Amid Hinderances of Old Ways, Libya Opens Up

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Moammar Gadhafi's baby blue Volkswagen Beetle

The Old: Moammar Gadhafi's baby blue Volkswagen Beetle, now parked in the national museum. Gwen Thompkins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gwen Thompkins, NPR
A Cadillac sits in a showroom in Libya

The New: A Cadillac sits in a showroom in Libya, a symbol that capitalism is growing. Gwen Thompkins, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Gwen Thompkins, NPR

In recent years, Libya has undergone a nip and tuck.

The traces of antiquity are still there. But now, free from international sanctions, the country is looking years younger — even as Libyans harbor some of the same old habits of the past.

Many faraway kingdoms have clambered for trading posts on this coastal land of North Africa — and today's world powers are no different. After years of political and economic isolation, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab state-of-the-masses is opening up to old-fashioned capitalism.

Transportation Inroads

At a recent air show in Tripoli, the sky was like a moving catalogue of the fastest, shiniest and latest in aerial technology. Dignitaries, Libyan air force pilots, techno geeks and hundreds of Libyan families are kicking the tires, so to speak. That's because they're buying. Or, rather, their brother leader — Moammar Gadhafi — is buying.

"It's really for the leader and others to determine what they want, " says Adam Thomas with the British Ministry of Defense. He represents an array of logistics, surveillance and supply companies that want to do business in Libya.

Even Land Rover and Rolls Royce want contracts — a far cry from Gadhafi's baby blue Volkswagen Beetle, now parked in the national museum.

Great Britain is one of Libya's newest trading partners, following a deal earlier this year in which the two formerly hostile nations made nice.

"We see the future in Libya dependent on more joint ventures, more opportunities for a skilled Libyan work force to get involved, and to learn, believe it or not, that there's things in Libya we can learn from. It's not all one-way streets here," Thomas says.

Libya's World Associations

Ironically, Libya is most often associated with an air disaster. Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and all aboard were killed.

Gadhafi denied involvement at the time. But an investigation linked the bomb to Libya, which effectively isolated the country from the West. In 2003, Libya agreed to compensate the families of the Pan Am flight and also renounced weapons of mass destruction.

The United States and Libya restored full diplomatic ties last year. Now, Libya sells oil to the West. And as oil prices rise, so does Libya's buying power.

"I personally moved back here," says Nasser Muhammed Zwawee. "I lived in Canada for about 10 years or so. I came back two years ago, and it's such amazing change. I myself am surprised."

Zwawee deals in real estate. He says Libya is where the action is. Wearing a black suit and black sunglasses and with his black hair slicked back, he seems like the kind of guy who would know.

"The sanction years, we used to go abroad to buy ... like clothing, perfumes, stuff like this," Zwawee says. "But now, pretty much, you can find anything. And it's brand names — like something original. Before, you really didn't have that. No way."

A More Cosmopolitan Bent

There's no arguing that the Libyan government is moving toward a more cosmopolitan future. This is an "about face" from the culture of asceticism that Gadhafi once embraced in his "green book," outlining Socialist revolutionary philosophy.

At the air show, Cessna is appealing to Libyan customers who want to get where they are going in style.

There are plans for a new international airport in Tripoli that looks like a page out of Frank Gehry's drawing pad. And Libyan Airlines is reportedly acquiring a new fleet of planes from Canada and France.

"You know, the time has changed," says Muhammad Ayad, head of the cabin crew for Libyan Airlines. "Now we wants to be with the world, you know. We want to cover all the countries by our airlines." Ayad says that if all goes well, the airline will be landing in New York in the next two years.

But no matter how fancy-pants Libya becomes, the old ways are still vital to the people who live here.

In the labyrinth of the medina, or Old City, are the shops where the locals buy. It's where the stuff of life is sold: metal works, fish, household goods and the gleaming gold necklaces that brides wear on their wedding day. Not many Libyans in this teeming place are willing to talk on the record.

Despite the appearance of a more open economy, people here seem unusually closed. Remember, Libya is no democracy. Gadhafi has held dictatorial power for the past 38 years. Government minders accompany journalists to most destinations. And when ordinary people see the minders — most conversations come to an end.



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