When will be the best time for a multi-sector trade promotion mission from Britainto go to Libya? To find the answer to that question a small group from the Libyan British Business Council of which I am a deputy chairman spent last week in Libya, my own first visit since the revolution.
My main impressions were of happiness, combined with a flood of problems almost but not quite overwhelming the new leadership.
The happiness was evident both in business meetings and when I walked the streets of Tripoli. I was delighted to see for myself what I thought might be an urban myth, teams of people cleaning up the streets, and individuals giving a fresh lick of paint to the Italianate arcades off what was Green Square, now Martyrs Square. May I take a picture? - smiles - British - handshakes - laughter. The lack of war damage, except in specific sites, is striking. Here and there in the crowded streets a building has been smashed, intelligence or military, but the buildings on either side appear untouched.
The first priority everyone mentions is security. There are quite a lot of young men around with guns, and there have been a few nasty incidents, including some not reported by the media. But media reports of "the brink of civil war" seem wildly over the top. The government is taking active measures to introduce normality, with some success. For example, we went to Misurata, two and a half hours by road in a battered old bus with no security. We must have passed through twenty roadblocks, most of them deserted. About five were manned, and we had to stop and show our passports at one, which took a few seconds. I understand that it would have been very different a month ago.
The next priority, linked to the first, is kickstarting the economy and giving people employment. The shortage of cash still makes this a nightmare, although we were told in the Central Bank that the release of some assets and the very rapid restoration of oil exports to over 50% of the pre-revolution level mean that the worst may be over by the end of March. Everyone agrees that the growth will have to be in the private sector, but we were told both by officials and by the head of a leading family business that privatisation will have to be measured, or Libya will end up with Russian-style oligarchs. One suggestion was that the private sector might constitute 30% of the economy within three years and 60% within seven years, which seems ambitious given the dominance of the oil and gas sector.
Another accepted objective is decentralisation. We did not go to Benghazi because of the practical difficulties and shortage of time, but our trip to Misurata was inspiring. The Misurata Free Zone is up and running, and the management are ambitious and have already taken guidance from Jebel Ali. Regionalism is behind some of the insecurity, with regional militias still to be digested, and some social unrest where money has been particularly short. We heard arguments that the new parliamentary system as well as the government should give weight both to population density and to location; it was not reasonable to expect a remote desert health centre to operate to the same costs and efficiency standards as a health centre inTripoli.
Tribalism is related to regionalism, but none of the people we spoke to saw it as a major problem. Even more strikingly no one mentioned Islamism. When pressed on whether it was a problem, we were told that all Libyans are Muslims, but few are extremists. The only security aspect mentioned was the uncontrolled Sahara a hundred kilometres or so south of Tripoli, reaching from Egypt to Algeria. Foreign security companies will be asked to help in electronic surveillance and border control, but we were told that in smaller-scale security Libya had learned the lesson of Iraq and foreign companies are unlikely to be welcome. Islamic banking was also mentioned; people do not trust banks in Libya and have therefore held on to their cash, about $12 billion of it we were told. It is hoped that an Islamic bank will be one way to win their confidence and their cash, enabling the banks to lend.
The government machinery available to handle all these priority issues is lamentably weak. The Foreign Minister is said to be refusing to meet any more foreign visitors this month because he is overwhelmed; according to another version he has instructed all other ministers to do the same. So another top priority is to reform the administration and provide ministers with the staff they need. We put the question at the top of this blog, when should a trade mission come toLibya? to one of the Prime Minister's senior advisers, himself only just appointed after half a lifetime outside Libya. Not now, certainly; perhaps next month, he suggested? no, not next month... hesitatingly... sometime later...
By Oliver Miles, Director, MEC International Ltd. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Libya Business News. A detailed report of this visit will be available on the Libyan British Business Council website to members of LBBC shortly, and without restriction later.