For most of this decade, Libya has resided on the periphery of the global village, its international air traffic restricted by a United Nations-imposed ban. Now the government in Tripoli ponders a move that would lead to the suspension of the ban: extraditing the two suspects in the 1988 Pan American aircraft bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.
Libya's appearance at the bargaining table, political analysts say, has come only after Washington and London offered to hold the trial in the Netherlands and use Scottish laws. From the beginning of this saga, Col. Muammar Qaddafi has rejected any calls for a trial in England or the United States.
"Qaddafi was very unhappy about the sanctions.... However he was prepared to stick by his guns. And he did," says Mary-Jane Deeb, the former editor of The Middle East Journal in Washington.
In response to the Pan Am bombing, in 1992 the UN prohibited all arms trade and civilian air links with Libya. But, despite the travel restrictions, Libya has not become a pariah state. In 1996, 88,000 tourists from outside the Middle East and North Africa visited, mostly transiting through Egypt and Tunisia.
But UN sanctions have had an impact on Libya, making certain imports more expensive at a particularly tough time for oil-exporting countries.
Falling oil revenues
These countries have been grappling with the fact that prices have fallen by half to $12 a barrel in the past two years. As a result, Libya's petroleum revenues have fallen to $6 billion from its former glory of $22 billion in 1980.
Still, petroleum sales account for 95 percent of its exports income and fueled its $4.4 billion trade surplus in 1997.
"Per capita average income is so high that we could not justify a UNICEF-funded program," says Kristian Laubjerg, the senior program officer of the United Nations Children's Fund's Middle East section. The government pays for all of UNICEF's operational costs in the country, which ran as much as $480,000 in fiscal year 1996-97.
The government has also begun work on a $25 billion irrigation project, the largest one in the Middle East, but it is far from completion.
Colonel Qaddafi draws wide Libyan support for refusing to extradite the Lockerbie suspects, who belong to the al-Megaha tribe, a major supporter of the Qaddafi regime. "If Qaddafi were to give up these men, the tribe will turn against him. He would be undermining his own political base," says Ms. Deeb.
The Lockerbie situation is on the agenda of the March 16-17 meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo.
Washington fears that Tripoli will not extradite the suspects without the weight of an oil embargo over its head. Since 1982, the US has closed its borders to Libyan petroleum and has repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, lobbied the UN to follow its lead. "The only sanction that would hurt him [Qaddafi] would be [on] the export of oil," says Deeb. "But that would have to be a UN- and an EU-imposed one."
Analysts say that getting the European Union to jump on board, however, would be impossible. The 15 members of the EU, including the United Kingdom, accounted for more than 70 percent of Libya's total trade of all goods in 1997.
Stringent US sanctions
US sanctions have been more stringent than the multilateral ones. In 1986, then-President Reagan severed all economic and commercial relations with Libya, accusing it of harboring and aiding international terrorists. He also froze all Libyan assets in the US. In 1996, Congress passed the Iran and Libya sanctions act, which slaps sanctions on countries investing more than $40 million in Libya's oil and gas industry in one year.
Washington and London have given Tripoli until March 26 to turn over the suspects. But this is a deadline without an ultimatum. Other Security Council members oppose tightened sanctions, since they have enough problems with the existing ones. Last June, the Organization of African Unity said it would not observe the air embargo. And since last August, this arm of the UN sanctions has been violated some 100 times.
Libya's inclusion on the US State Department's list of states supporting terrorism makes it unlikely that US sanctions would be lifted even if the UN embargo is scrapped.
"The concern is that Libya might supply terrorists with chemical or biological weapons," says Jonathan Tucker, the director of the chemical and biological weapons project at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. "The fact that they're actively seeking these weapons and have a history of supporting terrorism raises that very frightening possibility."
Without a change in Washington's position, Libya's airports and oil-field equipment will remain dilapidated. But Libya is already optimistically envisioning a future without multilateral sanctions. It plans a trade exhibit in Geneva this spring to showcase its wealth.