x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Broken banks hinder return to business across Libya

HSBC joins growing numbers of companies resuming operations in Libya, but the collapse of the country's banking system has left companies struggling to make payments.

About $2.2 billion in deposits were moved out of Libyan banking system during the first quarter. Gianluigi Guercia / AFP
About $2.2 billion in deposits were moved out of Libyan banking system during the first quarter. Gianluigi Guercia / AFP

It has been six weeks since Abdulla Boulsien saw a working ATM in Libya.

Mr Boulsien, a partner at Tuareg Capital, a private equity firm that owns stakes in a drilling company and a small hospital in Libya, says challenges abound for companies operating in the post-war country.

But the recovering from the near-death experience of the country's banking system is one of the biggest challenges facing his business.

Bank withdrawal limits of 750 Libyan dinars (Dh2,242) for individuals, imposed in the wake of bank runs during the country's revolution, had left his company unable to pay its staff.

"As a business, the limit is slightly higher, but it's miniscule compare to how much an average business needs," he said. "You cannot make sufficient payments."

The challenges for companies looking to restart operations are huge in post-war Libya, even as they slowly trickle back into the country.

HSBC became the latest western firm to re-establish operations, having closed its doors in February following UN sanctions against the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

"The region is by no means settled, but we have taken the decision that the time is right to return to Libya," said Timothy Gray, the chief executive of HSBC Libya.

"However, we're taking a number of steps to protect our business there, including increased security for the office and measures to protect our staff. The region needs a functioning banking sector if it is to rebuild, and while it's a hard market to operate in, staying closed does not help Libya," he said.

HSBC does not have a licence to offer banking services in Libya, meaning it is limited to offering advice to companies with interests in Libya.

About US$2.2 billion (Dh8.08bn) in deposits from Libyan residents were moved out of the domestic banking system during the first quarter of the year, according to data from the Bank for International Settlements, the organisation of central banks that is based in Basel, Switzerland.

A teeming black market has also sprung up for exchanging the Libyan dinar for other currencies such as the US dollar.

The EU and the UN lifted sanctions against Libya in September, prompting a number of companies to return to the country in an effort to profit from the post-war recovery.

But they may face scrutiny of their business practices under the former Qaddafi regime, said Theodore Karasik, the director of research and development at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma).

"Most of the focus will be on monies left over from the old regime and what will be deemed to be stolen assets," he said. "Stolen asset recovery is now big business across the new Mena region and some western and other foreign firms will get caught up while the new Libyan government untangles the web left to them."

Nato's precision bombing campaign left much of the country's infrastructure intact, including power, water and fuel systems.

But looting has left many companies lacking basic equipment, Mr Boulsien said. "The bigger issue is that companies don't have computer cables or generators," he said.

"Even the IOCs [international oil companies] have things like generators and cabling stolen. All this just brings delays," he said.

ghunter@thenational.ae

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