Libya is ending its diplomatic isolation, but democracy is still not on the agenda
Most of Libya is a vast barren plain of rocks and sand. The majority of the population live in Tripolitania, in the north-west of the country, a region that includes the capital and a number of coastal oases. The other main inhabited area is Cyrenaica in the north-east.
Many of Libya's people descend from Bedouin Arab tribes—and the tribe is still often the basic social unit. The original Berber population has also largely been absorbed into Arab culture. Nowadays, however, most people live in the cities and the population is very young—60% are under 20 years old.
Libya's oil wealth has not been widely distributed. Around 70% of Libyan workers are employed in one way or another for the government on salaries that average only $190 per month. Unemployment is high, at around 30%.
But Libyans do benefit from subsidized housing and largely free education and health care. Notably for an Arab country, women are at least as well educated as men.
In addition to the native population, there are also around two million immigrant workers, chiefly from Egypt, often doing jobs that local workers refuse. Sometimes there have been tensions with the local population, and even riots.
Since 1959, when oil was first discovered, Libya has become one of the world's largest producers. Oil makes up more than 95% of exports and provides over 90% of government income. At current rates of extraction the oil should last 50 years or more. Most oil production is controlled by the National Oil Company but there are many exploration and coproduction contracts with European oil companies. Libya also has huge reserves of natural gas that have yet to be exploited.
Most other industrial operations are run by the state. They do now produce many consumer goods, though companies from Italy and Korea are manufacturing some items like refrigerators and video recorders.
Less than 2% of the land is suitable for farming so agriculture is limited and employs only 7% of the workforce. Around 80% of cereals must be imported. The main problem is water. Along the coast, groundwater has been over-extracted so sea water may seep in to replace it. The government's solution is the $20-billion ‘great man-made river’ scheme which will pump groundwater from aquifers in the south-east to the north. This project already delivers water, at great expense, to Tripoli and Benghazi, but has hit technical problems and is far from completion.
For the past 35 years, Libyan politics has revolved around Muammar Qaddafi. Following a military coup in 1969, Libya's monarchy was overthrown and a group of military officers led by the then 29-year-old Captain Qaddafi seized control and redirected Libya towards Arab socialism.
Libya is a ‘socialist state of the masses’
In 1977 he changed the country's name to the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiraya (‘state of the masses’). In theory this is popular government, with everyone participating in Basic People's Congresses and choosing representatives to a General People's Congress which selects members of the government. The philosophy is spelled out in Qaddafi's ‘Green Book’ —a mixture of Islam and socialism.