Britain is involved in a secret high-stakes dash for oil in Somalia, with the government offering humanitarian aid and security assistance in exchange for a stake in the beleaguered country’s future energy industry.
Riven by two decades of conflict that have seen the emergence of a dangerous Islamic insurgency, Somalia is routinely described as the world’s most comprehensively “failed” state, as well as one of its poorest. Its coastline has become a haven for pirates preying on international shipping in the Indian Ocean.
British Prime Minister David Cameron last week hosted an international conference on Somalia, pledging more aid, financial help and measures to tackle terrorism. The summit followed a surprise visit by British Foreign Secretary William Hague to Mogadishu, the Somalian capital, where he talked about “the beginnings of an opportunity” to rebuild the country.
Away from the public focus of last week’s summit, talks are going on between British officials and Somalian counterparts over exploiting oil reserves that have been explored in the arid northeastern region of the country. Abdulkadir Abdi Hashi, minister for international cooperation in Puntland, in northeast Somalia — where the first oil is expected to be extracted next month — said: “We have spoken to a number of UK officials, some have offered to help us with the future management of oil revenues. They will help us build our capacity to maximize future earnings from the oil industry.”
British involvement in the future Somalian oil industry would be a boon for the UK economy and comes at a time when the world is increasingly concerned about the actions of Iran, the second-biggest oil producer in OPEC.
Hashi, in charge of brokering deals for the region’s oil reserves, also said Somalia was looking to BP as the partner they wanted to “help us explore and build our oil capacity.”
“We need those with the necessary technical know-how, we plan to talk to BP at the right time,” Hashi said.
Somalian Prime Minister Abdiweli Mohamed Ali said his government had little choice but to entice Western companies to Somalia by offering a slice of the country’s natural resources, which include oil, gas and large reserves of uranium.
“The only way we can pay [Western companies] is to pay them in kind, we can pay with natural resources at the fair market value,” he said.
Britain is not the only country looking to develop Somalia’s vast natural resources. Last month oil exploration began in Puntland by the Canadian company Africa Oil, the first drilling in Somalia for 21 years. Hashi, who sealed the Africa Oil deal, said the first oil was expected to be extracted within the next “20 to 30 days.”
The company estimates there could be up to 4 billion barrels (about US$500 billion worth at today’s prices) in its two drilling plots. Other surveys indicate that the Puntland region alone has the potential to yield 10 billion barrels, placing it among the top 20 countries holding oil. Chinese and US firms are among those understood to have also voiced interest about the potential for oil now that, for the first time in 20 years, the country is safe enough to drill.
Yet it is the extent of oil deposits beneath the Indian Ocean that is most exciting Somalian officials. One said the potential was comparable to that of Kuwait, which has more than 100 billion barrels of proven oil reserves. If true, the deposits would eclipse Nigeria’s reserves — 37.2 billion barrels — and make Somalia the seventh-largest oil-rich nation.