Few Americans know contemporary Libya the way David Hamod does. Having been there four times since December 2004 makes Hamod a relative expert on a country that, until recently, was off-limits to U.S. citizens for a quarter of a century.
Hamod, 49, is president and chief executive officer of the National US-Arab Chamber of Commerce (NUSACC), an influential business organization with 1,500 members throughout the United States and the Arab world.
“The Libyan people are very hospitable, and they’re really looking forward to seeing Americans in Libya again,” Hamod said. “People of my generation still remember what it was like to have Americans there.”
Hamod, a third-generation Lebanese-American who’s been to nearly all of the Arab League’s 22 member nations, suggested that “Libya is an attractive market because they need so much. It’s also appealing because it’s a place U.S. companies couldn’t go for a long time, and Libya’s 2,000-kilometer-long virgin coastline along the Mediterranean has some U.S. tourism companies salivating at the prospects.”
Hamod took over the NUSACC in 2004. Before that, he ran his own consulting firm, which promoted business between the United States and the Arab world and had some 70 corporate clients.
Unlike the US-Libya Business Association, the NUSACC represents mostly small and medium-size enterprises. The chamber has been around for nearly 40 years and has offices in Houston, Los Angeles and New York, in addition to its Washington headquarters.
“Our companies have to find a niche, in the same way the European companies have found niches,” Hamod explained. “Initially, some of the largest beneficiaries will be big U.S. companies because they have the economies of scale to go into Libya and work on infrastructure projects. But over time—as the Libyan market matures—there will be a wide variety of opportunities for small and medium enterprises, in telecom, financial services, health care, tourism and the energy sector.”
In early April 2006, NUSACC—in partnership with the Corporate Council on Africa—took a 25-member delegation to Libya, the largest U.S. business group of its kind to travel there since bilateral relations were restored. Many well-known firms were on the list of delegates, including Boeing, Hewlett-Packard, Holland Amer-ica Line, Lockheed Martin, Motor-ola, Oracle and Raytheon International.
“Some of these companies are household names, but others were little guys, and I think the trip went extremely well,” Hamod said, noting that he’s also attended the Tripoli International Fair twice and is trying to organize another delegation to return to Libya later this year.
“It takes time for the two erstwhile enemies to build a real rapprochement. The initial euphoria of bringing Libya back into the international community has worn off, and now we’re looking at such mundane issues as visa processing, placement of embassies, tariffs and so on,” Hamod said. “The Libyans don’t have an entity in the United States that’s well-positioned to reach out to U.S. companies. They do have an investment body in Tripoli, but its contacts in the U.S. are very limited.”
In addition, visa difficulties and bureaucracy are limiting growth— a never-ending source of frustration for U.S. executives wanting to visit the North African country. “It’s difficult to get a visa these days because of the reciprocity issue between the two governments, but if you’re persistent enough, you may get a visa,” Hamod said. “In the meantime, it’s the business communities that suffer.”
Hamod, whose organization does not accept income from foreign governments, warned that “when it comes to international politics, nothing is irreversible, and if this experiment doesn’t go well, we could go back to a situation where American companies are not welcome in Libya. That’s why both the U.S. government and the private sector need to make a special effort to reach out to the Libyans.
“All of us are praying for the best. The Libyan Embassy in Washington has done an excellent job in reaching out to the American people, and dealing with us in a forthright and honest manner,” he added. “I have great respect for the work [Libyan Ambassador Ali] Aujali and his colleagues have done, especially when you consider where they started two years ago. But they are still hamstrung by decisions being made in Tripoli, and in Washington by the U.S. government. My message is: Let’s focus on profits, not politics.”