Postcard from… Tripoli

Libya has only recently opened up to foreign investment. After decades of a combination of an international embargo against the country and internal policies which increased the scale and scope of the public sector, much of the private sector disappeared completely.

Everything is now changing. Libya has adopted new policies to encourage both local and foreign private sector businesses. Much of the Libyan Investment Authority’s (LIA) work flows as a direct result of these new policies.

Until three years ago, the LIA was little more than a Libyan governmental entity in the process of being formed. Today the LIA is one of the world’s richest sovereign funds, and is ranked as the thirteenth largest fund by the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute. It was established in August 2006 and has an estimated $70bn to invest.

When the opportunity arose for me to be seconded to my native home, Libya, and more specifically to the LIA for a period of six months from Trowers & Hamlins, where I am currently a third seat trainee, I knew it was an opportunity I could not miss. I packed my bag and took the short three and half hours flight to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, where I have been since mid April.

My first day with the LIA proved every bit as demanding as I had envisaged. I sat in the open plan office in the legal department, which is composed of nine lawyers, all of whom are very capable and distinguished lawyers in Libya. Being a trainee the SRA required that I be supervised by a UK qualified solicitor. It worked out that Kenneth Addly, a senior associate at Berwin Leighton Paisner, was also seconded to the LIA, and had kindly agreed to supervise me during his time in Libya.

The majority of the work I do at the LIA consists of reviewing and negotiating financial agreements and in particular asset management agreements. The work is however very interesting.

The LIA occupies the 22nd floor of the Al Fatah Tower (Burj al Fatah). The tower is located in Tripoli’s modern business centre at the coast side of modern Tripoli. All around our office and out of every window I look out of, the sight of the construction workers working hard in the blazing sun to complete the building of new blocks can be seen. Whether it is the Daewoo hotel, or the Suma office complex, or any of the number of other complexes being built around us, sitting here I find it hard to reconcile this image with news that the construction industry in the rest of the world is

virtually at a standstill. Thankfully, no signs of the economic crisis can be witnessed here.

A short five minute drive from our offices is the old walled madina. Walking through the medina you see the souks, the street stalls, the narrow alleys, the sun-washed white buildings, a few tourists browsing the handicrafts and local men sitting in the cafe by the Ottoman clock-tower, smoking their sheeshas and drinking mint tea or Turkish coffee. There is something tranquil about it, something authentic in comparison to the modernized souks of the Middle East.

The medina constituted the entire city for two millennia of its history until the Italians took control of Libya in 1911 and laid the new city beyond the medina. Today the city seems to have a bit of everything, from a beautiful seaside location, to a fishing harbour and market, to the medina, to the Roman arch and Roman pillars, to a first class museum, and the old white Italian buildings which gave Tripoli its nickname the “white bride of the Mediterranean”.

Official working hours at the LIA are 8am to 4pm Sunday to Thursday. This gives me ample time to socialise and enjoy the beauties of the country. The short drive to anywhere in Tripoli, the long sunny days and the cheap services on offer are all factors which encourage spending as much time as possible enjoying my time in Tripoli.

It will be in mid October when I return to the Trowers offices in London and face the start of the cold winter and the infamous London transport. Undoubtedly there are many things which I miss about London, including the punctual appointments, the better organised work, the sense of professionalism associated with the city, but I will leave Tripoli with a sense of yearning to come back. The easy and relaxed lifestyle, Libya’s new appetite for investment, the friendly faces, the great weather and the

Libyan cuisine will bring me back here sooner rather than later.

Fatima Swehli is a trainee in the Tripoli office of Trowers & Hamlins