The World

The Increasingly Weird Morning Glory Story

Morning Glory
Morning Glory seen from the As-Sider export terminal on March 8.

Photo by Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters

It may not have the baffling mystery of the MH370 disappearance, but the story of the oil tanker Morning Glory is turning increasingly bizarre, and is probably more politically significant. The oil is now heading back to Libya, though at this point it’s not really clear who took it, or who was planning to buy it.

The North Korean-flagged ship docked last week at the oil port of As-Sidra, currently controlled by rebels demanding greater autonomy for the eastern region known as Cyrenaica from the country’s fragile post-Qaddafi government. It somehow managed to slip through a blockade imposed by the Libyan navy with 234,000 barrels of crude, prompting the resignation and exile of the country’s prime minister.

On Monday, U.S. Navy SEALs stormed the vessel south of Cyprus. The operation, in which no one was hurt, was apparently authorized by President Obama and the oil will apparently be returned to the Libyan government.

Now, the family of the ship’s Pakistani captain, Mirza Noman Baig, is speaking out to Reuters. They say the ship’s owner, Dubai-based Saud Shipping, part of the ZAD Group of companies, ordered Baig to take the ship near the port, where it was then boarded by armed men who forced the crew to load the oil at gunpoint. The ship was on its way to Greece when the SEALs took it over. The Morning Glory hadn’t transmitted any public tracking data for over a year until it reappeared in the Suez Canal last month.

The head of ZAD has denied helping the rebels to sell oil, but hasn’t commented on the ship’s ownership. Another UAE-based company—Sea Pride Shipping—is also claiming that it owns the ship, but has not operated it since 2011. The Libyan government said it believes the ship is owned by a Saudi company, though the Saudi government denies this. The North Koreans, meanwhile, have said that the ship is owned by an Egyptian company called Golden East Logistics.

The North Korean aspect of the story is another odd one. The isolated country, which is heavily dependent on China for oil imports but has faced chronic energy shortages, has denied that it was trying to buy the oil from the rebels. North Korea is one of several “flags of convenience,” registering ships owned in other countries—Morning Glory was previously registered in Liberia, a more common flag of convenience. But as Ty McCormick and Isaac Stone Fish point out, “flying the Hermit Kingdom’s flag all but insures surveillance and inspection.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, “The presence of a North Korean-flagged vessel in the Mediterranean is very unusual, although the country has been involved in trading arms in the region.”

Just a few months ago, a North Korean ship was detained in Panama when it was found to be carrying an illegal arms shipment from Cuba. Pyongyang says it has now de-registered the Morning Glory.

If not North Korea, it’s not really clear who was planning to buy the oil. The Cypriot police told Reuters that “two Israelis and a Senegalese … two of whom had diplomatic passports - one from Senegal and one from a central African country,” were detained on suspicion of trying to buy the oil, but eventually released.

As the New York Times noted a few days ago, it’s become increasingly difficult to sell this kind of oil on the open market:  

Iran has had as many as 30 million barrels sitting undelivered in Iranian tankers in recent years because of the American and European oil embargo intended to counter Iran’s nuclear program. An Indian tanker loaded with 600,000 barrels of Sudanese oil was stranded at sea two years ago off the coast of Japan because of a claims dispute between Sudan and South Sudan.

So among unanswered questions are:

  1. Who owned the ship?
  2. Who arranged to send the ship to Libya and buy the oil from the rebels?
  3. Who was the oil going to be sold to?
  4. Was the captain a willing participant or a hostage?
  5. Why was the ship able to slip through the blockade so easily? (Libya’s navy isn’t much to speak of, but it’s managed to stop other ships from doing this same thing in recent months?)  
  6. How did anyone think they would get away with this? Sailing a North Korean-flagged ship into a blockaded, rebel-controlled port is the sort of thing that gets some international attention, and a 22,000-ton oil tanker doesn’t seem like the most elusive getaway vehicle.

The countries now involved, at least tangentially or allegedly, in this story, now include the United States, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Korea, Cyprus, Israel, Senegal, and an unspecified central African state.

Somehow I get the feeling a few more will pop up before this is over.