supplier of “sweet” crude, which is cheaper and easier to refine into petrol products.
Libya’s oil sales are affected by regular protests, security problems and rivalry between factions, which result in port blockades, attacks on fields, and other problems. Control over oil revenues is a major point of competition between Tripoli and Tobruk, which has to conduct financial transactions through the UN-recognized Central Bank despite controlling physical fields and terminals.
Will the top general attend?
As the event started on Monday, questions remained as to whether it would be attended by Khalifa Haftar, a powerful general allied with the government based in the eastern city of Tobruk. He controls half of the country and is trying to take the capital Tripoli to achieve legitimacy for his rule.
The strongman, who enjoys the support of France, Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, among other nations, announced that he was cancelling the visit at the last minute, undermining the Italian conference. The general objected to the presence of Qatar, the backer of the Islamist faction of the UN-recognized government in Tripoli, which Haftar accuses of supporting radical jihadists against whom he is fighting.
However, Italian PM Conte hasn’t lost all hope and said he still expected Haftar to come.
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