Libya’s close proximity to many of the Mediterranean trade routes has made it attractive to various empires. Divided into two parts, Tripolitania and Cyrenacia, it was controlled by the Ottoman Empire from 1551 to 1911, both directly and through clients such as the Barbary States.
It was also a base for pirates, with 20% of government revenues coming from tribute in 1800. This led to two naval wars with the United States in the early 19th century.
In 1911, the declining power of the Ottoman Empire allowed Italy to invade. While it initially kept Tripolitania and Cyrenacia as separate colonies, it decided to merge them into one country, Libya, in 1934.
During World War Two, Libya was a key battleground in the fight for North Africa. In 1951 it became independent under King Idris. But the discovery of oil in 1959 proved to be too big a temptation for a group of officers who overthrow the king in 1969, propelling their leader, Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, into power. Gaddafi nationalised the oil industry and pursued an anti-Western foreign policy, including support for terrorist groups.
Although oil revenues ensured that living standards rose, Libya’s involvement in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing (which would eventually cost the country $2.3bn in compensation) made the country an international pariah. Gaddafi also diverted large amounts of Libya’s wealth into his back pocket, building a reported personal fortune of $200bn.
After a civil war in the spring and sumer of 2011 Gaddafi was finally deposed (with help from the US and UK) in August 2011. Since then the country has split between the official government in Benghazi and an Islamist regime in Tripoli. Despite an agreement between the two earlier this month, Libya is still bitterly divided.