An heiress to the Bronfman fortune and her Libyan fiancé have launched a trade initiative between Canada and Libya, saying they want to break the legacy of corrupt deals under Colonel Moammar Gadhafi.
Sara Bronfman, 35, daughter of the billionaire Edgar Bronfman Sr., met a former civilian pilot named Basit Igtet, 41, over lunch during the height of the Libyan revolution last summer while he served as a diplomatic envoy for the Libyan rebels, helping them gain official recognition from foreign governments. Ms. Bronfman became passionately involved in the country's troubles, even visiting the eastern city of Benghazi for what she calls "a few very intense days" in November.
On Monday, they announced the creation of the Canada-Libya Chamber of Commerce, with Ms. Bronfman as president and Mr. Igtet as chairman. Their group doesn't yet have a office in Canada or a functional website, but Ms. Bronfman says they have already decided to avoid dealing with SNC-Lavalin or other companies that are alleged to have had close ties with the Gadhafi family.
"Those companies that worked with Gadhafi and helped his cohort to get wealthy did so at the expense of the Libyan people, and I think they have a huge debt to pay to the Libyan people," Ms. Bronfman said in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail this week. "They won't be invited. We're very firm on that."
Ms. Bronfman's group is one of several that have recently started pushing for a renewal of Canada-Libya trade, which surpassed $250-million annually before the revolution but plunged as foreign staff were evacuated in 2011. The fact that many trade organizations have sprung up in the aftermath of the uprising is reflective of the chaotic new Libya, where disparate factions are vying for opportunities in a country rich with oil and gas.
It remains to be seen which organizations, if any, will emerge as significant players in Canada's trade with Libya. Ms. Bronfman and Mr. Igtet do not appear to be well known along Libyan-Canadians, but they say they have already established an office in Tripoli and plan to scout for office locations in Canada.
Forbes magazine estimated the net worth of Ms. Bronfman's father at $2.6-billion in 2010. Until now, most of the publicity surrounding Sara Bronfman and her sister, Clare, has focused on their devotion to the so-called "human potential" business NXIVM (pronounced "nexium") based in Albany, N.Y.
The company says on its website that it helps clients "acquire and build the skills for success." A 2003 article in Forbes magazine quoted Ms. Bronfman's father expressing concern about his daughters' involvement in NXIVM: "I think it's a cult," Mr. Bronfman Sr. reportedly said. Rick Ross, a cult expert, reportedly faced legal action from NXIVM over similar claims.
Ms. Bronfman says she has taken a leave of absence this year from her position as a coach at NXIVM to focus on her Libya projects and her upcoming wedding to Mr. Igtet, who says he wants to help his country recover from war.
Besides working as president of the Libyan-Canadian chamber, Ms. Bronfman says she has also taken on duties as president of the U.S.-Libya Chamber of Commerce. "Being involved in global issues is something I'd always wanted to do, and I'd spent a good number of years training myself," Ms. Bronfman said. "I was ready for this type of opportunity and meeting Basit presented that to me."
The negative press over NXIVM has not impeded her foray into international affairs, she added.
"I think it's a very unfortunate controversy that's been conjured up about NXIVM and it's baseless," she said. "If you look at any organization that's doing anything in the world, nasty stuff gets written about them."
Ms. Bronfman said that she and Mr. Igtet intend to establish trade organizations in other countries as well to promote ethical business relationships with Libya. She says the country must be protected from firms that would "take advantage of the delicate situation" after the revolution.
"In its incubation period right now, it's sort of like a caterpillar that goes though a cocoon and becomes a butterfly," she said.
Canada-Libya business groups
An assortment of groups has emerged in recent months to broker business deals between Canada and Libya. These include:
Libyan-Canadian Association of Co-operation and Development
Ed Fast, Canada's Minister of International Trade, attended the inauguration of this group during his three-day visit to Tripoli in January. A Canadian government statement said the organization brings together people who "share social, commercial and educational ties with Canada."
Canada-Libya Trade Alliance
This industry group represents major Canadian firms such as Bombardier and SNC-Lavalin. The group's president, Ali Malek, expressed doubt that many Libyans would endorse Ms. Bronfman's view about avoiding companies with links to the previous regime. Any discomfort about Canadian firms' closeness to the family of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi would likely be overcome by the gratitude Libyans feel for Canada's role in the NATO campaign, he said.
Free Libyan Chamber Of Commerce (Canada)
Walid Elhouderi, 35, serves as president of the FLCOC while working on business and law degrees. Headquartered in a suburban Ottawa home, the group claims to have deep connections to the Libyan-Canadian community. It's too early to know whether Canadian companies will experience much difficulty working in Libya as a result of their previous relationships with the Gadhafis, Mr. Elhouderi said. "People don't usually care what you did before, as long as the money is good," he said. "But companies that dealt with the previous government, yes, sometimes they get looked at sideways."
- Graeme Smith