The Take on Tripoli
Diane Jones, senior commercial officer in Tripoli, Libya, talks about what export opportunities are available in that country, how U.S. firms can build on past good will toward the United States, and how driving in Tripoli is like a game of Frogger.
After many years of frayed relations between Libya and the United States, relations took a turn for the better in 2004 with the lifting of U.S. trade sanctions. In October 2008, the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) opened a new office in Tripoli, the capital, and hired a local staff. Diane Jones spoke recently with Doug Barry of the Department of Commerce’s Trade Information Center about opportunities for U.S. exporters in Libya.
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|Diane Jones, the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service’s senior commercial officer in Tripoli, Libya. (U.S. Department of Commerce photo)
Barry: I understand that your temporary quarters in Tripoli are in a converted bar.
Jones: Actually, it’s a converted barn. Libya is a dry country. There’s no alcohol allowed. So definitely, we don’t want to be associated with a former bar! But we expect that, in about nine months, we’ll move into a newly refurbished commercial office at the U.S. embassy compound in the Ben Ashur area.
Barry: So, you have this new office in Tripoli. Why are you there? What is your role?
Jones: The role of the USFCS is to help U.S. companies enter this new and exciting market. Two-way trade between the United States and Libya has surged since 2004, when U.S. sanctions were lifted, from $18 million to $3.7 billion in 2008. Primarily that’s due to oil imports into the United States. But with our new office here in Tripoli, we’re hoping that we can help level the trade deficit. The Libyan government budgeted more than $123 billion for infrastructure development. The country holds potentially rich trade opportunities for U.S. companies in almost every sector.
Barry: What kinds of industries in the United States have been contacting you?
Jones: There’s just a huge boom in infrastructure development in Libya. I think you can imagine that, after 30 years of sanctions, all of the roads, housing, and commercial areas are run down. With the oil wealth, the country has decided to really invest in infrastructure. Most companies that we’ve been working with right now from the United States are established construction, engineering, and architectural firms.
Barry: How about the health care industry and the information technology industry? Those are often important in developing countries. Are they important in Libya?
Jones: There is a strong demand for U.S. information technology. It’s pretty much a government-controlled monopoly right now, but Libya has announced that it intends to spend $10 billion on telecommunication infrastructure over the next 15 years.
Barry: What about the visa situation? At one point, there were some difficulties reported when Americans tried to get visas for travel to Libya.
Jones: There are still some difficulties in obtaining visas. We’re working very closely with the Libyan government to establish a mechanism whereby we can help invite our clients through the official inviting entity in Libya. I think we’ve worked out a system, and we’re testing it right now, so we’ll see how effective our solution is.
Barry: What are the important things for U.S. businesspeople to remember when they arrive in Libya?
Jones: Business in Libya is all about relationships. Deals happen on the strength of personal contacts.
Barry: It seems like from what you’ve been telling us that it’s really going to be helpful—and save a lot of time and hassle—if our readers who are interested in doing business in Libya contact you first.
Jones: Definitely. We would encourage all U.S. companies to give us a call. We’d be very happy to give them a brief overview of the market and the specific sector they’re interested in, to help lead them to the right partners through one of our services, or to help them understand who the best people within the government would be to contact for what they have to offer.
Barry: I understand that you drive your own car around Tripoli and that it is somewhat of a challenge some days.
Jones: Our clients might want to consider getting a car with a driver when they visit Libya. There aren’t really any rules—anything goes. It’s a specific style of driving that takes a while to get used to. We consider it kind of like [the arcade game] Frogger, where you’re going down the road swerving around all the obstacles in your way. Drivers often go in reverse at full speed on the highways.
Barry: Sounds like a business opportunity for transmissions.
Jones: There are all kinds of opportunities here.
November Trade Mission to Make Stop in Tripoli
To help U.S. firms leverage opportunities in North Africa, the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) is organizing a trade mission to Algiers, Algeria, and Tripoli, Libya, on November 4–8, 2009. A senior Department of Commerce official will lead the mission. The mission will include face-to-face business appointments with prospective agents, distributors, and end-users; meetings with government officials; updates on major projects; embassy briefings on doing business in the region; and networking events. Applications to participate in the trade mission must be received by August 1, 2009. For more information, visit the trade mission’s Web site at www.export.go/northafricamission, or contact Lisa Huot of the USFCS; tel.: (202) 482-2796; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.