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Oil seen as key to Swiss-Libyan relations

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As Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi marks 40 years as "the Brother Leader", Middle East expert Arnold Hottinger looks back at the vagaries of Swiss-Libyan relations.

This content was published on September 1, 2009 - 08:09

The veteran journalist, who used to give guided tours of Libya, tells swissinfo.ch that with suffocating boycotts lifted and Switzerland importing more than SFr1.6 billion ($1.5 billion) of oil a year, Libya now has the upper hand.

The anniversary celebrations come as relations hit an all-time low – the Swiss foreign ministry is currently advising citizens not to travel to the North African country.

On August 20 Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz stunned Switzerland when he apologised to Libya for the "unjustified" 2008 arrest of Gaddafi's son and daughter-in-law.

Geneva police took Hannibal Gaddafi and his pregnant wife into custody on charges of beating their servants. They were later released on bail, but Tripoli limited trade, stopped flights and held two Swiss nationals. Hannibal talked of dropping a nuclear bomb on the country.

However, relations have not always been this sour. As was the case with South Africa under apartheid, Switzerland had no objections to dealing with Libya during the 1980s and 1990s when it was being squeezed by United Nations and United States sanctions.

swissinfo.ch: How did Switzerland react in 1969 when Gaddafi staged his military coup?

Arnold Hottinger: There was general surprise, but at the time there was a great Nasserist current [Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt from 1956-1970, had led the Egyptian Revolution of 1952]. Gaddafi was just a young Nasserite. So there was no great surprise in that sense – it was just another coup...

swissinfo.ch: How have Swiss-Libyan relations developed over the past four decades?

A.H.: With the growing importance of Libyan oil, they have grown in importance. The Libyans wanted to get away from the ex-colonial powers and were looking for other relations that were not overloaded with a political past.

So commercial relations were developed and the Libyans took business interests in Switzerland.

swissinfo.ch: What role does oil play in the relationship?

A.H.: It's essential. There's a refinery which is dominated by Libyan capital and Libyan oil comes to that refinery – that's the basic commercial relationship. There would still be all the niceties of diplomatic relations – Switzerland likes to play a role in world politics and likes to be visible and so on – but basically it is oil that is the real hardcore interest.

swissinfo.ch: Did Switzerland react to the US bombing of Tripoli in 1986 and the Lockerbie explosion two years later?

A.H.: Not so much. We try to be spectators and this was one of the reasons why relations with Libya grew: there was a boycott but the Swiss did not participate, and for the Libyans it was a way out. Malta was another example and naturally much more important for Libya when avoiding the consequences of the boycott because it is close.

swissinfo.ch: Why has Switzerland had so little international support in the Hannibal Gaddafi affair?

A.H.: I think most of the international diplomacy felt it was handled heavily [by the Swiss]. You can't say illegal, but it was handled heavily. There had been a previous case in France with Hannibal [in 2005 he was fined and handed a suspended sentence for wielding a gun and striking his pregnant companion in a Paris hotel] and this passed without great noise. So the Libyans said: if the Swiss want to make noise, let's make noise!

swissinfo.ch: Who has more to lose out of this dispute: Libya or Switzerland?

A.H.: Switzerland – because Libya is no longer facing a boycott. Switzerland was more important to Libya as long as the boycott and sanctions were in place. So now Switzerland has more to lose and it behaved correspondingly.

swissinfo.ch: Were you surprised when Merz apologised?

A.H.: No. Some form of apology was always going to take place. It was part of the Libyans' game that they wanted the president to do it. But some apology was due, that's quite clear.

swissinfo.ch: How do you think Gaddafi sees Switzerland?

A.H.: It's a small country for him – just like Malta. And it was a useful country – like Malta. But now he can afford to make a fuss about it, it won't hurt him. He had to swallow a lot of indignities to come back into America's graces and now he can show his gall.

swissinfo.ch: Why are Swiss politicians so keen on good Libyan relations?

A.H.: Money. They will always disguise it a bit – they'll say 'to us all countries are important and we have to be present in all the world and we want to have good relations' and so on, but basically it's oil.

Thomas Stephens, swissinfo.ch

In brief

From 1912 to 1927, the territory of Libya was known as Italian North Africa. From 1927 to 1934, the territory was split into two colonies run by Italian governors, Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitania.

King Idris I, Emir of Cyrenaica, led Libyan resistance to Italian occupation between the two world wars. Under the terms of the 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, Italy relinquished all claims to Libya.

In November 1949 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution stating that Libya should become independent before January 1, 1952. On December 24, 1951, Libya declared its independence as the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional and hereditary monarchy under King Idris.

On September 1, 1969, a small group of military officers led by then 27-year-old army officer Moammar Gaddafi staged a coup d'état against King Idris.

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Swiss-Libyan relations

The first Swiss businessmen settled in Libya at the end of the 19th century. Libya declared its independence in December 1951, which was immediately recognised by Switzerland. Swiss lawyers helped in drawing up the constitution.

With the discovery of oil in 1959, many Swiss geologists, technicians and special advisers entered the country.

From 1962 Swiss interests in Libya were represented by the embassy in neighbouring Tunisia. A consulate was opened in the Libyan capital Tripoli in 1965, with an embassy following in 1968.

Libya is Switzerland's second-largest trading partner in Africa and provides more than 40 per cent of Swiss crude oil imports. In 2007 imports from Libya, consisting almost exclusively of petroleum, came to more than SFr1.6 billion ($1.51 billion). Exports to Libya totalled SFr278.6 million.

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Arnold Hottinger

Arnold Hottinger, born in Basel in 1926, was a correspondent specialising in Middle East issues for a number of media organisations, including Swiss newspaper the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, public radio DRS and the predecessor of swissinfo, Swiss Radio International.

He continues to write books and articles for the media. Hottinger is also a member of the Swiss Society for Middle East and Islamic Culture.

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