LONDON Britain's help in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi will never be forgotten and British companies can expect to play an instrumental role in rebuilding Libya, a senior diplomat told executives on Tuesday.
"I would like to thank the British people and their government for their invaluable support," Mahmud Nacua, a long-time Libyan exile and now charge d'affaires at the country's embassy in London, told a private meeting of business people arranged by the British government.
"I can assure you that British businesses have a role to play and hope you will work with us to build the future Libya," Nacua told the meeting, attended by about 100 executives and closed to media other than Reuters.
Stephen Green, a former head of bank HSBC and now Britain's trade and investment minister, warned delegates they should take nothing for granted in their dealings with Libyans, however.
"They are not naive, they expect it to be profitable to us, but they're not going to do us any favors. It will be competitive," Green told delegates.
A white paper published by the Economist Intelligence Unit on Tuesday highlighted how stiff competition might be with South Korean, U.S., French and Italian firms all tipped as being well-placed if Libya can break with its past.
"If, as we expect, power is passed to an elected government staffed with able technocrats and supported by a wide range of interests ... the opportunities will be substantial, and the business challenges confronting potential investors will be on a par with those commonly faced in fast-growing emerging markets," the report concluded.
British and French companies are hoping the support their governments showed for the anti-Gaddafi forces will give them a head start in Libya, where high-quality oil reserves and damaged or aging infrastructure mean lucrative contracts could be up for grabs.
Firms have not been resting on their laurels, however, with executives telling Reuters in recent days that they already had representatives on the ground in Libya weeks ago when fighting was still fierce.
Green said his UK Trade and Investment office had two staff operating in Libya and planned to bolster that to 10 in the coming weeks and months.
"They (Libyans) are determined that this will be the turning of the page into a completely new era ... It would be ridiculous of us not to rise to this opportunity," Green said.
Britain is hoping that its support for Gaddafi's opponents in the early days of the uprising will help overcome any reservations or awkwardness stirred up by former British prime minister Tony Blair's leading role in bringing Gaddafi in from the cold and forging closer business ties.
ARMS DUMPS AND BEACHES
Nacua said the British government had played a key part in the overthrow of Gaddafi and he had no doubt British businesses would have an "equally instrumental role" in rebuilding Libya.
"We are still in a transitional time and there are a lot of challenges. Most of the institutions are not fully ready to receive a lot of businessmen but they will do their best, especially for healthcare," the diplomat, who has been in exile for 33 years, said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.
Immediate priorities included securing volatile arms dumps, repairing airports and care for injured fighters, Nacua told Reuters.
Green, who was in Libya on Monday, said it was clear many Libyans were "deeply grateful" for the role Britain played in recent months.
"This is a country that is intrinsically wealthy. They recognize the strength of British competence in so many areas. They recognize the strength of our infrastructure consultancy capabilities," he told delegates.
Green described the potential for British businesses as enormous, noting the need for investment in its oil and gas industry, telecoms infrastructure, financial services, education and healthcare.
"As a person there for the first time it's also obvious that this is a country with tourism opportunities," Green added, noting Libya's climate, beaches and world heritage sites.
Green said he had had "a really good series of meetings" with ministers and lunch with key business people during his trip to Libya.
He noted short-term imperatives, such as dealing with trauma and repairing infrastructure damaged during the conflict, but said Libya's wealth, combined with decades of under-investment relative to oil-rich Gulf nations, meant the opportunities for businesses were considerable.
Green and Nacua warned, however, that continued fighting meant challenges faced any companies doing business in Libya.
"Working in Libya has always required patience and perhaps now, more than ever, I urge the international business community to be patient," Nacua told the meeting.
(Editing by David Holmes and Hans-Juergen Peters)