Libya is home to the ninth largest oil reserves in the world, as the country’s oil exports represent one of the critical sectors in the nation’s economy. However, political turmoil since Libya’s 2011 revolution, which ousted long-time dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi, has hindered oil production. The slowdown in oil production has seriously harmed economic prospects for Libyan citizens and, in turn, has aggravated the nation’s security situation. Despite five interim governments since the revolution, Libya’s economic and security situation shows no signs of improvement.

Over the last week, a series of youth unemployment protests have threatened to halt production across several oilfields in eastern Libya. On May 23, unemployed youth protesters called on employees at the Waha oilfield in eastern Libya to suspend production, according to the protesters’ spokesperson. The Waha pipeline, operated by a subsidiary of the National Oil Corporation (NOC), pumps some 260,000 barrels per day.

Earlier that week, on May 20, a group of unemployed youths staged protests in the eastern town of Marada, calling on state officials to provide better services, such as healthcare, roads and greater employment opportunities. The group said in statement, “[W]e the youth have decided to shut down all oilfields in Marada … unless all problems are solved urgently,” Reuters reported. The protesters also called on the NOC to hire them.

None of the protests appear to have significantly affected production, which was confirmed by engineers working onsite. Although no major damage occurred, authorities report that they are closely monitoring the situation. Similar protests of unemployed youth have caused pipeline closures in other areas of the country in the past. For example, armed individuals have blown up the Marada pipeline twice since December of 2017. In March of this year, the El Sharara oilfield, with a capacity of 340,000 barrels per day, was closed temporarily when a local landowner shut off a valve in response to pollution from the pipeline contaminating his land. The previous month the El Feel oilfield was evacuated when security guards staged a walkout in protest of low salaries.

These incidents signal the dire economic and security situation in Libya. The ongoing conflict has exacted a heavy toll on the population, as well as the country’s economic growth. In 2010, before the revolutionary upheaval, Libya exported around 1.6 million barrels of oil per day. Since the revolution, however, oil production has declined significantly. Over the last five years, production has hovered around just over 200,000 barrels per day. This represents less than a quarter of Libya’s daily production prior to the Arab uprisings.

Employment prospects for the more than three million Libyans under the age of 30 are also bleak. According to the World Bank, the rate of unemployed youth (aged 15-24) reached 45.9% in 2017. Moreover, rampant corruption, which has worsened in the last seven years, has eroded the development of essential services in the country. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Libya ranks as the 171st most corrupt country out of the 180 included in the index. As such, it is one of the worst performing Arab states.  

Libya’s outlook was not always so grim. The country began experiencing extreme political turmoil following the 2011 ousting of then-President Gadhafi. The promise of the 2011 revolution was not borne out in the messy political transition that has yet to be resolved. Trouble over opposing ideological, tribal and religious groups has meant that the country is now deeply divided. These divisions began developing as early as mid-2012, pitting various political factions against each other. Ultimately, two competing regimes were established – the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) in the west, and the internationally recognized, Tobruk-based, House of Representatives (HoR) in the east.

A number of warring militias and terrorist organizations also took advantage of the security vacuum in the country to set up camp. Most notably, in mid-2014, the Islamic State (IS) arrived in Libya with approximately 300 members from eastern Syria. By early 2016, IS expanded to more than 5,000 members in Libya. The group briefly solidified its control over Sirte, establishing a rudimentary quasi-state consisting of a 200-km (120-mile) contiguous strip of territory along the Libyan coast. But later in 2016, it was forced out of power by Libyan forces backed by the U.S.

The current regime, the Government of National Accord (GNA), was established in December 2015 under the leadership of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj when the U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) brokered the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA). Since, then the GNA has been recognized by the international community, but has struggled to establish itself domestically as the nation’s sole legitimate force. The breakdown in security throughout Libya and particularly surrounding the precious oilfields should be understood in this light.