Britain – Closed For Business

Sunset over Tripoli



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.

Royal Wedding: A Word From Our Sponsor

The Daily Caller and the Guardian kindly published the following by Patrick Basham and myself

“Prince William and Kate Middleton’s impending nuptials are more important to the average American than to the average Briton — an unforeseen financial opportunity that, sadly, both the royal family and Prime Minister David Cameron have failed to exploit.

The announcement of the royal engagement wasn’t just news in America; it was a sensation. Americans have proudly claimed Kate as one of their own — after all, she is a distant relative of George Washington. Transatlantic affection for the monarchy is exhibited most literally by the “Harry Hunters”: young American women attending UK colleges for the sole purpose of spending their weekends frequenting Prince Harry’s favorite London hangouts.

In striking contrast, the contemporary British attitude towards the royal family is a schizophrenic mix of disdain and deference. As The Economist recently documented, although the proportion of Britons who want to abolish the monarchy has lingered around 30 percent for decades, indifference and ridicule have risen significantly. Prince Andrew hasn’t helped in that regard. Membership in the anti-monarchy group, Republic, spiked following the engagement announcement.

Ordinary people seem underwhelmed by the sumptuous celebration. Comparatively few traditional street parties have been organized despite Downing Street and several government departments feverishly urging participation. A third of local authorities have received no street party applications at all. The cold reality is that many plan to flee the UK for this particular “bread and circuses” event. Thomas Cook’s bookings for April have risen 35 percent and Ryanair’s bookings are up 65 percent for the period.

What explains this transatlantic disconnect? On the British side, austerity and straitened economic circumstances are making people feel far from ready to party. This may be a national celebration but many Britons have little to celebrate in their own lives. And some clearly feel that this costly event is being used by the establishment to distract them from the hard choices ahead.

There are three reasons why Americans are comparatively enthusiastic about the royal wedding.

First, Americans have historically exhibited an even greater interest than the British in glittering celebrity (especially celebrity drenched in centuries-old tradition).

Second, America’s deeply rancorous red-blue partisan divide has heightened many Americans’ appreciation for a non-political, party-neutral head of state, a figurehead that keeps a country united.

And, third, this particular wedding resonates with the American passion for upward social mobility. It’s hard to think of anything less American than a hereditary monarchy. But what’s particularly appealing to such an aspirational society is the idea of moving on and moving up.

In a recent TV interview, a young American woman observed about the future queen, “She’s not from a higher-placed family; that speaks to the American Dream where you can be anything you want to be.”

But very few Americans know that, in Orwellian fashion, the royal family is “paying” for the £30 million wedding out of its taxpayer-provided allowance, with taxpayers directly footing the bill for the extra policing and road closures, which will total more than £5 million. To add economic insult to injury, Downing Street invested tens of millions of pounds leveraging the wedding by promoting Britain as the tourist destination that foreigners already know it to be.

Then there’s the significant hidden economic cost to local councils and businesses of the paid public holiday the prime minister granted for the wedding. According to the CBI, the extra bank holiday will cost the economy £6 billion in lost productivity.

Nevertheless, a savvy PR move saw the couple ask well-wishers to donate among 26 favored charities in lieu of wedding gifts.

But the savviest approach would have been to seek American corporate sponsors for the wedding.

Such a modern, ethical, and financially prudent move would have saved hard-pressed taxpayers tens of millions of pounds. And, it would have unleashed an unparalleled bidding war among American multinationals for the opportunity to market to a one-billion-strong global TV audience — a pot of gold that could have financed the royal family for many years to come.

As the young couple has no qualms about their opulent lifestyle being continually and involuntarily underwritten by British taxpayers, why should a single act of voluntary patronage by wealthy American corporations cause them sleepless nights on their taxpayer-subsidized honeymoon?

Americans are overwhelmingly drawn to a real-life British soap opera that combines celebrity, heritage, and the promise of a life less ordinary. Hence, the monarchy and the government’s missed opportunity both to democratize and to economize on William and Kate’s big day.”

Jamie Dettmer is a Democracy Institute Fellow and blogs at Patrick Basham directs the Democracy Institute and is a Cato Institute adjunct scholar.