Tug of war between US, UAE and Russia over Libya’s oil blockade as the US threatens sanctions
The fluid and complex web of relationships, interests and agendas surrounding the oil blockade in Libya have been further exposed this week as the NOC lifted force majeure on 10 July before being forced to reinstate it on 12 July. It was a call on 9 July from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar which resulted in the LNA agreeing to lift the blockade, and it is believed to be counter-pressure from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia which led to the LNA reinstating the blockade on 11 July, calling for an audit of the Central Bank of Libya (CBL). On 12 July, the NOC said that Haftar’s forces had been instructed to re-shut down production by the UAE and called for the states responsible to be held to account by the United Nations Security Council. It said that Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and Syrian mercenaries now occupy Sidra oil port and that Wagner and Sudanese mercenaries are camped within the vicinity of the Sharara oil field, preventing Libyan oil from flowing. Local sources confirmed that additional Sudanese deployments to Sharara occurred on 9 and 11 July.
On 12 July, the US Embassy to Libya said that these ‘disappointing’ actions would not deter the Embassy from its commitment to work with ‘responsible Libyan institutions’ such as the Government of National Accord (GNA) and the House of Representatives (HoR) to protect Libya’s sovereignty, achieve a lasting ceasefire, and support a Libyan consensus on the transparent management of oil and gas revenues. Furthermore, it threatened that ‘those who undermine Libya’s economy and cling to military escalation will face isolation and risk of sanctions.’ The UAE, Russia and Saudi Arabia likely want to ensure that Libyan oil remains offline at present, and that if it is reopened, it is only under their terms. The notable uptick in direct US engagement in the oil blockade, through Pompeo’s call to Haftar and the threat of sanctions, suggests that the US may be willing to exert serious, sustained pressure in order to force an end to the blockade. However, without a comprehensive, workable agreement around oil revenues, financial transparency, and security provision at the fields, in addition to broader ceasefire and political roadmap agreements, it is hard to see how any deal could be sustainable for more than a few weeks, even if sanctions are enforced. Furthermore, it is still far from clear that this recent flurry of US engagement would translate into sanctions or other pressure levers being enforced against the international ring leaders of the blockade, especially given the prominent role of the UAE – a close ally of Trump. If US pressure is brought to bear in the coming days, then it remains possible that a fresh deal to lift the oil blockade will be struck in the immediate term. However, at present, it looks unlikely.