Midland communications specialist Nick Glaves looks at possibilities for businesses in post-war Libya.
In Libya it seems as though everyone has a story to tell.
As our driver Omar weaved along the congested highways of Tripoli to our hotel, he described without prompting his treatment under former dictator Mu’ammar Gaddafi’s regime.
An articulate young man who spent time in the UK studying, he said he was held for four months in an underground cell for expressing anti-Gaddafi sentiments, his lacerated forearms and electrode scars attesting to his claims of torture.
When he was finally released – much to the surprise of his family who were convinced he was dead – he joined the rebel uprising in Benghazi and fought to depose his captors and their leader.
Omar’s story is not unique but he is one of the lucky ones. Unlike 30,000 of his countrymen he survived the country’s bloody civil war which began in February 2011 and ended with Gaddafi’s death on October 20, 2011, and was inspired by similar revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Now he has a job and his family around him and, more importantly, he and the other Libyans I spoke to have a future as stakeholders in a country that is approaching its first ever democratic elections next month.
It is this chapter in the nation’s story that British companies can also have a stake in. With the post-conflict programme in Libya estimated to be worth around £130 billion, significant opportunities exist for UK firms to play a major role in rebuilding the North African country.
Kevin Cunningham, head of UKTI in Libya, told me that while economic and political development is now “entirely in the hands of the Libyans”, the UK has an important role to play in giving assistance, advice and ‘helping in any way we can’.
“Before the revolution British companies had around 2.2 per cent of market share in Libya,” he said.
“Clearly there was a reluctance to do business here for a number of reasons – transparency, the regime – but now the new Libya is open and an ideal environment for British companies to really demonstrate their value.”
Mr Cunningham said a top priority was getting the oil and gas infrastructure operational to enable Libya to sustain itself and afford vital reconstruction work.
Other major areas of opportunity include IT, communications, civil security, financial services and healthcare, which he said had been underfunded and is now stretched by those injured in the conflict.
“We’ve had three delegations of British companies over here from the healthcare sector working very closely with the minister of health on defining requirements ... placing the Libyans in a better position to be able to make decisions,” Mr Cunningham said.
Despite the sense of optimism that infects the country, physical signs of conflict are everywhere.
But take a walk around Tripoli – something that is surprisingly safe to do – and you find for every bomb site there are five new construction projects under development, including hotels, flats and houses. It is here Mr Cunningham said British companies could play a further role, by partnering construction firms in Tunisia, Egypt and Malta – all of which have a strong presence in Libya – to provide technical skills such as design, project management and quality management.
“We are bringing companies here that we believe have the right solutions and (in areas) where our companies are very strong,” he said. “My visit to the country came about after Mercian Travel Centre – a company I advise on PR – organised a trip to re-establish business connections.
Mercian Travel Centre is a corporate and leisure travel company headquartered in Hagley in the West Midlands which specialises in trade missions across the globe, particularly to Libya, and has organised travel to the country for many British firms.
Abi Hyslop, corporate travel manager at the firm, said there were some strong indicators post- conflict Libya was now opening up for business.
She said: “The commercial airways are beginning to fly to the country again, which is always a good sign.
“Visas are available for one month, three months and six months, and although Foreign Office advice on travel is unlikely to change before the election, we would expect it to be considered safe shortly afterwards. With that in mind, we are looking to arrange a further trade mission there in September or October this year.”
Miss Hyslop added that companies most likely to succeed would be those that establish contacts, trust and understand the country.
She said: “Libya has a very limited experience of governing itself.
“Companies need to go out there with an eagerness to play a long term part in its future if they want to reap the rewards that the nation has to offer.”
British companies wanting to find out more about business opportunities in Libya are advised to contact their regional UKTI trade advisor.
The organisation acts like a global network of people on the ground in many countries across the world.
Mr Cunningham said: “In a way you could look at it as access to the biggest independent network of business consultants that there is, the focus being very much adding value from a presence in the country and being in a position to answer questions in the interests of British business.”