Newsmaker: Technocrat "oil man" takes charge of Libya lifeline

TRIPOLI Fri Nov 25, 2011 4:41pm EST

An armed National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter patrols inside the Libyan Oil Refining Company (LERCO) in Ras Lanuf, about 660 km (410 miles) west of Tripoli, November 5, 2011. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

An armed National Transitional Council (NTC) fighter patrols inside the Libyan Oil Refining Company (LERCO) in Ras Lanuf, about 660 km (410 miles) west of Tripoli, November 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Youssef Boudlal

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TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Libya's new oil minister is seen as the right kind of technocrat, deeply experienced yet not too closely tied to the former regime of Muammar Gaddafi, to help restore the OPEC member's economic lifeline after eight months of war.

Abdulrahman Ben Yazza is in his mid-50s and brings experience from both Libya's oil industry and Italian firm Eni, the largest foreign oil producer in Libya before the war.

He worked at Libya's Waha Oil company and at the state-owned National Oil Corporation (NOC), culminating in a seat on the management committee. He then headed a joint venture between NOC and Eni.

"He's an excellent oil man," NOC Chairman Nuri Berruien told Reuters. "He's a first-class professional ... The most important (thing) is that he's from the oil patch. It is very important, it is good to work with people who speak your tongue."

A source close to Ben Yazza said the married father of four from Tripoli had been living in Milan for the last few years and traveling frequently to Libya.

"Ben Yazza is an old guy, well known and well liked. He knows Eni very well but that doesn't mean he will be pro-Eni ... he will be pro-Libyan," one Libyan oil industry source said.

"He's more a technocrat politician. Remember this is a transitory government, a bit like the Monti government in Italy ...It doesn't represent the power equilibrium and none of the big shots are in it."

Of all the new appointments in Prime Minister Abdurrahim El Keib's government, set to lead the country to elections next year, analysts and industry sources said Ben Yazza is seen as the most technocratic and least colored by the country's regional politics.

"In meetings he would listen to everyone's opinion," a person who worked with him at the NOC said, describing Ben Yazza as "very respectable."

NEW FACES

Before the February revolt, Libya's oil policy was run by the NOC headed by Shokri Ghanem, who defected in June and is believed to be living in Europe.

Officials have since indicated there will be changes, with plans to split commercial arrangements from policy.

Ben Yazza himself is seen as somewhat independent despite his NOC history, as a man who reportedly clashed at one point with Ghanem and who carries no strong affiliation with the ousted regime.

He is "very competent with a strong personality," one diplomatic source said.

"There were other candidates in the sector who had good international pedigrees, but they were often very closely associated with Col. Gaddafi - or they amplified their connections with Gaddafi in order to increase their prestige," said Geoff Porter, a U.S. independent expert on Libya.

"In the new post-Gaddafi Libya, they are tainted and would have been rejected by the Libyan population and by the hydrocarbon sector workers in particular."

The new set of faces will have to sustain the revival of the industry, which is returning to the international market faster than expected.

Libya holds Africa's largest oil reserves and was pumping 1.6 million barrels per day before the revolt.

Questions remain about the future, with a potential shake-up that would give more power to the oil ministry and carve up the NOC's responsibilities.

Berruien said the oil ministry and NOC would "complement each other."

Ben Yazza's appointment could see a number of former Libyan state oil company executives return to the public sector, according to political risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

"Highly experienced and extremely well-connected, we expect Ben Yazza to announce the recruitment of a number of his former NOC colleagues and friends to the NOC and the ministry," it said.

"The implications for the sector are good. Separating the regulatory and oversight functions from operations will remove some conflicts of interest," it said.

"Ben Yazza (will have) the opportunity to root out some of the more entrenched examples of corruption."

Still, he could encounter opposition from some workers still wary of former NOC officials. Waha Oil workers just recently ended a strike after their demands for a new chairman were met.

"Lack of experienced personnel has long been a retarding factor in the Libyan oil and gas sector and Ben Yazza will see the return of senior officials currently with IOCs (independent oil companies) as important if the sector is to reach its full potential," Eurasia said.

(Additional reporting by Taha Zargoun and Christian Lowe in Tripoli, Stephen Jewkes in Milan, Jessica Donati in London; editing by Jason Neely)

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