When the Libyan conflict drew to an end and Muammar Gaddafi was killed, many believed business opportunities in the oil-rich North African country would abound.
Libya’s not a field full of apples where you can just walk in and take your pick- Chamber president
But according to Tancred Tabone, president of the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, this was “pie in the sky” which has failed to materialise so far.
“The really established companies are picking up the pieces. But the whole internal re-organisation is taking much longer than we originally expected,” he said.
Businesses are facing practical stumbling blocks; for example, banks are not allowing transactions of more than €700 daily, forcing companies to use cash payments.
But there is also the security problem, as Libya struggled to reorganise its police force and military while skirmishes between various militias continue.
“Imagine having a person walking down Republic Street with a Kalashnikov on his back. It makes people feel unsafe,” he said.
However, Mr Tabone feels the unease is understandable considering the country was stifled by 42 years of dictatorship and the revolution came to an end less than four months ago.
“They seem to be getting there, but obviously it’s taking a long time.”
Maltese businesses, he said, were working hard and trying to make the best of the situation. Many must make new partners because their previous ones were friendly with the Gaddafi regime.
The delay, he said, is benefitting experienced companies but makes it difficult for those who want to make a quick buck.
Around 400 Maltese companies had applied to join a government business delegation, but in retrospect Mr Tabone thinks this was “absurd”.
“Everyone wanted to go to Libya, whether they had been before or not... But I think one has to realise that Libya was never an easy place to work. It’s not a field full of apples where you can just walk in and take your pick.
“I was meant to join a delegation with the Malta Enterprise chairman but the day before we left the minister resigned so there was no one to meet. The Austrians made the same mistake. They chartered a flight, flew to Tripoli and met nobody. They had the most expensive plate of couscous in their lives... that’s how they described it.”
But Mr Tabone said the situation for the Libyan people had improved since the fall of the Gaddafi regime and although things were moving more slowly than some had hoped, progress had been substantial considering six months ago “half the country was running around with machine guns”.
“I’m still very confident that there will be openings for serious Maltese companies.”
He said the Libyan people were kept in the dark under the regime and have therefore been greatly disadvantaged, but if the world gives them a chance and does not manipulate them they should emerge as a “shining example” of the Arab Spring.
Businessman Mario Debono, from Alphafarma said it was hard to believe the way Libya was changing.
“There are fireworks outside, cars honking, children playing in the streets, singing revolutionary songs. There is an air of freedom in the streets.”
He said Libya was getting back on its feet, businesses were opening, shops were full of food and people and many were getting back to a normal life.
“Misurata’s celebrations are muted compared with Tripoli. They have lost too many people. No family has been left untouched by the war. For Misuratans it’s a celebration and a commemoration for those lost.”
He confirmed there is tight control on money transfers making business “nightmarish” and banks were not lending any money.
“But we are getting by,” he said, adding that international companies have started to feel their way in, even though some are frustrating Libyans because they are being too aggressive.
Mr Debono said the safety and security situation was still shaky and many foreigners and Libyans had been threatened or robbed at supposed checkpoints.
“Only two days ago, two innocent bystanders having a coffee were killed by the same bullet in the street where I live during a gun battle that ensued after the army tried to arrest the pro-Gaddafi sons of a prominent businessman who, paradoxically, supported the revolution.
“There was no mercy. The crowds reduced a huge sprawling imposing villa, their home, to smithereens and then carted all the rubble away.”
However, he said business prospects still look good, though added Malta must sell itself not just as a trading partner but a close neighbour prepared to help.
“We did that during the war. There is no reason why we cannot do it in at peacetime.”
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