It’s Complicated

ISIS Could Cost Italy Billions In Libyan Oil Profits

Historically, Italy and Libya have had a cozy relationship, but as Libya unravels under the threat of ISIS, their bond with Italy is unraveling too. Billions of dollars in oil profits are caught in the crossfire.

02.20.15 6:31 PM ET

ROME — Italy and Libya’s codependent relationship goes back to the Roman Empire, when Libyan-born Septimius Severus became the empire’s first African emperor.  A massive triumphal arch bearing his name still towers over the ruins of the Roman Forum. Libya was under Italy’s colonial rule from 1910 to 1947, and after that, the two countries built a cozy alliance that further flourished in 1959 when Italy helped develop Libya’s oil industry, of which Italian companies still have stakes worth billions of euro.

In 2008, Berlusconi and Gaddafi signed an “eternal friendship” pact between the two nations, whereby Italy would be forgiven for massacring thousands of Libyans during colonial rule in exchange for an investment of $5 billion for Libyan’s infrastructure, including building a highway that would span across the desert from Tunisia to Egypt. Of course, Silvio Berlusconi and Muammar Gadaffi were much more than just political partners.  After all, Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga rituals were said to come straight out of Gadaffi’s playbook.

At the time of the 2008 treaty, Italy relied on Libya for 25 percent of its oil and gas needs, importing some 1.6 million barrels of oil a day.  A few years later, Italian oil company Eni promised to invest $25 billion in their extensive oil operations. Under Gaddafi, the Libyan government even made an offer to buy a stake in Eni. 

In 2011, as Gaddafi fell and Arab Spring raged, Italy was forced to turn its back on Libya, instead siding with its European allies.  The relationship continues to falter in response to the growing unrest in Libya. Italy has been slowly decreasing its import levels and has turned to Russia and the Ukraine to meet their other oil and gas needs.

Still, Italy continues to have much to lose in Libya, and Eni remains heavily invested in the country. On Friday, Eni announced that the last of its Italian nationals would be brought back to Italy amid concerns that ISIS will take Italian workers hostage. Only Eni’s offshore oil platforms are currently staffed by Italian staff, and those are still producing oil.  Many of the oil fields in the Libyan desert are ceasing production either due to attacks on the pipelines or out of concern that ISIS fighters will take over, which costs Eni millions of euro every day. The oil fields remain heavily guarded despite a string of strikes by the security guards who complain that their salaries have not been paid in months. 

Italy also has other investments in Libya to worry about.  In 2009, Italy’s aerospace and defense company Finmeccanica entered into a lucrative €250 million deal to cooperate on aerospace projects in the Middle East and Africa. The deal has fallen by the wayside, but Finmeccanica still has considerable money and assets tied up in the country, including a factory built in 2013 to set up a satellite surveillance system meant to help monitor Libyan borders. The project was meant to launch by the end of 2014, which obviously has not happened.

The current chaos may be bad for Italy, but the damage goes both ways.  Without Italian import income, the Libyan oil industry stands to suffer.  Writing in Il Sole 24, Alberto Negri asks the question, “Can we do without Libya? Let’s try once to ask the opposite question: can Libya do without us?” 

Negri says that because Italy is the largest oil importer from Libya, an attack or break from Europe would mean a stop in oil revenue, no matter who is controlling the oil industry because the pipelines go straight to Italy.

“This should be one of the concerns of the Libyan factions if they want to count on safe revenues to continue their conflict,” he says.  “Even the jihadists close to the Caliphate may find it difficult to do in Libya what ISIS has done in Syria, taking control of the wells in the east and exporting oil through clandestine pipelines in Turkey and Iraq.”  He says that just isn’t feasible in Libya.

There is also the matter of €2 billion worth of Gadaffi’s frozen assets in Italy, including a fleet of luxury cars, villas and land in islands of Sardinia and Pantelleria, lavish apartments in Milan and Rome and shares in Fiat, Finmeccanica, Eni, Unicredit, Ubae, ABC International Bank, Bank of Emilia Romagna and the Juventus soccer team that is owned by the Agnelli dynasty. 

After the International Criminal Court in the Hague ordered Italy to seize the assets after Gaddafi’s death in October 2011, Italy’s constitutional court is now looking at the matter to determine if they should be liquidated and, if so, what to do with the money.  Last June, the court ruled that the assets should go to the Libyan government, but the Italian foreign ministry said that since there is no legitimate representative of the Libyan government to collect the money and assets, they remain in limbo. Italy’s foreign ministry said in recent statement to The Daily Beast, “No person is entitled to collect the treasure of Gaddafi in Italy.” 

It remains to be seen how long Italy is entitled to its treasures in Libya.