HomeNewsThe human cost of defending Libya’s oil

The human cost of defending Libya’s oil

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Abdula Altako was killed in March guarding the oil field he worked for, one of the first, but by no means the last of Libya’s oil workers to die defending the country’s lifeblood.

Abandoned by their foreign owners during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, the fields have been watched over by local workers aiming to deter looters and prevent facilities from falling into disrepair.

Altako, who worked for private German oil and gas company Wintershall, was starting his morning guard shift when he was ambushed and shot dead in his car.

“We have a lot of patriots protecting fields. I signed orders that sent engineers out that ended up dying,” interim Oil and Finance minister Ali Tarhouni said in an interview.

Tarhouni credits the heroism of ordinary Libyans for the fact that the industry is returning to normal faster than expected. But the sacrifice will come to nothing if oil firms are not prepared to send foreign workers back.

Libya is reliant on oil for about 80% of its gross domestic product, exporting around 1,3 million barrels of oil per day before the war. Other potential sources of wealth — a neglected tourism industry and unexploited mineral reserves in the south — will take time to develop.

Almost all of Libya’s estimated $170 billion in assets are still frozen despite sweeping pledges to make funds available and the country is desperate for cash.

It is little wonder then that there are still many Libyans prepared to make dangerous journeys to isolated areas of the vast Saharan desert, accompanied by squads of rebel fighters or simply armed locals, to evaluate the damage inflicted by the war and to carry out essential repairs.

“Makes sense really; no point in getting rid of the regime if you’re not willing to then do what it takes to repair the damage to the economy (and) oil sector,” said Zara Rahman, a researcher at OpenOil, an organisation that promotes transparency in the oil industry.

Rahman spent a week in October interviewing oil workers at different companies in Libya for an OpenOil report.

“Given the high level of education that is required to have any sort of position in the oil sector, they’re all educated enough to realise that the oil sector is what drives the Libyan economy,” she said.

But there are still few signs foreign oil firms are prepared to take the plunge.

Oil companies are still mainly visible only in hotel lobbies in the form of security contractors hired to assess infrastructure and monitor threats to security.

The first step no doubt, but it is only a tentative move.

The few foreign engineers here are understandably rattled by the constant ring of gunfire even in supposedly peaceful areas like Tripoli, where gun battles between rebels and pockets of Gaddafi loyalists erupted in four districts only a week ago.

Anti-aircraft rocket launchers and machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks across the capital and fighters brandishing AK-47s at every turn do little to soothe worries about further outbreaks of violence.

Foreigners are also disgruntled about a perceived build-up in tension within the new government and between tribes, and some are preparing for the worst.

“They put a lot of pressure on us to come back. But you’ll see, in a month we’ll be gone again,” said one Italian engineer, one of the first to be sent back by the foreign oil company he works for.

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