Fascinating to be back on the ground in Malta, almost 10 years since leaving the country. I was posted here as a diplomat in the late 1990s, in the run up to Malta’s EU accession and the re-establishment of British diplomatic relations with Libya. A decade later, and I am struck by the parallels.
The future of the EU is once again a common topic of conversation in the cafes and ‘band club’ bars. And, as in the 1990s, many are predicting an opposition party victory in upcoming parliamentary elections – in the 1990s it was the pro-EU Nationalists coming to power; now it may be the Malta Labour Party. But even more familiar is the sense of Malta, just a short hop from Tripoli, as a staging post to Libya. Once again, the St Julian’s hotels and restaurants are full of expats and salespeople, some waiting to return to their oil sector jobs, others eager to enter the market. Every day, the Air Malta flight to Tripoli is wait-listed.
In conversation, several contacts express anxiety about the homes and offices they left behind when the fighting started in Libya. Others are more concerned about how the NTC will deal with businesses that prospered under Qadaffi and whether contracts issued by the old regime will be honoured. But most are focused on the huge opportunity that the new Libya represents. Tellingly, one Maltese acquaintance, a self-confessed sanctions-buster, agrees that little has changed: “I made a fortune selling to Libya during sanctions then and I’m making another one now”.