Libya faces economic crisis. But slump in oil prices isn't likely to bring Colonel Qaddafi down

Libya faces an economic crisis, economic analysts and oil industry sources say. But they question whether it will have much effect in destabilizing Col. Muammar Qaddafi's regime. Predictions of a looming economic crisis are based more on the slump in world oil prices than on the view that economic sanctions imposed by the United States and West Europe will have a critical impact. Some American oilmen forced to quit Libya believe the US is ``shooting itself in the foot'' by ordering them out.

Libya's income from oil sales -- virtually its only source of export earnings -- has crashed from $22 billion in 1980 to a projected $4 billion to $6 billion this year.

This loss in income has played havoc with an economy that experts agree is chaotically mismanaged. Libya owes an estimated $9 billion to foreign contractors and to the Soviet Union for arms and consumer goods imports have been slashed.

The situation is likely to worsen as long-term effects of the oil price slump sink in and Western sanctions start to pinch. But those betting that economic problems will help unseat Colonel Qaddafi may be disappointed, observers say.

Despite the oil price collapse and market chaos, Libya has been able to keep sales of its desirable, high-quality crude oil running at around 900,000 barrels a day. Even the reduced income is not bad for a country with a population of less than 4 million.

``It's enough if the economy is well-managed,'' one oil industry specialist says. ``But it's a mess, and Qaddafi's deep in debt. There's no central planning. The `people's committees' responsible for different aspects of the economy don't coordinate their imports, so they have no idea of their debts.''

The brunt has fallen on the Libyan consumer, and many recent reports from Tripoli have highlighted the scarcity or complete unavailability of many food and household items regarded as essentials in the West.

But sources closely acquainted with Libya for many years point out that this is nothing new. ``The shelves have been bare of imported goods for two or three years now,'' one source says. ``People have got used to it.''

And for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan now under way, the authorities have ensured a sufficient supply of basics -- bread, rice, dates, vegetables, and lamb.

The idea of popular upheavals or bread riots by angry and hungry masses is clearly remote, and the sources report that popular support for Qaddafi engendered by the US's April 15 bombing raid has not yet dissipated.

``We delude ourselves with these regimes,'' says one Western business source with long experience in Libya and the Arab world. ``They have a lot more staying power than we think.'' Even if the economic situation worsens, observers are skeptical about popular discontent producing major social or political repercussions.

Most observers agree that the only serious threat to Qaddafi's position might come from his own military establishment. The Army has so far been shielded from the worst of the economic cutbacks. But officers have few ``perquisites,'' and the Army's very existence is under permanent ideological challenge from Qaddafi's ``revolutionary committees.''

But some of the American oilmen, whose companies are now preparing to cease operations in Libya ,feel strongly that the move is counterproductive. The licenses for five US oil companies in Libya expire at the end of June, and Washington has made it clear that they will then have to abandon their stake there.

``You can certainly say it will hurt the US and not Libya,'' says one US executive. ``Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. Libya has proven reserves of quality oil which we may not need right now because of the glut, but which we will need by 1995.

``Libya will have no difficulty selling its oil to Europe through its own marketing organization and, in strategic terms, we're just pushing Tripoli in the Soviet camp.''

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