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Italy inks gas deals with Libya's contested government

January 29, 2023

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has signed a gas deal worth billions on a visit to Libya. The plan is for Italian and Libyan energy giants to jointly develop two offshore gas fields.

This handout picture provided by the Italian Government Press Office shows Prime Minister of the Libyan Government of National Unity Abdelhamid Dbeibah receiving Italian Prime Minister Giiorgia Meloni during her visit in Tripoli, Libya, 28 January 2023.
Meloni struck the deal with Libya's Western-supported government in Tripoli, which does not control the whole countryImage: Filippo Attili/Italian Government Press Office/ANSA/picture alliance

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited Tripoli on Saturday for talks with the internationally-recognized government in the Libyan capital.

She became the first Western leader to visit the government in Libya since it missed its late 2021 target to hold national elections amid political turmoil in the country.

Major offshore gas deal signed

During the visit, the two countries' oil companies signed a gas deal worth around $8 billion (roughly €7.5 billion), calling it the largest single investment in Libya's energy sector in more than two decades. 

Italy's ENI and the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) plan to cooperate on the construction of two offshore gas fields off Libya's northern coast. ENI said in a statement that output would begin in 2026 and reach a plateau of 750 million cubic feet per day. 

ENI CEO Claudio Descalzi and NOC chairman Farhat Begdara signed the deal at a ceremony also attended by Meloni and the head of Libya's UN-brokered but contested national unity government, Abdel Hamid Dbeibah.

"This agreement will enable important investments in Libya's energy sector, contributing to local development and job creation while strengthening ENI's role as a leading operator in the country," Descalzi said. 

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Interim Prime Minister of Libya Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh hold a joint press conference after attending a signing ceremony of the agreement between Italian oil and natural gas company, Eni and Libyan National Oil Corporation in Tripoli, Libya on January 28, 2023.
Libya's oil minister was notable in his absence from the gas deal press conferenceImage: Hazem Turkia/AA/picture alliance

Meloni called the deal "significant and historic," saying "Libya is clearly for us a strategic economic partner." 

Like several other European countries, Italy has been looking for alternative sources of gas and oil, having relied in the past on purchases from Russia until the sanctions following Moscow's invasion of Ukraine. Meloni was also in Algeria, penning similar gas deals, earlier in the week. 

Libyan oil minister questions the deal

But Saturday's deal showed rifts in the rival Libyan administrations in the east and west, as had previous oil deals between Tripoli and Ankara. 

The rival government in the east considers the Tripoli government illegitimate and by extension the commercial deals it strikes with foreign states as well. 

For most of the past decade, rival governments in Tripoli and in the east of the country have been vying for control since the NATO-backed uprising that ousted dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

But even within Dbeibah's government, Oil Minister Mohamed Aoun did not attend the signing ceremony on Saturday and criticized the deal as "illegal" on local television, saying that the NOC did not consult with his ministry. 

The NOC's Bengdara did not address the criticism directly but said those who rejected the deal could challenge it in court.

Security tight, government's grip looser

Meloni landed at Mitiga airport, the only functioning airport in Tripoli at present, amid tight security. Her foreign and interior ministers, Antonio Tajani and Matteo Piantedosi, accompanied her. 

She met with the leader of the UN-brokered government Dbeiba and held talks with Mohamed Younis Menfi, who chairs Libya's ceremonial presidential council. 

Echoing comments she had made in Algeria, Meloni said that while Italy wanted to increase its presence in the region, it was not seeking a "predatory" role but rather wanted to help African nations "grow and become richer." 

High-ranking diplomatic visits to Africa have been in sharp focus recently, not least as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made a pair of tours of the continent and as the US then sent a delegation of its own, with President Joe Biden planning to visit later.

A BASF oil facility in Libya
Despite years of instability, Western oil and gas companies have been investing in Libya and off its coast for decadesImage: Peer Grimm/picture alliance/dpa

Boats pledged to Libyan coast guard

Interior Minister Piantedosi's presence on the visit was seen as a nod to Meloni's other likely priority in Libya, migration. 

The right-wing leader campaigned last year promising a tougher line on people arriving on Italian territory from Libya, often trafficked by people smugglers. In 2022, Italy recorded more than 100,000 migrant landings. 

Italy's Interior Ministry had been spearheading the government's crackdown on charity rescue boats operating off Libya

At a joint news conference with Meloni, Dbeibah said that Italy would provide Libya's coast guard with five "fully equipped" boats to help stem the flow of migrants to European shores.

Activist groups criticized the plan. 

"While this is nothing new, it is worrying," the Alarm Phone rescue NGO said in a statement to the Associated Press. "This will inevitably lead to more people being abducted at sea and forced to return to places they had sought to escape from."

msh/sri (AFP, AP, Reuters)