BP and Shell join minister Lord Green in Tripoli talks with National Transitional Council
Britain has moved quickly to explore opportunities for boosting business in Libya, hoping to build on the goodwill of its support for the administration that has overthrown Muammar Gaddafi’s regime.
Lord Green, minister for trade and investment, led a UK delegation including representatives of BP and Shell for talks in Tripoli on Monday with the National Transitional Council (NTC) ministers dealing with the economy, transport, education and communications. “This is not about signing contracts, it’s a dialogue where we need to understand Libyan priorities for economic development and construction,” he said. The NTC has made clear long-term contracts will have to wait for the liberation of the entire country and the formation of an interim government.
David Cameron was given a warm welcome when he visited Tripoli with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, 10 days ago, giving rise to wry jokes about the prime minister being more popular in Libya than in the UK.
But British officials seem nervous about being seen to cash in on the government’s support for the continuing Nato mission – formally to protect Libyan civilians but in practice in support of what is being billed as a final NTC offensive against Gaddafi loyalists in the coastal city of Sirte.
Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the NTC leader, has signalled that allies can expect preferential treatment while opponents of Nato’s role, such as Russia, China and Germany, or those which were slow to denounce Gaddafi, like Italy, will lose out.
“There’s a long-standing warmth on the part of the Libyans towards Britain and they are extremely appreciative of the role that Britain and others played,” Green said. “Does that give you soft options? No. The deals that will be struck will be struck on the basis of openness and transparency. We have to be competitive and offer value added and engage in a long-term relationship.”
Before February’s uprising in Benghazi, the UK had business worth about £1.5bn with Libya, mostly in the oil industry.
The talks were held on the eve of a big Libya investment conference in London on Tuesday. In 2009, British-Libyan commercial ties became entangled in the row over the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdel-Basset al-Megrahi, and allegations that the move was linked to securing a lucrative contract for BP. Revelations from Libyan archives found since Gaddafi’s fall have re-ignited the controversy, especially about the role played by Tony Blair.
John Jenkins, the UK ambassador to the NTC, said: “We have all had complicated relations with Libya. Libyans have said there needs to be an accounting for everybody for what happened before. They want a break with the past but there will be a very pragmatic view of how Libya reconstructs itself.”
British companies are not alone in seeking to make money in post-Gaddafi Libya, which needs investment in everything from schools to services and is expected to offer about $200bn (£130bn) in opportunities over the next decade. The best hotels in Tripoli and Benghazi are buzzing with visiting businessmen as well as security consultants, diplomats, and journalists.
Lord Trefgarne, chairman of the Libyan British Business Council – whose members include Barclays Capital and HSBC – was in the capital last week shortly after the revelation that he had requested payment of nearly £1m for lobbying services for the Gaddafi regime over the Megrahi affair. The former Conservative defence minister insisted the money he received “barely covered expenses”, adding that the arrangement was “entirely proper” and reflected the circumstances of the time.