ISTANBUL // With rebel forces in Libya battling the remnants of the fallen regime of Col Muammar Qaddafi, Turkish businessmen are eager to get back to the North African country.
A delegation of Turkish businessmen is expected to travel to Benghazi this week, Zafer Caglayan, the Turkish economy minister, told reporters last week. The Turkish embassy in Tripoli, closed in May, was expected to re-open after the Eid holiday as well, he said.
"Work in Libya will resume where it was interrupted," the minister said.
Roughly 140 Turkish companies, mostly construction firms, were working on projects worth billions of dollars in Libya when fighting broke out in February. About 25,000 Turkish workers were evacuated from Libya.
Now, with the war entering its final phase, Turkey is trying to secure its economic interests in the post-Qaddafi Libya.
On the political front, Ankara has thrown its weight behind the National Transitional Council after breaking ties with Col Qaddafi following his refusal to heed Turkish demands to step down. The Turkish government hosted a meeting of the international contact group on Libya in Istanbul last week and called for a swift release of Libyan money frozen by the United Nations as part of sanctions against Col Qaddafi.
Bilaterally, Turkey has offered US$300 million in financial support to the NTC, $100m as a grant and $200m as a loan. Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, told reporters last week that Turkish Airlines would resume flights to Benghazi soon.
Mr Caglayan, the economy minister, said Turkish companies still had contracts worth $18.5bn (Dh39bn) in Libya. The damage to projects and equipment would become clear after businessmen inspect work sites, but Turkish construction firms were hardened by their experiences in other violent countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the minister said. "Our businessmen will easily be able to work in Libya."
The Turkish-Libyan Business Council has said Turkish companies own machines worth almost $1bn and had about $100m in bank accounts in Libya. Turkish companies were also owed $1.4bn in unpaid bills in Libya, Ersin Takla, the council's chairman, told Turkish media.
Bahar Dincer, an analyst at the International Strategic Research Organisation, or Usak, a think tank in Ankara, said European countries like France and Italy also had begun work to make sure they will have a place in the economy of the new Libya. "They have worked on their contacts in Libya for a long time and so have an advantage over Turkey," Mr Dincer told The National by telephone from Ankara.
Turkey, a rising regional power whose economic strength is partly based on increasing exports to Middle Eastern countries, has seen its trade with some Arab states plummet because of the upheaval of the Arab Spring. Trade with Libya has fallen to $550m in the first seven months of this year, down from roughly $1.5bn in the same period last year.
Trade relations with Syria also have suffered because of the violence there. A Turkish truck driver was killed during fighting in Syria last week.
The volatility in countries such as Syria, Egypt and Libya was certain to hurt Turkish economic interests in the short term, Mr Dincer said. "But in the medium and long term, it can get even better for Turkish companies than it was before."
As an example, Mr Dincer pointed to "inconsistencies" of the Qaddafi government and rules that offered little protection against the whims of a dictatorial regime. A "more rational" system would be better for foreign companies, he said. "But it will take time. It will not happen overnight."
Mr Dincer said Turkey and the EU should work together to get Libya back on its feet. "An integrated approach would be more effective" than efforts by individual players, he said. The EU, with its experience in technical aid, and Turkey, with its credibility as a Muslim democracy, could cooperate to the benefit of all. "Everyone knows that this would be very difficult to achieve," Mr Dincer said.
For the moment, there is not much talk of an "integrated approach". Individual nations are working to protect their own interests.
"Libya is too precious to leave it to [Nicolas] Sarkozy," said Oktay Ozdemir, CEO of Wenice, a Turkish producer of children's clothes with outlets in Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. He was referring to the French president, whose country spearheaded the Western military intervention in Libya and who is to host a meeting of the Libya contact group in Paris Thursday.