As votes were tallied after Libya’s first democratic national elections in six decades, the country’s ambassador to Washington sat down to lunch with 20 members of different American companies.
It was a stacked table on Monday, with representatives ranging from Boeing to General Electric to the Hess Corporation. Ali Suleiman Aujali, who left former leader Muammar el-Qaddafi’s service soon after the unrest began, is using his post as the National Transitional Council’s ambassador to encourage U.S. business leaders to seek opportunities and help rebuild his country.
"We want America to be more aggressive to do business in Libya.... There is business for everybody,” Aujali said in an interview with National Journal. “You name it, and I will tell you we need it.”
After months of violence during Qaddafi's crackdown and the ensuing NATO bombing campaign, Aujali is now calling on the U.S. government and American companies to help rebuild his country, which largely lacks institutions and infrastructure in the wake of Qaddafi’s repressive four-decade rule. The new government needs technical assistance as it forms new ministries and offices within them. The security sector needs to be reformed, the Libyan army and police organized and trained, the rebels who fought to free Libya unified into a cohesive force under control of the government. The country wants help diversifying its economy and converting state-owned industries to private companies. Highways must be developed, irrigation improved, water supply secured. Libya needs health care education, information technology, and communications gear. The list goes on.
Aujali acknowledges that his country is in period of transition, as Libyans await the results of Saturday’s elections to fill 200 seats in an assembly that will form a temporary government and draft a new constitution. This process will take some time. “Of course, after the new elected government will take its place, I’m sure more contracts and more business will come out,” Aujali said. So far, he is encouraged by the prospects, as several major companies--including General Electric, Dow Chemical, and Motorola--have already traveled to the country since Qaddafi’s death in October.
As oil production has increased to 1.5 billion barrels per day after significant disruptions during the fighting, major energy companies like ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil, and Occidental Petroleum have returned to Libya, according to Bloomberg. Oil reserves will enable the country to pay for reconstruction and development, Aujali noted. “We don’t want everything for free. There are some things we are ready to pay our bill," he said.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post this weekend, Aujali also described how an enterprise fund for Libya could be a low-cost option for the United States to make a huge impact by promoting foreign investment. He hopes Washington considers such a fund for his country as it did for Egypt and Tunisia after their respective revolutions. “This is just symbolic more than anything else to show the Americans they are helping the Libyan people,” Aujali told NJ.
While the American and Libyan armies don’t have a formal partnership, Aujali wants a real military relationship between the two countries that helps with border security and military training. He credits Washington with taking the lead in the military operation to support the Libyans who ousted Qaddafi, and sees this relationship as the next step.
At a time of sustained joblessness in the U.S., there could be possibilities in Libya that would reap benefits for Americans and domestic institutions, Aujali argues. For example, U.S. institutions could establish partnerships or outposts in Libya for health or education—just as New York University has a campus in Abu Dhabi and Georgetown University does in Doha.
But Aujali's call to action might not be easy to heed. There was scattered violence in the country as recently as the elections, and visitors would need to make sure they are up to date on their Typhoid, Rabies, and Hepatitis A and B vaccinations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The fact that Libya needs pretty much everything could mean opportunity, to be sure--but the lack of infrastructure, for example, could also prove daunting for those looking to jump-start a business.
Aujali, who said the violence does not represent a “serious threat” to any businesses, is optimistic. He describes himself now as “the happiest man in the world” after seeing his country vote in what has been by most accounts a transparent election. “It is very impressive to see this election, to see the people voting and their celebration after voting,” he said. “They’re not celebrating the result. They’re celebrating the day they never expected to come.”
The U.S. may be waiting for the electoral process to go forward after the landmark election before setting any potential assistance plan in motion for the coming year. But an uncontested poll and relatively streamlined election process may result in Washington being more receptive to parts of Libya’s massive wish list.