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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 April, 2004, 05:40 GMT 06:40 UK
Libya looks to capitalist future
By Hugh Pym
BBC business correspondent in Tripoli

Colonel Gadaffi
Libya is hoping its recent diplomatic successes will pay off
European expatriates in Tripoli shook their heads in amazement when they heard that a five-star business hotel was due to open in the Libyan capital.

Even after it opened a year ago, the sceptics were convinced the rooms would never be filled.

But now business is booming at the Corinthia, which is run by the Maltese group of the same name.

The Corinthia is significant not just as the first luxury hotel in Libya, but as the first enterprise in the country to allow customers to use plastic rather than hard cash.

Its presence on the Mediterranean seafront shows that market forces have gained a foothold in Colonel Gaddafi's socialist command economy.

'Great potential'

Now the hotel is hosting the two day Doing Business in Libya conference, an event which would have been unthinkable before the lifting of sanctions last September.

Business representatives from around Europe have flocked to the foyers and meeting rooms to hear how Libya plans to open up its markets.

At the head of a large UK delegation is the Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien.

Tony Blair meets Colonel Gaddafi
There has been a rapid thaw in relations between the UK and Libya

He aims to capitalise on the goodwill created by the Prime Minister's visit last month.

In his speech to the conference he emphasised the British government's desire to embrace Libya as an economic partner and friend.

Libya, he said, had great potential.

Representatives of Shell, meanwhile, worked on the fine print of an oil and gas exploration deal - if agreed it would be the first such Libyan contract for an international oil giant.

Wednesday will see Libyan oil industry chiefs briefing the audience on further opportunities for hydrocarbons development.

The British companies BAE Systems and Balfour Beatty were also moving towards agreement on potentially lucrative contracts.

An intermediary for MG Rover spoke confidently of the possibility of a major car export deal in the offing.

Helpful noises

Mr O'Brien sounded warning notes as well.

Zawia oil refinery, Libya
International firms are keen to win contracts for oil and gas reserves

He emphasised that Libya must prove to the financial markets that it respected and understood contracts and international business law.

He acknowledged that although helpful noises had been made there was some way to go before a flexible visa system for business travellers could be introduced.

Doing business in Libya can be painstakingly slow, as decisions are referred upwards through Government bureaucracies.

And business representatives at the conference know that they will soon face competition from across the Atlantic.

Sipping cocktails

The easing of US trade sanctions against Libya is expected by the end of this week.

But there is no disagreement about the immense potential of many Libyan sectors, including tourism.

Roman ruins at Leptis Magna
Leptis Magna is among five world heritage sites in Libya

The Roman remains at Leptis Magna are said to be the finest in the Mediterranean area.

Hundreds of miles of coastline could be developed for international holidaymakers.

And those lucky enough to have trekked or camped out there rave about Libya's dominant share of the Sahara Desert.

The Corinthia Hotel will play its part in the evolution of tourism, as well as business meetings.

A first party of America tourists is due later this year. They will be sipping their cocktails in the centre of a city which was bombed by their government less than two decades ago.

From pariah state to much sought-after partner, Libya has moved a long way fast in the eyes of ministers and markets.


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