Shukri Ghanem: Qadhafi’s ‘No Man’
Former Libyan oil tsar Shukri Ghanem was found dead, floating in the Danube in Vienna early on 29 April. He was 69. A prominent reformer and academic, Dr Ghanem was the architect of Libya’s 2005-07 exploration bonanza and as prime minister (2003-06) spearheaded an (albeit ultimately futile) effort to seriously reform the Libyan economy. Report by Rafiq Latta.
Dr Ghanem’s legacy is a controversial one. A protégé of Saif al-Islam, son of former dictator Mu΄ammar al-Qadhafi and one-time promoter of reform, Dr Ghanem was dogged by accusations of corruption following his defection from Libya last May (accusations he strenuously rebutted). Critics slam him for providing a liberal veneer to what was a brutal dictatorship and in doing so, contributing in prolonging the life of the regime. A regime insider Dr Ghanem undoubtedly was, but he was never a mere ‘yes man’. He was not afraid of speaking out, even if this endangered his own political position.
This was a shocking end to a colorful and high-profile life. Results of a final toxicology report will not be out for a few days, but a preliminary police report points to death by drowning, with no suggestion of wrongdoing. Dr Ghanem had been suffering from ill-health – one source says heart problems. He could well have died a natural death. But he had no shortage of enemies, both among the old regime and the new Libyan government. He also certainly knew a lot of secrets. An e-mail sent to a friend in March talked of the “many enemies who are after me.” Dr Ghanem simply was not the type to commit suicide, several friends stress. Certainly, he was on sparkling form and appeared happy with his new life in Vienna, when this reporter met him last December. Then he mentioned that he was working on writing his memoirs and that these would prove revealing.
Born in Tripoli, of a middle class background, Dr Ghanem studied economics at the University of Libya in Benghazi in 1963. Natural self-confidence and ambition marked him out an early stage. “I got to know him in the 1960s,” notes one friend. “And what stood out from the beginning was his hunger; he was hungry for big position, for big money.”
After spells working at the Ministry of Economy and the official Libyan news agency, he went to the US to pursue higher education, obtaining an economics doctorate from Tufts University in 1975. He taught at the London School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the early 1980s. But it was his appointment as OPEC’s Head of Research in 1993 that put him under the spotlight for the first time. He returned to Libya in 2001 as Minister for Economy and Trade before being appointed Secretary General of the General People’s Committee, or Prime Minister, in June 2003.
Dr Ghanem was prime minister at a critical time for Libya, with the US’s Lockerbie sanctions lifted and the country opening up to international investment. Essentially a technocrat, Dr Ghanem lacked heavyweight tribal or military backing. And when Saif al-Islam’s star waned somewhat in 2006, conservatives ousted him. Given the dysfunctional nature of the Qadhafi regime, genuine reform was probably always going to be ‘mission impossible’. But in retrospect, his removal was a huge mistake on the part of the regime. And the failure to allow Dr Ghanem to implement his planned ‘perestroika’ lost the regime a last, admittedly slim, chance to escape a violent overthrow.
Dr Ghanem remained probably Libya’s most respected politician internationally even after his ouster. And arguably his biggest contribution to his country came after this period, when as chairman of state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC) he pushed through a new competitively bid upstream regime, called EPSA-4. This proved a master-stroke. In four bidding rounds from 2005 to 2007, tens of international oil explorers took stakes in over 60 blocks, under paradigm-shattering tough commercial terms. EPSA-4 was a watershed, and not just for the local oil sector. It encouraged other producers to hold out for better terms and subsequent upstream offerings in Angola and Nigeria confirmed that a wider transformation was taking place in the commercial relationship between producing countries and the international industry.
Clearly Dr Ghanem was not solely responsible for the auction’s success. The EPSA-4 contract drew on terms pioneered by Algeria a few years earlier and its attraction owed much to changes in the oil price and a lack of opportunities elsewhere. Its ultra-tough terms have seen many foreign operators subsequently decline to develop discoveries and seek to renegotiate contracts. Nevertheless, Libyan critics of Dr Ghanem should be aware that the huge benefits their country has, and will have for years to come, in terms of oil revenues and advantageous contracts are due in no small part to the beret-wearing former economics professor. As prime minister he struggled manfully to diversify the economy and strongly championed a push to broaden education and training for Libyans. He could rightfully claim credit for making an important contribution to Libya’s post-2003 economic revival.
Yet for all his accomplishments, Dr Ghanem’s is a difficult legacy. The politicization of the legal process since the revolution makes current accusations of graft from Libya’s new rulers hard to assess. But Dr Ghanem did become independently wealthy through consultancies, prior to becoming prime minister, sources say. Family members did benefit from his position. His son holds a senior position at Bahrain-based First Energy Bank, a key Qadhafi-backed bank. His son-in-law is CEO of Netherlands-based Palladyne International Asset Investment, which received funds from the Libyan Investment Authority. Two daughters at one time worked for Libyan upstream investors OMV and RWE-Dea. While these are not definitive proof of corruption, they do suggest the potential for conflicts of interest.
Dr Ghanem was a slightly vain and sometimes difficult personality. Even friends concede he could be a demanding and often autocratic boss. But ‘Shukri’, who incidentally was the only minister widely referred to by his first name, was also a charming, talented and very warm man. A few years ago, on one of the interminable journalist stake-outs in Vienna, I polled my colleagues as to which OPEC oil minister they would most want to go on holiday with. Shukri was the clear winner. He was extremely generous with his time, frequently going above and beyond the call of duty to speak to journalists. On more than one occasion a Shukri interview rescued an OPEC meeting for me professionally. He will be missed.
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