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Oil, Arms and the Imperial Enterprise in North Africa

The Business of Business in Libya

by TARECQ AMER

Another North African country is in the throes of revolution, causing yet more confusion and consternation among western leaders. One can only imagine the chagrin these Europeans and U.S. American progenitors of universal morals feel as they woke up only to see another despotic investment (this time in the form of odd-ball dictator Muammar Qaddafi) fall to the wrath of his people. Money at risk, investments troubled, and cultivated relationships strained all under the hue and cry of popular uprisings that challenge the very foundations of neo-liberal capitalism. There is a clear and protracted state of confusion going on amongst these leaders. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (again) tries in vain to find the safest words to meet the moment of fury in the streets of Libya while not straying too far from the corporate demands for stability at any cost. Her boss, President Obama, hides away on Presidents’ Day perhaps hoping that by tomorrow all this will have gone away and he can get back to soaring speeches and mesmerized crowds.

Alas, that is unlikely. The violence unleashed upon the people of Libya, in the streets of Benghazi, Tripoli, al Baida and beyond, could very well make Libya a long-term dilemma for Washington. The people who have suffered through four decades of psychotically messianic rule are not likely to forget the meek (and in some instances downright offensive) statements of the U.S.A. and Europe calling for restraint while fighter jets were dropping bombs on their heads.

But the stakes are high at this point and go well beyond the shores of Tripoli. Firstly, key member states of the European Union have made hefty investments in Libya in the last few years and there isn’t a strong desire to have these investments disturbed. With moves over the last decade to be re-admitted into the so-called global community, Qaddafi’s Libya has caught the attention of nations and business. The 2004 application to the World Trade Organization, odd diplomatic feints such as suggesting a combined Jewish-Palestinian state called Isratine, and political posturing calling for a unified African nation are Qaddafi’s attempts to move Libya away from its revolutionary image of the 1970s and 1980s.

Secondly, natural resources have facilitated these rebranding attempts. Libya’s vast oil reserves make it a critical player globally simply because any interruption in supply would have a dramatic ripple effect on economies worldwide. Indeed, we are already beginning to see this at the gas-pump. And lastly, though he may be a disdainful bed partner, to send Qaddafi out the door now would simply add confidence to popular movements in more acceptable client states, thereby leading to the instability (also known as representative rule) that our Secretary of State so clearly dreads. This, at any rate, was the logic that seemed to guiding the brooding diplomats of the United States and Europe until a few days ago. There is likely to be a significant change of course simply because the level of carnage has exceeded the level of acceptability and could prove to be a far more destabilizing factor. That aside, let’s now take a look at some key examples that highlight the once enviable position of Muammar Qaddafi in the geopolitical arena.

Italy currently receives 20% of its total oil imports from their former North African colony. This fact alone explains the despicable action of the Italian government over the last three days, as well as its willingness to be as evasive in condemning Qaddafi’s violence as their prime minister is in letting the world know why he has a penchant for paying underage prostitutes for sex. Just days ago, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, echoing the words of comfort given by his Prime Minister to Qaddafi, stated, "We should not give the wrong impression of wanting to interfere, of wanting to export our democracy. We have to help, we have to support the peaceful reconciliation."

Perhaps, hearkening back to the brutal days of Italian colonial expeditions in Libya, he forgot that people rarely seek peaceful reconciliation with those who are comfortable with mowing down fellow citizens with 50 caliber machine gun rounds. Now granted, the Italians are apt to take a not-too-terribly-clever passive stance if for no other reason than they have a lot of money riding on the survival of Qaddafi. Oil imports at that scale make a brutal strongman an asset, if he is able to keep the oil flowing. That, though, is the ultimate unknown and we may well see Signor Frattini change his song before long as tribes in the oil-rich south of Libya begin to side with anti-government protesters, thereby threatening oil production.

Now to Britain. First on the list of Britain’s new love affair with the Qaddafi regime is the central role of oil. In recent times, former Prime Minister Tony Blair has become something of a Qaddafi fan, with multiple visits with the Madman of North Africa over the past few years, including one that was splashed all over the British headlines in June of last year. What Blair has been up to hasn’t fully come to light, but his moves vis a vis the Libyan regime were certainly pleasing to the Board of British Petroleum. Lest we forget, Libya has some of the largest oil reserves on the African continent and the prospect of untethered access to them made the mouths of Big Oil water. For four decades, Qaddafi maintained a nationalized oil extraction and production industry, filling the coffers of the leader and his acolytes. But with the 21st Century came an attempted neo-liberal regime facelift. Three years ago, BP signed a substantial exploration deal with the Qaddafi regime, totaling 900 million USD. This was one of the first of many corporate deals that made western liberal democracies giddy with excitement. The flamboyant defender of the Palestinian cause was shedding the clothes of barbarism and coming to the light of free markets. Big oil now had access to huge reserves; lots and lots of money was to be had. This rapture has come to a screeching halt in the past few days. Odds are that BP executives have joined western leaders and diplomats in sweating bullets over the Libyan events. Strongman Qaddafi was a dream for them. His odd, cultish ways aside, he was meant to be a man who knew how to hold his people in check and did so quite well for 42 years.

These are the characteristics of a leader well suited for the rapacious bottom-feeders of global capital. But they also demand that the ugliness of business be kept tightly under wraps. In this regard, Qaddafi has failed spectacularly.

And then, of course, there are the arms traders. Since its formation, the Cameron government has had an arms dealers’ version of a tupper-ware party with the Middle East’s less savory dictators, including the selling of crowd control weapons to Libya. Here is the list of some lethal toys sold to Libya by the British, as reported by The Independent on February 18th: tear gas; crowd control and small arms ammunition; ammunition for wall- and door-breaching projectile launchers. Also included in the list was military infrared and thermal imaging equipment, which one may suspect have been used by mercenary snipers to target unarmed protesters over the past five nights.
Qaddafi’s brutality towards his subject may have sealed his fate, though.

Recent history has shown that Big Oil and western governments have a strong stomach for mercenaries, violence, and cruelty for the preservation of profits. But Heaven forefend that these acts come to light. Reports of fighter jets unleashed on the people of Libya and mercenaries roaming the capital expose the mockery that is European values. As these stories find their way to the webpages of Al Jazeera, the BBC, and CNN, we may see considerably stronger rhetoric and action coming from the houses of power in the west, all signs that Qaddafi has become bad for business. This, of course, doesn’t mean that the struggle for justice in Libya is close to being over. Instead, they may have to fend off attempts to replace the Madman of North Africa with a slightly more constrained and manageable strongman.

TARECQ AMER is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of California, Davis and can be reached at tmamer@ucdavis.edu.