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The Globe and Mail

Baird brings big business on trip to Libya

Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird, right, and Canadian Ambassador to Libya Sandra McCardell, left, visit the former fortified compound of Moammar Gadhafi in Bab al-Azizya in Tripoli, Libya on Tuesday, October 11, 2011.


John Baird brought Canadian funding for efforts to build democracy and control weapons in Libya, but it was the guest list for his trip to Tripoli that pointed to another priority: Executives from big Canadian companies travelled with him.

The foreign minister flew to the Libyan capital with heavy security and secrecy, but also executives from Montreal engineering giant SNC-Lavalin, Alberta oil giant Suncor and Calgary-based pipeline-technology firm Pure Technologies.

Libya's interim government, still struggling to control and secure the country, wants foreign companies to rush back to get the economy rolling. Canada, like other nations, wants its firms to get business. And Mr. Baird has the calling card of a staunch ally to use in efforts to smooth the resumption of business and exchanges with Libya.

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Mr. Baird isn't the only Western minister to organize a trek to Tripoli in the company of business leaders. Austrian foreign minister Michael Spindelegger was there on the weekend with executives from oil firm OMV. Germany's economy minister, Philipp Roesler, arrives with business leaders on Wednesday amid concerns in his country's coolness to the NATO mission in Libya could hurt its firms.

In Tripoli, Canadian ambassador Sandra McArdell said that a key part of her newly reopened embassy's functions will be helping Canadian companies resume business. Mr. Baird said Libyans want that, as does Canada.

"They're getting their industry back on track, which obviously provides a huge source of revenue to the Libyan government and to help the Libyan people," he said. "Obviously, we're fighting for Canadian companies to be able to begin their operations as soon as possible. That'll be good for the Canadian economy and good for the future of Libya."

The three Canadian companies with Mr. Baird did big business in Libya before the uprising that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi, but have not yet resumed operations – as foreign companies weigh concerns about security and uncertainty.

Libya's ambassador to Canada, Abubaker Karmos, noted that Libya's provisional government, the National Transitional Council, has said it will honour Gadhafi-era contracts – but Libya's finance and oil minister, Ali Tarhouni, told Mr. Baird that Libya is reviewing old deals to see if they are legitimate, Canadian government officials said.

Suncor has not resumed operations in Libya, although Harouge Oil Operations, in which it owns a 49 per cent stake, is re-starting production. "I don't have any reason to believe that our contract won't be honoured," said a spokesman, Kelli Stevens. A spokesman for SNC-Lavalin, which worked on several ventures, including building a prison, said it is trying to determine the right time to resume.

And Pure Technologies – whose deal to provide equipment and services to monitor Libya's Great Man Made River water pipeline provided 30 per cent of its revenues before the revolution – says it will resume business when it is paid the $23-million owed by the Libyan government.

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Big companies weren't the only ones on the trip. Karen McBride, president of the Canadian Bureau for International Education, a non-profit organization that manages Libyan government scholarships for about 500 Libyan graduate students in Canada went seeking to ensure the program's future.

The trip with Mr. Baird comes with an entrée that brings goodwill: Canadian political and military support. In Tripoli, Mr. Baird pointed out to the NTC's chairman, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, that Canadian fighters conducted 10 per cent of NATO sorties in Libya. He saluted the "transformative events" wrought by the rebels, and toured the ruins of Col. Gadhafi's Bab-al-Azizia compound.

He promised a $10-million fund for the transition to democracy and to help the government get rid of weapons of mass destruction, thousands of shoulder-fired missile-launchers, and guns.

"This country is armed to the hilt," Mr. Baird said. "We want to see a demilitarization to support the new government."

With a report from The Canadian Press in Tripoli

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