From the perspective of Tripoli, which hosts this week a huge construction and building trade fair that has attracted 427 foreign companies drawn from 26 countries, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague would seem to have a point when urging British businesses to “worker harder” to compete against overseas rivals for deals.
Of those 427 foreign companies participating in Libya Build 2012, not one – yes, you read that right – not a single one is from Britain. Not that the U.S. has distinguished itself either, the business of America is apparently not business, when it comes to Libya at the moment.
Hague’s comments about the need for British business to get stuck in – an updating of Norman Tebbit’s “get on yer bike” remark — hasn’t gone down well with British business.
Former CBI director general Lord Digby Jones, who served in the Brown government as a trade minister, lashed out Hague, complaining on BBC Radio 4 about the weakening of his former department, UK Trade & Investment. “To absolutely decimate that and cut it and then stand up and say ‘come on, get on and do it’, that’s a bit rich.”
But Libya Build 2012 organizers don’t blame the UK embassy in Tripoli or UK Trade & Investment for the non-show of British business. They say that British diplomats were highly supportive and that the 4-day exhibition was well marketed in the UK.
“I was surprised at the lack of take-up by British firms,” says Rania Mohamad, head of international sales for Libya Build 2012. “What we heard was that they were anxious about the security situation.”
Not that nervousness – and believe me it is misplaced when it comes to Tripoli – deterred the more robust Italians or French. There are 134 Italian companies here – from large construction concerns to small furniture businesses and environmental solutions firms.
According to Maria Carmela Ottaviano, head of special projects at the Italian Institute for Foreign Trade, Italy’s trade promotion agency, Italian exhibitors were keen to maintain good commercial ties between Italy and Libya that were fostered by Silvio Berlusconi.
The Italians have two pavilions exclusively for their own use and were so over-subscribed that some exhibitors from Italy have had to take refuge in other pavilions – there are 35 pavilions in all covering 17,000 square meters.
A saleswoman for an Italian manufacturer of security doors told me that they had not done work in Libya before the toppling of Col. Gaddafi but that they were keen to test the waters. She praised the Italian promotion agency for playing a big role – from helping with transportation to visa facilitation and with translation services.
The French have not been shy either to explore opportunities in Libya’s new business environment, nor to remind Libyans of France’s support for their “Arab Spring.”
There are more than 40 French companies exhibiting as well as wheeling and dealing at Libya Build 2012.
“I am very surprised at the absence of British and American firms here,” said Audrey Corriger, an export specialist with Chambon, a manufacturer of factory tools for assembly-line woodcutting and wood-design. “We are hoping to find an importer for our machines,” she says. Chambon hasn’t worked in Libya before, although it has in other North African countries.
“We decided to test the waters,” she says. She admitted that they had wondered if this would be premature to be doing ahead of the assembly elections slated for June 19 but they decided “you can never promote too early.”
Chambon is hoping also to capitalize on French support for the rebels. “As Sarkozy was so supportive of the revolution, we hope this will benefit us.”
Apparently, however, David Cameron’s backing for the overthrow of Gaddafi didn’t strike British firms as a selling point.
Some 632 companies in all are taking part in Libya Build 2012. There are large contingents from Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and UAE, which is fielding 110 companies. Tiny Malta has its own pavilion where 40 companies are showcasing their products, from lifts and electromechanical systems, to construction materials and furniture and fittings.
“Maybe it was a bit far for the British to travel,” mused Corriger.