Libyan oil chief said to have defected

Shokri Ghanem, the chairman of the Libyan National Oil Corporation, has left the country for Tunisia, in what is being called by the Libyan rebels and the British foreign office a defection.

Two days ago, Libyan officials were denying the story, but Moussa Ibrahim, Libyan government spokesperson, has said he had not managed to contact Mr Ghanem on the phone since Monday night, when speculation about his defection had already begun.

Mr Ibrahim added that, even if Mr Ghanem had defected, it would not be a “big deal” and would be “his decision”. He added that high-ranking regime officials had defected before. “We are not relying on any one individual,” he said.

Assuming Ghanem has defected, it is not a huge surprise. He was generally seen as a reformer within the Libyan regime, and had been critical of the government’s increasing oil nationalism. The FT’s Carola Hoyos wrote back in 2009:

Mr Ghanem has in the past months found himself at odds with Libya’s power elite. Though it was he who suggested Libya pre-empt the sale of Verenex, the small Canadian oil company with assets in Libya, to CNPC of China, he strongly opposed Libya’s subsequent insistence that it acquire Verenex at a cut-rate price.

Verenex has announced that CNPC had pulled out of the deal after Libya refused to give it the go-ahead. As Mr Ghanem had feared, this has left many western executives questioning whether the country’s investment climate was any longer worth the risk.

More recently, Ghanem was seen in London, hobnobbing with western executives at last year’s Oil and Money conference, putting his urbane charm to effective use. His networking skills and sense of ease with his surroundings were obvious.

Then, when war broke out in Libya, he appeared to cut through the Gaddafi administration’s spin with the remarkably honest assessment that the country’s oil production had fallen from 1.6m barrels a day to less than 400,000. The markets hastily updated their calculations: analysts believed what he was saying. And presuming he was right, he would have been under enormous personal pressure from the Gaddafi regime to get the oil flowing again.

So if Ghanem has defected, the only surprise is that it didn’t happen sooner.

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