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News • September 05 2004

Visa problem drags on… and on

Karl Schembri

Four months since Malta and Libya adopted new entry regulations in line with European Union directives, visas for many Maltese citizens who want to travel to the Jamahiriya remain a problem at a time when unprecedented business opportunities are opening up in the former pariah state.
A high-level technical delegation from the Libyan government is expected to arrive here tomorrow to discuss visa problems with officials from the Foreign Ministry.
The delegation arrives in the wake of two visits to Tripoli by two different Maltese foreign ministers in the last couple of months which still did not serve to iron out the unexpected problems with the Libyan immigration authority.
“We want to keep evolving our very cordial relationship in all ways,” Foreign Minister Michael Frendo told MaltaToday. “The Maltese and Libyan delegations will be discussing ways to facilitate the issuing of visas.”
In a brief telephone conversation with Libyan Foreign Minister Abdel Rahman Chalgam last week, Frendo welcomed the impending arrival of the delegation and expressed his wish to see improvements to the visa procedures.
The main bone of contention revolves around the Libyan authorities’ insistence on requesting an official “invitation” to every Maltese citizen who applies to enter Libya – a measure that does not feature in the bilateral agreement reached following Malta’s accession to the EU.
The problem is affecting mainly Maltese businessmen who were used to unrestricted entry to the island’s southern neighbour. The Libyan authorities are now requiring them to produce an invitation from Libyan entities to be granted entry visas, prolonging procedures indefinitely and banning entry to several applicants.
The procedure is similar to that adopted in relation to other nationals wishing to enter Libya although this is not mirrored in the procedures adopted by Maltese immigration authorities in relation to Libyans who apply to enter here. Foreign ministry sources say that since 1 May, around 4,500 visas were approved for Libyans who wished to visit Malta.
Libya is the biggest buyer of Maltese goods and services of all the Middle Eastern and North African countries and yet there is no guarantee the situation will remain the same if nothing is done to boost economic activity between the two countries.
A METCO office opened by the government in Tripoli in 2001 in a bid to facilitate Maltese investment and exports there remains debilitated by the new visa restrictions for Maltese businessmen, who previously enjoyed a competitive edge over foreigners.
Malta managed to maintain very close ties with Libya during the decade-long UN embargo, but since it was lifted in 2000 and Col Muammar Gaddafi started returning his country back to the international fold, giant multinationals have been rapidly increasing their investments in the oil rich North African country.
Maltese businesses hope to establish their own niches there in mid-level management and the services operations of Libya’s oil industry.
“Malta can act as a facilitator for companies or individuals hoping to do business in Libya,” Frendo’s predecessor, John Dalli, had told The Washington Post last May following his meeting in the White House with Secretary of State Colin Powell. “We know the terrain and can act as very good scouts.”
But the Libyan terrain is no longer the monopoly of Maltese “scouts.” Even on the political front, the government’s rhetoric about Malta’s “bridging role” with Libya turned out to be inconsequential in Gaddafi’s landmark negotiations with his most unlikely of allies: Britain and the US.
Gaddafi’s men had started secret negotiations with American diplomats and British secret agents from MI6 only a couple of weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Centre on 11 September three years ago. They persuaded Gaddafi not so much to defuse the nuclear threat – an extravagance his country could ill afford in any case – but to symbolically renounce it last December, in exchange for the lifting of remaining sanctions and the normalisation of international relations following decades of isolation.
Meanwhile, Libya has yet to appoint its new ambassador to Malta following Ali Salah Mohammed Najem’s retirement last month.
Diplomatic sources say the lack of appointment of a Libyan ambassador so far is no cause for concern for the Maltese government as every political appointment by the Libyan regime needs to be officially rubber-stamped by numerous so-called People’s Councils in lengthy bureaucratic procedures.
On the other hand, the Maltese government will be appointing Joe Cassar as its next ambassador to Libya next January, following a stint as ambassador to Russia. He will be replacing Richard Vella Laurenti, whom Frendo’s aides laud as having done a sterling job in Tripoli. Vella Laurenti will become ambassador to Cairo.






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