By Matthew M. Reed
Libya and Yemen are fast approaching tipping points that will decide the pace of recovery in one country and the severity of bloodshed in the other.
Libyan oil might be civil war’s newest casualty. Last month I wrote that Qaddafi was the primary threat to Libya’s oil wealth–a no-brainer for sure. My exact words were: “If Qaddafi becomes truly desperate he could try and deny Libya it’s black gold inheritance. This would be a disaster for the new government. Qaddafi is, without a doubt, the primary threat to Libya’s most precious industry–and its future.” At the time, neither side was systematically targeting the industry because both expected to win the war and enjoy the rewards. But in the past few days it’s become clear that Qaddafi is boobytrapping facilities that once kept his regime afloat. Two weeks ago, rebel diplomat Mahmoud Jibril told reporters that Brega—a key oil hub—was a “big minefield,” “full of bombs, explosives.” If accurate, the reports are worrisome because they suggest Qaddafi is willing to take the oil industry hostage.
The tipping point in this case is clear: any damage done to Libya’s most important industry will delay the country’s recovery. Original estimates–now months old–suggested that Libya could return to it’s pre-war output within 12 months of the end of hostilities. Years (plural) might soon be the appropriate measure for the industry’s recovery–not months. Aiding an oil-starved Libya will be the IMF, World Bank, and international community, especially NATO members, all of which will need to draw foreign investment, forgive debts, release or liquidate Qaddafi’s assets (which is a lot trickier than the media makes it sound*), and approve loans. The danger is real and the impact will be felt for years. We’ll know soon what Qaddafi’s true intentions are and what will be expected of the international community if oil is disrupted indefinitely.
*A great deal of Qaddafi’s wealth is wrapped up in property and other investments. Very little is actually hard cash or currency. In order to give the rebels their billions, each country would have to liquidate Qaddafi’s assets. Because he remains in power, and even though many countries have recognized the TNC as the legitimate representative of the Libyan people, governments are not willing to sell off what are truly legitimate investments in many cases.
Government forces are busy in Yemen, perhaps paving the way for Saleh’s return. Government forces have been especially active in the north, south, and west, recently. On July 17, I reviewed the situation there, and my conclusion was grim: if Saleh returned, he would control some of the capital but not much else. Houthi rebels in the north were in control of some or all of four provinces, including Saada, their historic stronghold. In the south, government forces were struggling to reassert their authority in Abyan, a province where Islamist militants had taken Zinjibar, the provincial capital. In the capital and the east of the country, the government was confronted with hostile tribes. That was three weeks ago. Government forces are now on the offensive and the body counts reflect that. Although coordination hasn’t been confirmed, the recent flourish of activity suggests Saleh wants to rule the country, not just the capital.
The south has seen the most violence because the government is, like the US and Saudi Arabia, most worried about Islamists on the march. Other reports show the government cracking down on protests in the west and the capital. A new arrangement reached in the east has pacified tribes for now. Originally the government threatened to take back a key pipeline which was sabotaged by tribal forces in March; the tribes allowed repair crews in this month and Yemeni crude is now online. That said, the terms of the arrangement are unclear and do not address the key vulnerability of Yemeni oil: tribes can turn it off and on according to their private whims, because they control the territory through which vital crude passes through unprotected pipelines. All these moves–be they military or political–point toward Saleh’s return, which could very well result in civil war. Tribal leaders have already threatened it if Saleh returns. And loyalists, most recently Abu Bakr al Qirbi, Yemen’s Foreign Minister, promised civil war would erupt if Saleh was forced from power.
Side note: The Saudis haven’t been able to convert their hospitality (and hospitalization) of Saleh into a political resolution. The GCC transition package–spearheaded by the Saudis–went unsigned thrice because Saleh refused. It’s unclear whether Riyadh has any more patience for him, but, at the same time, there’s no reason to believe they’ll take him hostage either–after all, he is a head of a foreign country. Given these circumstances, it’s entirely possible that Saleh returns even if the Saudis wish otherwise.