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West sees business opportunities in Libya

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WASHINGTON » The guns in Libya have barely quieted, and NATO’s military assistance to the rebellion that toppled Moammar Gadhafi will not end officially until Monday. But a new invasion force is already plotting its own landing on the shores of Tripoli.

Western security, construction and infrastructure companies that see profit-making opportunities receding in Iraq and Afghanistan have turned their sights on Libya, now free of four decades of dictatorship. Entrepreneurs are abuzz about the business potential of a country with huge needs and the oil to pay for them, plus the competitive advantage of Libyan gratitude toward the United States and its NATO partners.

A week before Gadhafi’s death Oct. 20, a delegation from 80 French companies arrived in Tripoli to meet officials of the National Transitional Council, the interim government. Last week, the new British defense minister, Philip Hammond, urged British companies to “pack their suitcases” and head to Tripoli.

When Gadhafi’s body was still on public display, a British venture, Trango Special Projects, pitched its support services to companies looking to cash in.

“Whilst speculation continues regarding Gadhafi’s killing,” Trango said on its website, “are you and your business ready to return to Libya?”

The company offered rooms at its Tripoli villa and transport “by our discreet mixed British and Libyan security team.” Its discretion does not come cheaply. The price for a 10-minute ride from the airport, for which the ordinary cab fare is about $5, is listed at 500 British pounds, or about $800.

“There is a gold rush of sorts taking place right now,” said David Hamod, president and chief executive officer of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce. “And the Europeans and Asians are way ahead of us. I’m getting calls daily from members of the business community in Libya. They say, ‘Come back; we don’t want the Americans to lose out.”’

Yet there is hesitancy on both sides, and so far the talk greatly exceeds the action. The National Transitional Council, hoping to avoid any echo of the rank corruption of the Gadhafi era, has said no long-term contracts will be signed until an elected government is in place. And with cities still bristling with arms and jobless young men, Libya does not offer anything like a safe business environment — hence the pitches from security providers.

Like France and Britain, the United States may benefit from the Libyan authorities’ appreciation of NATO’s critical air support for the revolution. Whatever the rigor of new rules governing contracts, Western companies hope to have some advantage over, say, China, which was offering to sell arms to Gadhafi as recently as July.

“Revenge may be too strong a word,” said Phil Dwyer, director of SCN Resources Group, a Virginia contracting company that opened an office in Tripoli two weeks ago to offer “risk management” advice and services to a company he would not name. “But my feeling is those who are in favor” with the transitional council “are going to get the nod from a business point of view.”

The Security Contracting Network, a jobs service run by Dwyer’s company, posted on its blog two days after Gadhafi’s death that there would be plenty of work opening up in Libya.

“There will be an uptick of activity as foreign oil companies scramble to get back to Libya,” the company said, along with a need for logistics and security personnel as the State Department and nonprofit organizations expand operations. “Keep an eye on who wins related contracts, follow the money, and find your next job.”

In Tripoli, there is still a wait-and-see atmosphere. At breakfast on Friday in a downtown hotel, a British security contractor pointed out the tables of burly men — hired guns like himself.

“Look at it,” he said. “Full of ‘em.”

Many are still protecting foreign journalists, but others are hoping to get training contracts with a fledgling government trying to tame its unruly armed forces. Security industry officials say the work here may never match the colossal scale of spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, but with a squeeze coming on European and U.S. government spending, it is a prize nonetheless.

Business opportunities for Western companies began opening in Libya in 2004, when Gadhafi’s decision to give up his nuclear weapons program ended his country’s pariah status. Hamod led four American business delegations to Libya between 2004 and 2010 and watched “a gradual thawing of commercial relations,” he said.

Total foreign direct investment in Libya had grown to $3.8 billion in 2010, from an estimated at $145 million in 2002, according to the World Bank. But many deals were skewed by brazen demands from Gadhafi’s children for a share of the proceeds, and the state of the country was grim after many years of economic sanctions and neglect.

Libya “needed everything,” Hamod said: banking and financial services, hospitals and medical clinics, roads and bridges, and infrastructure for energy and for the oil industry.

Now, after months of fighting, and with the security situation still fragile, there are huge new requirements, like rebuilding apartment complexes reduced to rubble by shelling, guarding oil installations as they restore or expand production, and training and equipping new armed forces.

Hamod said U.S. companies are often more hesitant than Chinese or some European companies about operating in a tumultuous environment like that of post-Gadhafi Libya.

“There’s reluctance to charge headlong back into Libya,” he said. “Historically, U.S. companies are interested in the rule of law on the ground and what it might mean for a multimillion-dollar investment.”

At a Group of 8 meeting in Marseille, France, in September, finance ministers pledged $38 billion in new financing, largely loans, to Arab countries between 2011 and 2013. Although Libya is now pumping less than one-third of its pre-war oil production of 1.7 million barrels a day, it has Africa’s largest oil reserves, which eventually should mean a steady supply of cash.

The simultaneous excitement and confusion for people exploring opportunities in Libya are evident in proliferating Libya-themed groups on LinkedIn, the online business-oriented social network.

“Can anyone in the group tell me if there are flights into Tripoli,” wrote Peter Murphy, an Irish surveyor now working on an offshore wind project, on a LinkedIn discussion page called Anglo Libya Business Group. “Also, what is the situation for business visas for business travelers?”

One answer came from Mabruk Swayah, who identified himself on LinkedIn as a Libyan working in business development.

“Hi friends you are all welcome to Libya,” Swayah wrote. “Just make sure you go through the proper channels for your work contracts and don’t get involved in bribes, inducements or sweeteners to officials.”

He added: “Remember we have free media now.”

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