After Turkey signed the “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Maritime Delimitation” with Libya’s Government of National Accord, Libya once again came to the forefront of the world’s political agenda. Just as with similarly hydrocarbon-rich countries, the riches that result from these natural resources have not exactly brought prosperity to the nation. Global and regional powers, with the USA at the helm, have long been working to capture the oil and gas riches under the pretense of “rebuilding the country.”

Tripoli which was first established by the Phoenicians back in 7th century BC, was conquered by the Ottomans in 1551 thanks to the naval efforts of Turgut Reis and the admiral in chief, Sinan Pasha. The region fell into Italian hands in 1911-12, and into French and British control in 1942. The Cyrenaica region to the east and Tripoli belonged to the British whereas Fezzan was taken over by the French.

Libya finally became an independent state in 1951. And in 1956, they gave hydrocarbon exploration and development licenses to two USA companies. The first discovery was in 1959. Then, in 1961, the then-king Idris el-Senusi opened a 166 km pipeline that, for the first time, began transporting Libyan oil to the Mediterranean. The country was heavily incentivizing foreign investments back then. The oil fields in the country were mostly in the inner regions of the country where the population was low. The oil was being transported northward to export terminals and to the Bayof Sirte. Later on, further delivery points were established in Zawia in the west and Tobruk in the east(1)

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The reign of Qaddafi was a whole different matter for Libya. Soner Yalçın’s opinion piece published on January 15, 2020 in Turkish newspaper Sözcü summarizes the era as such: “The Free Officers Movement which was led by Muammar Qaddafi took the opportunity of King Idris’ (who had the support of the West) vacation in Turkey, and succeeded in a rather peaceful coup d’etat and declared the constitution of the Libyan Arab Republic. The revolution had run on promises of “freedom, socialism and unity.” The new government’s first order of business was to nationalize all the British and Italian oil based assets in the country.

The country’s GDP soared from $3.8B in 1969 to $13.7B in 1974 and to $24.5B in 1979. During that decade, the standard of living in Libya rose considerably with per capita income rising from 1951’s $40 to 1979’s $8.170.”

When Libya won its independence on December 24, 1951 it was one of the world’s poorest and underdeveloped countries. The population was under 1.5 million out of which more than 90% were illiterate. Only 7 years prior, Libya had 7 high schools and no universities. Under Qaddafi’s rule, literacy rate rose to 87% with a quarter of the population having college degrees.

Oil Reserves And Production

Libya’s oil reserves are at 48.4 billion barrels which makes up for 2.8% of the world’s total(2). Their natural gas reserves are 1.4 trillion cubic meters. Back in 1970, Libya used to produce up to 3 millions barrels of crude oil. That number diminished as low as 1.5 million barrels during the 1990’s. According to Oxford Institute of Energy, the reasons for that drop were both the nationalization of oil companies and the reactions against this policy as well as economic embargo adopted by the west on the pretext of terror. It was only after Qaddafi admitted Libya’s role in the bombing of Lockerbie and agreed to pay compensation for those who lost their lives that these embargos were removed. “… on 21 December 1988, a Pan Am flight from London to New York exploded over Lockerbie, a town in the south of Scotland. … Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi was accused and sentenced to life with planning the bombing though he always insisted he was innocent.”(3)

Libya’s oil production which was 1.88 million barrels per day in 2008, fell as low as 516,000 in 2011 just prior to Qadddafi’s death during the time of foreign influenced turmoil. Afterwards the oil output more or less depended on the conflicts within the country and fluctuated at around 1 million barrels.

How The Oil Industry Is Governed

All activities regarding crude oil and natural gas in Libya during Qaddafi rule were run by the National Oil Company (NOC). The NOC has two subsidiaries: Sirte Oil Company and Arabian Gulf Oil Company, Agaco). These companies, next to their regular businesses, also run service companies, refinery ventures and other activities that are run together with partner companies (as joint ventures). Some of the service and refinery companies are: Brega Petroleum Marketing, Jowfe Oil Technology, National Drilling and Workover Company, North African Geophysical, Petro Air (which services the airlines industry), Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Processing Company, Taknia Libya Engineering and Zawia Oil refining Company. The Joint Venture (JV) companies (NOC-Foreign companies) are: Akakus Oil Operations, Harouge Oil Operations, Libyan Emirates Refining Company, Mabruk Oil Operations, Mellitah Oil and Gas, Nafusa Oil Operations, Waha Oil Company, Zueitina Oil Company.

Libya’s oil production recovered in 2012, however it is still much below than the peak production level of 1970 (around 3.3 million barrels a day) and even much below compared to those levels before the internal turmoil. Oil production continues with fluctuations with blockades on export terminals and the fight between centers of power in the country.

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The NOC continues to be the main authority overseeing Libya’s oil and natural gas industry. However, since Libya currently has mainly two competing parties claiming to rule the country (the first led by el Sarrac-Government of National Accord and the other by Halifa Hafter-Libyan National Army). The NOC tries to operate in a balance between these powers and maintain an independent status. However it seems to be really a very difficult target to achieve if not impossible. For example, the Tobruk-based LNA administration tried in 2015 to establish its own NOC. During 2016–18 period, the control of the Gulf of Sirte export terminals was repeatedly fought over by the LNA and Tripoli based GNA. To make the equation more complicated, we also have local militias or more formally based Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) trying to hold the control of oil production, the pipelines and export terminals together with the LNA and GNA.

Foreign Companies in Libyan Oil Sector

The exploration and Production Sharing Agreements during Qaddafi period were under the authority of the NOC. “From 1986 to 2005, the NOCpreserved the concessions and rights owned by the Oasis Consortium of US oil companies (Amerada Hess, Conoco, and Marathon). However they were prohibited from operating in Libya by US sanctions” and not by the Qaddafiadministration. In the early 2000s, Qaddafi encouraged new exploration and through new bidding rounds, ‘new-comer’ companies like CNPC (China),ONGC (India), Petrobras (Brasil), Statoil (Norway), and Woodside Petroleumsigned agreements to invest in the Libyan hydrocarbon sector. The major foreign oil companies operating in Libya between 2000 and 2011 can be listed as BP, Chevron, CNPC, Eni, Marathon, Occidental, OMV, Repsol, Shell,Statoil, Total ve Wintershall.

Currently, oil produced in Libya is shared between the NOC and the foreign oil companies under the framework of Production Sharing Agreements. The most active foreign company in Libya since 1959 is ENI of Italy average daily production was around 302,000 barrels in 2018. The company has 5 onshore and 2 offshore licenses and in general holds a stake of 50% in its JVagreements with the NOC.

Another major player is TOTAL of France which has been operating in Libya since 1950. TOTAL controls a 75% share in Al Jurf offshore license area (on the border between Libya and Tunusia) as well as a 16.33% stake in the Wahl field which it had took over from Marathon Oil Company. Another share-holder in Waha field is Conoco and the remaining stakes belong to the NOC.

Other fields in which TOTAL is share-holder are: El Sharara (onshore; 30%share), Murzuk Basin (Blocks: 130/131; 24 %).

There are no activities currently in Mabruk area due to the heightened conflict in the area. The other oil companies in Libya whose production is around 250,000 barrels per day each are: Repsol (Spain), OMV )Austria). The others with lower production are Equinor (Norway), Rosneft, Gazprom(Russia), Wintershall (Germany), Harogue (Veba Oil), Occidental and Petro-Canada.

The table below summarizes the oil export terminals, refineries, oilfields and operators currently in Libya:

Source: Department of Energy (

A quick glance at this table and the international companies in there, is enough to make sense of the ongoing turmoil and the real players causing that turmoil in Libya. Any efforts to label the current situation as a “civil war” is nothing more than asserting ignorance about Libya’s role and potential in global hydrocarbon production, or worse, turning a blind eye on the real actors (puppeteers) that are causing havoc behind the scenes.

If we analyze and try to evaluate Turkey’s latest steps in the Eastern Mediterranean in the light of the above mentioned facts and developments, it all comes together. When Turkey signed the MOU) for Maritime Delimitation with the GNA which is the recognized government by the UN, it strengthened its hand while causing panic among the opposing actors like Greece and Greek Cypriots in the region. This step can be considered as an appropriate and just answer to Greece/GCASC’s “thesis” that assign islands like Crete and Kastellorizo (Meis) Economic Exclusive Zones(EEZ) that are much larger than the territories of those islands themselves.

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In fact, the littoral states suffer from a loss of large areas of EEZs because of the deals they’ve signed with Greece and GCASC which are void unless Turkey signs them as well. If, instead they would sign fair, just EEZ deals under the principles of equity with Turkey, these countries will enjoy significantly larger EEZs: Libya would gain 39,000 km2 additional EEZ area, while Egypt would gain 21,500 km2, Israel4,600 km2 and Lebanon 3,950 km2. What brings them together against Turkey is their various reactions against Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy. However, the result is a loss of thousands of square kilometers EEZ area which is against their national interests.

Turkey would benefit a lot if it also focuses on this (win-win) issue when negotiating with the littoral states of the Eastern Mediterranean. If Turkey could also carefully re-design its foreign policy and try to base its relations on its common interests with those parties.

When talking about “Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean”, it is necessary to comment on the strategic role of Turkey’s national oil company Turkish Petroleum(TP), since it is one of the cornerstones of Turkey’s Eastern Mediterranean policy. While the strategic steps of buying one exploration (Barbaros) and two deep-sea drilling vessels (Fatih & Yavuz), are positive and game-changing operations by TP, its personnel and management policies are causing risks and weakness. In the recent years, a significant number of experienced earth science engineers had been forced for retirement due to the government’s privatization targets. Each deep-sea well is worth a few hundred million dollars and needs qualified/experienced personnel to decide on the best location and perform the hi-tech operations in a safe and successful way. Turkish Petroleum management should re-consider its management policy and to restructure the company as a vertically-integrated company instead of disintegrating it for privatization. Joint ventures with major oil companies should also be a strategic priority for Turkish Petroleum for the new wells that the company plans to drill in 2020.

Any new deep-sea well to be drilled by Fatih and Yavuz the deep-sea drilling vessels with the guidance of the data generated by the experienced staff of Barbaros andOruc Reis exploration vessels will fundamentally change the Eastern Mediterraneandebacle in Turkey’s and TRNC’s favor. With these capable vessels and 5 deep-sea wells drilled in the claimed maritime waters of Turkey and TRNC, the game has already changed in favor of Turkey. An important step to achieve this is to re-employ the superannuated but qualified technical team that has a deep technical knowledge of the region. Turkish Petroleum must also actively try and employ earth scientists from TRNC as well. Turkey’s Eastern Mediterranean exploration and drilling operations will extremely benefit a lot from such a technical contribution. Purchasing those vessels had been a successful and strategic decision. However, vessels cannot find the best locations for potential hydrocarbon reserves by themselves and they cannot drill for those locations without experienced and national staff operating them. As Montaigne put it: “No wind favors he who has no destined port.”

(1); Oil and Gas in a New Libyan Era
(2)BP Statistical Review of World Energy, June 20193