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What this Libyan trip was oil about

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TONY BLAIR's visit to Libya and handshake with its ruler Colonel Muammar Gadaffi got huge publicity last week. Much of the media coverage was whipped up by New Labour's own spin doctors. With Iraq in chaos, Blair is desperate to claim some success for his foreign policy. What better than claiming to have tamed Libya, one of the key 'rogue states'?
Issue 1895

TONY BLAIR’s visit to Libya and handshake with its ruler Colonel Muammar Gadaffi got huge publicity last week. Much of the media coverage was whipped up by New Labour’s own spin doctors. With Iraq in chaos, Blair is desperate to claim some success for his foreign policy. What better than claiming to have tamed Libya, one of the key ‘rogue states’?

In fact the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ Libya is renouncing are pitiful. Until recently the British government regarded these as ‘aspirational’ and were not concerned about them. Britain had been preparing to end sanctions and do deals with Libya long before the ‘war on terror’.

Talks began in the late 1990s. Britain sent an ambassador to Libya in 1999, ending years of diplomatic isolation for the north African country. The British government and its big business friends are motivated by one overarching consideration in Libya-grabbing its vast potential oil wealth. Within hours of Blair’s handshake with Gadaffi the British-based oil multinational Shell announced a huge oil and gas exploration deal with Libya. Shell made clear the deal has been under negotiation for over three years.

Libya has some of the biggest oil and gas reserves in the world, and some of the easiest to extract. For much of the 1970s and 1980s multinational oil firms and other Western businesses were kept out. This was due firstly to Libya nationalising the oil industry. Then in the 1980s Libya was demonised by the US. Both the US and then the United Nations imposed sanctions blocking business with the country. The US and Britain claimed Libya was a rogue state which sponsored terrorism. There is little real evidence of that.

There is also real doubt over Libyan involvement in some high-profile cases which it has admitted ‘general responsibility’ for, such as the 1988 Lockerbie plane bombing.

As well as concern with oil, the 1980s US vendetta against Libya was driven by other factors-the US president Reagan wanting to overcome the legacy of the US defeat in Vietnam in 1975, and the toppling of its crucial Middle East ally the Shah of Iran in 1979.

Reagan wanted to begin the process of making it once more acceptable for the US to use its military power across the world. He started with small fry, invading the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983. Libya was the next on the US list. The US vendetta against Libya culminated in the 1986 barbaric bombing raid aimed at killing Gadaffi. Over 100 people were killed, including Gadaffi’s adopted daughter.

Today both Western governments and Gadaffi are prepared to dance round the truth about who may have carried out particular bombings as they choreograph a return to business as usual.

A poll four years ago of international oil firms saw Libya as their ‘number one preferred location’. Oil wealth also means the country potentially has money to spend and invest. So businesses from civil engineering to arms and weapons suppliers are lining up to grab deals in the wake of Blair’s visit. Others across Europe have also been eyeing opportunities, leading British business to press Blair to normalise relations with Libya for fear they would miss out. They want to get in before the US corporations, who are still barred by the sanctions that their government currently maintains.

Gadaffi himself has been increasingly desperate to come to a deal with Western governments and businesses. He hopes to win investment and technical expertise, without which Libya cannot realise its oil wealth and risks economic stagnation. Signs of economic growth slowing in Libya have already produced political tensions.

In 2002 dozens of black Africans working as immigrant labourers in Libya were killed as economic riots found a scapegoat. Islamist groups also grew in the late 1990s. Gadaffi and those around him have decided that the only way forward is to open up to the world economy. And global corporations are eager to get the spoils.

Figure it out

100 The number of Libyan people killed in the 1986 US bombing raid when they tried to kill Gadaffi

£500m The deal eagerly signed by the Shell oil company with Libya last week during Blair’s visit

Libya’s history

1911 Libya, until then part of Turkish Ottoman Empire, is conquered by Italy.

1942 French and British forces oust Italians from Libya during Second World War. Libya is divided between the French and British.

1951 Libya formally becomes independent under King Idris, but his corrupt government is propped up by US and British military advisers and closely linked to international oil companies.

1969 King Idris is overthrown in a military coup led by Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. Gadaffi pursues independence and economic development using wealth from oil industry which he nationalises.

1970 Libya closes British and US airbases, and nationalises property belonging to Italian colonial settlers.

1970s Gadaffi pursues his philosophy of Arab unity, which he sees as key to allowing Arab countries to assert themselves against powerful Western blocs. But his attempts to unite Libya with other countries, including Egypt, Syria and Tunisia, fail. Gadaffi turns towards USSR for military and technical equipment and expertise.

1981 Beginning of confrontation with US. Libya claims the Gulf of Sirte, which cuts into the country, as its territorial waters. US deliberately flies warplanes over the Gulf. When two Libyan planes confront them the US shoots Libyans down.

1986 US president Ronald Reagan labels Colonel Gadaffi a ‘mad dog’ and a ‘terrorist’. Reagan imposes an economic embargo on Libya. He orders bombing raid in attempt to assassinate Gadaffi.

1988 UN imposes sanctions on Libya after it is accused of blowing up US airliner over the Scottish town of Lockerbie.

1999 Libya hands over two men for trial over the Lockerbie bombing, as European governments and corporations and Gadaffi seek to re-establish trade links. The Libyans are convicted and jailed. Libyan government later pays compensation to victims. Little evidence is ever produced that the men are guilty or that Libya was responsible for the bombing.

2003 UN votes to lift sanctions on Libya. Libya announces it will abandon its ‘weapons of mass destruction’ programmes, which were pitiful.

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