Malta’s close ties with Libya ‘an opportunity for US companies’

Malta’s long-standing and deep connections with Libya are an opportunity for American companies, Lorraine Harriton, the US State Department Special Representative for Business tells The Times Business in an interview during a visit to Malta. 

“We know that Malta has long-standing and deep connections with Libya which I think is an opportunity for American companies to leverage. It will be some time before Libya really has the type of infrastructure and environment that makes it easy for companies to conduct business in Libya so we think there are opportunities for American businesses to use Malta’s business connections and its strategic location to access Libya. I am here today to have discussions with the Maltese government on how we might be able to collaborate and support American businesses,” she says.

She adds that the US is very grateful to the Maltese government for all it did during the Libyan conflict “to support our agenda and be a partner in that”.

Ms Harriton, who also spoke at a business breakfast on Intellectual Property Rights protection during her visit to Malta, says American companies are very interested in the opportunities in Libya. In fact, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez was recently part of a trade mission to Libya organised by the Libya US Business Association to assess the opportunities there.

“The visit was part of an overall programme that the US government has done with Libya and the American business community. Our Ambassador to Libya, Gene Cretz, has been having conference calls on a regular basis to keep the American business community up to speed on what’s going on in Libya.”

She says the US government is renewing its commercial relationship with the government and people of Libya “and our recent trade mission included companies like Dow Chemicals, GE and several other high level representatives of the private sector.”

Ms Harriton says that besides the energy sector there are other US economic interests in Libya.

“There’s a tremendous amount of infrastructure work that needs to be done and all the major infrastructure companies are interested, the airport, roads and water. There are opportunities in IT, telecommunications, and then over time, the tourism and hotel industry and the retail industry.”

Special representative Harriton is responsible for promoting US commercial interests worldwide. What message is she giving about the state of the American economy?

“The US economy is recovering, it’s growing and what we are really focused on, on my agenda, are two areas. One is supporting President Barack Obama’s national export initiative, which is to double exports over five years from 2009 to 2014. This is on track and in the first two years we grew 15 per cent, so it’s been very successful, but we have a lot of work to do to continue to meet that agenda. Dealing with Libya is part of our overall national export initiative.

“The other area we are focused on is promoting foreign direct investment into the US. In fact I am on my way to India where we have an opportunity to expand both our exports as well as Indian investment into the US.”

She says that the US State Department has a big focus on helping American businesses and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has delivered a number of major speeches on economic statecraft – a recognition that in the 21st century supporting American businesses and exporting the US’s economic agenda are an important part of American foreign policy agenda. “Things like working closely with Malta to work together in Libya, for example, and even the discussion I had today on Intellectual Property Rights protection and how we can collaborate on that is part of economic statecraft. We believe that strong bilateral and multilateral economic relationships support our overall foreign policy agenda.”

She says that over the last decade military and security issues were really the focus, especially after 9/11 but as they look at the outlook for the next years the US’s economic relationships are really going to be critical for America’s overall foreign policy and political agenda.

“We see this around the world, we see a lot of shifts, to where economic relationships are going to be and we see a shift towards Asia. While we maintain our strong relationship with Europe we must also look towards the emerging powers in Asia,” she says.

How does her office overlap with the US Commerce Department and the Office of the Special Trade representative?

“That’s a very good question. The Commerce Department is responsible for the 70 largest markets around the world and they have staff in each country. In countries like Malta we (the State Department) partner with the Commerce Department so that they can provide their services and we have economic officers – so the State Department is responsible for the commercial relationship. We also have a very collaborative inter-agency process where we work together on common agendas, so my role – I work very closely with the Commerce Department – is to focus on this economic statecraft agenda.”

As for the potential for increased business ties between Malta and the US she says Malta is really moving to develop its information innovation society so there’s a lot of potential for growth with some of the technology companies. “I know there’s been a lot of cooperation already with HP, IBM and Microsoft,” Ms Harriton, who spent more than 25 years in the IT sector as a senior executive at IBM and Network Computing Devices, points out.

Asked whether the Arab Spring offers an economic opportunity for the US Ms Harriton says the American government has been very supportive of the new regimes that have been put in place in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

“We are doing a lot to try to provide the type of aid they need, and in Libya in particular to really build up the commercial relationship. The Arab Spring is really about jobs and economic opportunity. In Tunisia the revolution started by somebody saying: ‘How do I earn a living for my family’. Our programmes in these countries are really about providing economic opportunities.”

Regarding whether the US presidential election will be dominated by the state of the US economy, Ms Harriton is completely non-committal, saying: “Nobody knows what’s going to happen six months from now!”

(Source: Times of Malta)

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