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Thawing Libya's frozen assets

By John Defterios, CNN
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Will Libya's oil industry recover?
  • Experts: Unlocking funds in short term vital to keep Libya from collapse
  • An estimated $100 to $160 billion in Libyan assets have been frozen worldwide
  • The NTC is confident it can revive Libyan oil production by end of the year

(CNN) -- Libya's National Transitional Council is moving swiftly to get access to much needed funds in anticipation of taking full control of the country. There is an intense level of shuttle diplomacy underway in countries that backed the rebel movement early on -- Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Italy and France.

At the core of this effort is the desire to avoid an "Iraq-like" situation where the country collapses and the Libyan rebel movement is without funds to pay government salaries, provide urgent medical care and food -- the staples of day-to-day living.

At a press conference in Dubai this week, Aref Ali Nayed, Libya's Ambassador to the UAE and Operations Coordinator for the Libya Stabilization Team said they want to "achieve stability and peace as quickly as possible and to achieve a normality of life in all sectors of life."

To that end Mahmoud Jibril, head of the NTC's executive committee, was originally seeking to get a commitment for $2.5 billion before this weekend. After meetings of Contact Group officials in Doha, the ante has reportedly been doubled.

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But this whole process is not as simple as flipping a light switch. The United States has been pushing to get the first one and a half billion dollars of assets released through a special United Nations resolution. This effort met resistance by South Africa with its past ties to the Gaddafi government.

Ambassador Nayed said, "This will be very helpful for the first injection so as to get us off the ground because it is very, very difficult now financially."

In total, there are an estimated $100 billion of Libyan funds that have been frozen by governments, two-thirds of that sum held in the United States, Britain and Germany. Sources that have been working with the NTC believe there is up to $160 billion in total sovereign assets.

The north African state is, for example, the world's 21st largest holder of gold bullion, worth $8.6 billion at the end of 2010. The Libyan Investment Authority, the sovereign fund, has been an active investor in the western property market with London a favorite port of call. Unlocking those funds will take longer if it is indeed necessary to liquidate them at this point in time.

But there is a "good news" story, if you will, behind this transition and stabilization program. Libya is unlike Egypt, which is still struggling to find its footing. The NTC has only six and half million people to look after (Egypt more than 80 million) and is home to 46 billion barrels of high quality crude oil, placing them firmly in the top ten of proven reserves. It should not be overlooked that it also has the fourth largest natural gas reserves on the African continent as well.

Dubai-based energy strategist Robin Mills does not believe unlocking frozen assets is a necessary step to jump-starting production in Libya's oil fields, since "foreign oil companies are well capable of funding production." Security, however, is essential and strikes against refineries this week by Gaddafi loyalists in Ras Lanuf reinforced that point.

If security can be achieved, the NTC is confident it can get oil production back up to a half million barrels a day by the end of the year. The math is straightforward -- production at that level means revenues of roughly $18 billion dollars per year at today's prices of around $100 per barrel.

And just imagine if a new government can get production in a few years time not to pre-war levels of 1.6 million barrels a day, but back to the first years of the Gaddafi era. Output back then, according to energy strategist Mills, was over three million barrels a day.

Unlocking funds in the near to medium term is vital, but Libya can certainly have a steady flow of revenues with a government determined on setting a framework for global investment.

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