Flying into Tripoli International Airport offers the traveller an aerial view of Libya’s pressing challenges as well as its future potential.
First the plane flies over the Mediterranean coastline, scattered with sleepy ports ringed by the hulks of Libyan warships bombed during last year’s Nato campaign.
As the aircraft descends, passengers peering below see a cluster of cranes and scaffolds encasing the shell of a new terminal taking shape at the edge of the airport.
The airport lies dormant other than a few ageing planes painted in the livery of the country’s two state-owned carriers, Afriqiyah Airways and Libyan Airlines.
Breathing fresh life into the transport sector is viewed as an urgent priority for Libya’s interim government as it seeks to get the country back on its feet.
Getting oil shipments out of Libya’s sea ports and rich investors through its airports is vital to helping kick-start the economy.
Under the late Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year rule, the country’s infrastructure stagnated from neglect and under-investment.
While the interim regime is realistic about how much change can happen before a permanent government is elected, its members want to at least get started.
“We have a lot to do to tidy up our home,” says Yousef El Uheshi, the interim transport minister. “Transport needs money. We are talking about billions in investment that is needed.”
Activity at the ports is slowly returning again after fighting and sanctions hampered the flow of oil during the civil war to oust Qaddafi.
French warships arrived in the capital in January to help remove mines encircling the country’s oil ports. The mines were placed by Qaddafi’s regime to stop oil exports.
While the ports have long been used for the transport of oil, officials are keen to widen the mix of exports. That requires upgrading infrastructure and dredging the waterways to enable bigger ships to dock.
“We have to develop a new infrastructure for the sea ports, which we believe in the coming years is the future for the maritime industry,” says Mr El Uheshi.
Officials are keen to learn from the port free zone model pioneered in Dubai by Jebel Ali Free Zone. Talks were held with representatives from DP World, the ports operator, who visited Libya in January. Misrata, a port to the east of Tripoli, already operates as a free zone but has been less successful at enticing foreign companies.
Although the interim government is keen to loosen the shackles of nationalisation on transport projects, it favours a gradual approach.
“It is too early to talk about privatisation, it’s not something you can start straight away. We will start with a strategic partner which will serve us in the next 10 or 15 years,” says Mr El Uheshi.
Opportunities are also presenting themselves in the aviation industry. Mr El Uheshi estimates at least US$8 billion (Dh29.38bn) of investment is required in the sector.
“Even before the Nato air strikes, the UN sanctions and the EU ban, Libya’s aviation industry had little hope,” the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation wrote in a recent analysis. As Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Cairo and other regional cities built hubs, Libya was left behind. Under Qaddafi, Libya placed little focus on its airlines and airports.
After the civil war erupted, passenger numbers plummeted by more than 1 million last year and foreign airlines cut their services. International airlines are gradually coming back as stability returns. In January, Etihad Airways launched routes between Abu Dhabi and Libya for the first time.
Afriqiyah Airways and Libyan Airlines are also back in the air. The carriers have signed agreements to borrow $1.1bn from a consortium of local banks to buy five Airbus A320 aircraft and six A350s under an order placed in 2007
In a bid to cut costs, officials hope to complete a merger of the two carriers by the first half of next year.
Work may also restart in “four to five months” on the new terminal building at Tripoli airport, says Mr El Uheshi.
In August 2007, a consortium of the Turkish airport specialist TAV, the Lebanese construction firm CCC, and Odebrecht, a Brazilian company, was awarded a contract to build two terminals with 160 check-in counters and 12 baggage handling carousels.
The investment in airports and airlines is intended to help Libya regain lost ground in the battle to create a hub and spoke model.
“We are not going to work on point A to B, it is an old-fashioned operation,” Mr El Uheshi says. “We want to give a chance for our national airlines to be part of open skies and that’s how you will see our airports be designed like a hub, as we want to connect east with west and north with south.”#
While investments in airports and ports are essential to boost trade, international business relations, it is also important for the Libyan authorities to ease up visa requirements to enable business delegations and foreign companies to send their managers without difficulties and such administrative red tape if Libya is to become the Hub in the region.