By Luxner, Larry
The Middle East , No. 349
THERE'S NO LIBYAN EMBASSY IN Washington, and the US Interests Section in Tripoli consists of a three-man team operating out of a hotel room. Yet as Colonel Muammar Gadaffi remakes his image from international pariah to respected elder statesman, US-Libyan relations are warming up quickly, and the country Gadaffi has ruled since 1969 is looking more and more interesting to potential American investors.
The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya has been off-limits to US citizens since 1986, when Libyan agents blew up a Berlin discotheque frequented by American servicemen, and the Reagan administration retaliated by bombing residential areas of Tripoli and Benghasi, killing 101 people including Gadaffi's adopted daughter.
In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. Four years later, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya after it refused to hand over for trial two of its citizens suspected of involvement in the Lockerbie disaster.
In 1999, however, the United States began secretly negotiating with Libya through backdoor channels, and in August 2003, the Gadaffi regime agreed to pay $2.7bn as compensation to the families of Lockerbie bombing victims. Libya also formally accepted responsibility for the terrorist attack in a letter to the UN Security Council, which promptly lifted all sanctions.
On 20 December 2003--as US forces remained bogged down in Iraq following their ousting of Saddam Hussein--Gadaffi announced that he would abandon all efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction, leading the Bush administration to lift the US travel ban against Libya.
In the past six months, the US has invited the Gadaffi regime to establish an Interests section in Washington and has authorised US companies with pre-sanctions holdings in Libya to negotiate the terms of their re-establishment in that country.
That set the stage for last month's visit to Libya by a 15-member US business delegation--the first non-oil group of its kind to travel to Libya in more than 17 years.
The delegation flew into Tripoli's old Wheelus Air Force Base, which was nationalised in 1970 and remains littered with abandoned, cannibalised Soviet aircraft relics.
"We were very warmly received," said Mark R. Parris, a former US ambassador to Turkey and leader of the delegation in Tripoli from 30 July 30 to 2 August. "Many of the people running the country are US-educated. They speak American-accented English, and they fondly remember their ties to the United States. Clearly, they were very happy to be re-engaging with Americans. There was a sense of enthusiasm. My sense is that they are anxious to renew their oil ties and develop business relationships."
The trip was organised and sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa (CCA), a non-profit trade association headquartered in Washington. It included representatives of large conglomerates such as Raytheon, DaimlerChrysler, Northrop-Grumman, Fluor and Motorola. Smaller companies such as Seattle-based Freightliner, Dallas-based Bell Helicopter and J.D. Stark & Associates, a US agricultural company based in Panama, also participated.
Parris, who chairs the CCA's working group on Libya but had never been to the country before, said he didn't feel he was in a police state.
"I didn't get any sense of oppressiveness," he told The Middle East. "I've lived in the Soviet Union, so I know how that can feel. Tripoli is a bright sunny place along the Mediterranean, with beautiful beaches."
While the group didn't meet Gadaffi himself, they did hold talks with key Libyan ministers, and each company representative had a series of private meetings with government and private-sector officials related to their specific interests.
The visit also included a mini-conference with about 100 members of the Libyan business community, convened by the newly formed Libyan Businessmen's Council. …