Libya’s most loyal ally is aiming to benefit as Tripoli opens up to the West. Through good times and bad Libya’s most loyal friend has always been Malta. During the decades of international sanctions and global isolation, it was the Mediterranean island 210 miles (350 km) to the north that provided a lifeline to the African state, supplying just about everything down to such basic items as tinned fish and bars of soap.
Today, Malta is hoping that its close ties and intimate understanding of its Arab neighbour will ensure that it also benefits from the opening up of Libya’s economy to Western investment and private enterprise. It is presenting itself as the perfect base from which international business with Libya can be conducted. Only a half-hour flight away from Tripoli, its 400,000-strong community shares a common Phoenician ancestry with the Libyans and trading ties between the two have existed for millennia. The Maltese say these links give them an unrivalled understanding of the Libyan mentality and business culture.
In recent years the close ties between the island fortress, once a bulwark of Christianity against the invasion attempts of the Muslim Ottoman empire of which Libya was a part, and Colonel Gaddafi’s Islamic Arab republic, have been beyond question.
When Malta obtained its independence from Britain in 1964, the first embassy it opened as a sovereign state was in Tripoli. Then, during its years of radical socialist rule under Dom Mintoff, it shared much political philosophy with Libya, where Gaddafi came to power five years later.
Malta has received preferential rates from Libya for its oil supplies over many years and while the Valletta government respected the UN imposed sanctions the local business community unhesitatingly came to Tripoli’s aid by whatever means it could. Today, the Corinthia Bab, the only five-star hotel in Libya, is owned and managed by the Maltese Corinthia Group.
Saad Elshlmani, head of mission at the embassy of the Libyan People’s Bureau in Malta, agrees that there is a role for Malta to play as Libya returns to the global marketplace. «Malta supported us during a difficult time and sees itself as a bridge between us and Europe,» he says. «We can benefit from their links with the EU as they can benefit from our role in the African Union.»
Thousands of Maltese live and work in Libya and, in spite of the religious differences, there have been many marriages between the two communities. Now, with Libya reforming its economy, privatising its state-run enterprises and seeking inward investment, business opportunities are abundant and Malta is keen to maintain its pivotal role in facilitating connections.
Philip Micallef, the chief executive of Malta Enterprise, the government body promoting trade and investment, says that Malta is a good starting point for companies that provide back-office facilities in the oil sector, pharmaceuticals, information technology and other support services such as precision instruments, which are tackling the Libyan market.
Many Maltese companies already act as agents and distributors for large foreign companies entering the Libyan market. «It is a question of know-how. Maltese speak the language and know who to contact.»
The Bank of Valletta has long been a prime conduit for trade and investment links between Malta and Libya and was the first foreign bank to open a representative office in Tripoli in 2001.
John Pollacco, the bank’s representative in Tripoli for the past four years, says: «I’ve seen exciting changes in Libya in a matter of months. They now have all the top international brands in the shops, modern cars on the roads and access to the internet.» Pollacco emphasises however that Western businesses aspiring to venture into the Libyan market need to prepare carefully, require good contacts and need to establish a physical presence. «Face to face negotiations are the norm in Libya.»
Some analysts believe that Malta will have to work hard to maintain the role it has enjoyed in Libya’s international business dealings, now that Tripoli has resolved its differences with the West.
Libya, they say, now wants to deal directly with foreign companies. They, however, cautious of an unfamiliar culture, are still likely to want to use Malta for back-office services, safe havens for families and a secure location for their goods.
Malta offers excellent communications and transport links. And for foreign business people struggling with the pitfalls of obscure regulations, or the lack of them, the Maltese knowledge of the local business mentality is still a valuable asset.
The Times (London) January 18, 2005, Tuesday