Once strong partners, the relationship between Indonesia and Libya that commenced in 1991 was disrupted by the Arab Spring which affected Libya’s political landscape. Trade deteriorated, companies and investors halted their operations, and many Indonesians – both workers and students – decided to return home. However, today the two governments are apparently devoting efforts to restore their relations as the two countries re-acknowledge the importance of each other. This was publicly affirmed by the Indonesian President Joko Widodo last year in a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Extraordinary Meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Jakarta.
Before the revolution, Indonesia had relatively strong ties with Libya. Although economic ties had been limited, the two countries were primarily linked by political interests. Both Libya and Indonesia are members of the Non-Aligned Movement and the OIC. These organizational channels had laid a groundwork for more consolidated political ties between Jakarta and Tripoli. High official visits also helped strengthen the partnership such as the visit of the then-Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri to Tripoli in September 2003, and the reciprocal visit by Muammar Gaddafi in 2004.
Economic ties, though small in figures, were still noticeable. According to the United Nations COMTRADE database, Libya’s exports to Indonesia in 2010 stood at US$154.08 million. The trade mostly focused on mineral fuels, oils, distillation products, organic chemicals, rubbers, iron, and steel. Indonesian contractors were also active in infrastructure projects – both energy and civil infrastructure – in Libya, which amounted to over US$2 billion.
Seeing benefits from their complementary ties, a Committee Meeting (Sidang Komisi Bersama) between Indonesia and Libya was held in Yogyakarta in 2009. The meeting was intended to evaluate their previous relations and to discuss concrete efforts to improve their ties. During the meeting, the two governments were confident about the future prospect of their ties and discussed a number of endeavors to strengthen their cooperation in different fields, including tax, tourism, labor, culture, social, and aviation.
At the end of the meeting, the two also signed an MoU in the establishment of Komisi Bersama and two other agreements on political consultations and social welfare. In addition, the Joint Board of Libyan-Indonesian Businessmen was also established to identify economic opportunities available in both countries.
Limited economic exchanges were juxtaposed by pronounced humanitarian aid and assistance by Libya to Indonesia. The most important manifestation of this was Libyan aid in the aftermath of an earthquake that hit the city of Yogyakarta in 2009.
When the Arab Spring took place in 2011, however, the strong relations that Libya and Indonesia had long built for many years were disrupted. The turmoil that resulted in the downfall Muammar Gaddafi’s long dictatorial regime also resulted in a deterioration of the country’s relationships with its partners, and Indonesia was no exception. Nonetheless, as both Jakarta and Tripoli acknowledge their significance to each other, as soon as the political turmoil that hit Libya ended, the two long partners quickly devoted efforts to restore their relationship.
During the transition period, Indonesia presented itself as a reliable political partner by showing that it had a similar experience following the end of the dictatorial Suharto regime in 1998 and that it was willing to assist Libya in the transitioning process of its political landscape. This has received a positive response from the Libyan side. During the OIC meeting in Jakarta in 2016, the latter said that it is willing to learn about democracy from Indonesia.
Besides their encounters at the OIC meeting, Indonesian foreign minister Retno Marsudi also met with her Libyan counterpart Mohammed Attaher during the Bali Democracy Forum in late 2016. Previously, in 2014, Indonesia, represented by Muhammadiyah Chairman, Din Syamsudin and Deputy Energy and the then-Mineral Minister Susilo Siswoutomo, participated in the celebration of Libya’s Independence and Revolution Day. These high-profile exchanges were largely driven by the willingness to rebuild their long-held relations.
Beyond political ties, the two countries have also attempted to rebuild their economic relationship. As an oil-rich country and home to six million people, Libya serves Indonesia as a lucrative energy partner and export market. Meanwhile, for policymakers in Tripoli, Indonesia is seen as a gateway to growing Asia and a promising market. Both governments have recently pledged to improve ties in different fields, with energy being the primary focus.
These plans have gradually been realized. For instance, Indonesian private energy firm PT Medco, which delayed production from its Libyan oil and gas project from its 2014 target due to political conditions in Libya, has restarted talks with the new government for the building of production facilities. Before the revolution, Medco already had a presence in Libya Area 47 with 80 workers. The company had prepared $500 million for capital expenditure in 2011, half of which was allocated for oil and LNG exploration.
Energy has indeed been central to Indonesia-Libya relations. With 48 billion barrels of proven oil reserves, Libya is a crucial energy partner for Jakarta. After halting the purchase of oil from Libya, Indonesia resumed purchasing oil from the country in 2012. In the past years, Jakarta has purchased nearly $1 billion worth of crude oil from the North African country.
Other companies that had been operating in Libya for many years and were interrupted during the Arab Spring have also shown their interests to resume their operations. These developments offer positive signs that Indonesia-Libya economic relations will improve even more in the near future.
The restoration of Indonesia’s ties with Libya has also been helped by soft power endeavors. Besides frequent meetings in sport events, academic exchanges constitute an increasingly important part of the current relations. In spite of the fact that the number of Indonesian students in Libya faced a decline during the political turmoil in 2011 where some of them decided to return home, it is reportedly increasing once again. Even though it is difficult to find exact number, the establishment of the Indonesian Student Association in Libya (KKMI Libya) and the activities it organizes demonstrate the significant presence of students from Indonesia in Libya.
This, however, is not a one-way street. In 2014, the Libyan Ambassador to Indonesia Sadiq MO Ben Sadik said that there has been an increasing number of Libyans studying at different universities in Indonesia. While the wave of Libyan students to Indonesia began in 2009, it increased noticeably when the Arab Spring took place in Libya.
Even though these efforts are still at the beginning stage, they have undeniably come to shape the course of Indonesia-Libya relations in post-Gaddafi era. These political, economic, and cultural developments have also fed into optimistic readings about the relationship’s future trajectory. There is an opportunity, if the current trends hold, to not only restore but also to develop a meaningful strategic relationship over the coming years grounded on mutual interests and concerns.
Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat is a PhD researcher at the University of Manchester.