Brazil's business in Libya
At the glistening corporate high-rise headquarters of a few giant Brazilian companies, it’s a good bet some executives are sweating right now as they watch with keen interest events unfold in Libya.
Brazil’s biggest and most influential engineering and construction companies are also some of the most important players in construction projects in the northern African country that is now embroiled in a bloody citizen uprising against the 40-year rule of Muammar Gaddafi.
Now many of these Brazilian companies are scrambling to figure out if they should get their workers out of the country, and wondering if potentially billions of dollars in business deals are at risk.
Back in 2003 when UN sanctions were lifted against Libya, the main obstacle for Brazilian businesses to do business in that country was also dismantled. It opened up an opportunity for multi-nationals to explore what was previously mostly an untapped market flush with money to spend, especially on re-building a crumbling country. Since 2003, Libya has invested, by some accounts, more than $120bn in infrastructure projects, which has provided fertile ground for Brazilian construction companies.
Of the nearly 600 Brazilians living in Libya now, according to the foreign ministry, it’s safe to say almost all of them work for one of three Brazilians companies: Odebrecht, Andrade Gutierrez or Queiroz Galvão.
Odebrecht, with world-renowned expertise in building everything from dams to airports, currently employs some 5,000 people in Libya, and 200 Brazilians. Odebrecht was one of the first major Brazilian companies to get contracts in Libya in 2007, worth back then an estimated $1.4bn. The company currently has highly sought after contract to build terminals at Tripoli’s international airport as well as a major beltway highway, or ring road, as it’s called.
Late on Monday, Odebrecht said they were putting into place mandatory evacuations for the nearly 5,000 staff they have in Libya.
But as recent as a couple years ago, other Brazilian engineering and construction heavyweights followed Odebrecht’s lead and rushed into Libya. They include, Queiros Galvão and Andrade Gutierrez. Queiros Galvão at one time had six different infrastructure contracts in the country worth hundreds of millions, according to the company. Like Odebrecht, they currently have thousands of staff in country, including about 200 Brazilians. They, too, have been helping employees who wish to evacaute.
Andrade Gutierrez, according to reports, won three infrastructure contracts in Libya in 2009 worth at least $600m. A company media representative did not respond to my request for more information.
OAS, another Brazilian construction giant, last year was planning on setting up a subsidiary in Libya. The status of those plans are uncertain, as no company representative could be reached.
And Petrobras, the state controlled oil giant, has exploration operations in Libya since 2005, according to the company. They have a 70 per cent equity stake in one exploratory block they run as a consortium. On Monday, company president Sergio Gabrielli said only 10 Brazilians work for Petrobras in Libya, and there are no disruptions in operations and no plans for evacuations.
Diplomacy leads to business
For years since the sanctions were lifted against Libya, Brazil has been quietly building diplomatic and economic ties with Libya. It was culminated in July 2009 when former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited Libya and took with him 90 business representatives from his country.
Da Silva’s often repeated passionate calls against the neoliberal economic powers, and calls over the years for enhanced south-south trade and investment, was a message Gaddafi received warmly. On the trip in 2009, Lula called Gaddafi a ‘brother’ and ‘friend’ and, in turn, the Libyan leader welcomed Brazilian businesses with open arms. (Da Silva was far from the only world leader to cozy up to Gaddafi during that time).
Photo: Gaddafi and Lula da Silva in 2009 [Ricardo Stuckert/PR]
And it has paid off, for both sides: Between 2003 and 2009, Brazilian exports to Libya increased by 289 per cent, while Brazilian imports from Libya grew by 3,111 per cent, according to a report last year in Estado newspaper.
Brazil’s new president, Dilma Rousseff, has mostly remained mum on international affairs in her first three months in office. But the Brazilian foreign ministry sent out a statement last Friday calling for the Libyan government to 'protect the right of free expression of the protestors' and avoid violence. (Brazil sent out similar statements related to Egypt, and Tunisia as well).
But violence and uncertainty remain in Libya, and as of Sunday the Brazilian government had a plane on standby waiting approval from Libyan aviation authorities to evacuate its citizens, according to its ambassador.
At the same time, Brazilian business executives, who rushed into Libya not too long ago, now are having to take stock of where things stand. And they likely will come to the realisation that it wasn’t an economic downturn or bad business model that might have disrupted their best intended plans, but rather a people’s revolution.
Follow Gabriel Elizondo and news from Brazil on Twitter @elizondogabriel