The Mediterranean coast of Libya was strewn with Oil camps, belonging to various big name oil companies – Esso, Mobil, Occidental, AGIP, etc. After Gadhafi took over the country in 1969, he nationalised these companies, but left their names and operations in place. So I was going out to work for Mobil Oil Libya, in Ras Lanuf. I flew into Tripoli Airport, and had my first experience of the sights and smells and heat of North Africa, which became a big part of my life over the next few years. Libya had been invaded time and time again over the past few thousand years, and rampaging conquerors, Italians, British, Germans included, had ensured there was no pure blood line left. The Libyans now are a mongrel nation, with every hue of colour, and foreign national characteristic to be seen in the local’s faces. In my experience, they were an arrogant, ignorant bunch, who despised white men, Christians and Jews, so it was in no way a welcoming country. That said, once on site, working with the locals, some good relationships were formed, but in general the ex-pats and the Libyan personnel would keep their distance.
The ex-pats were needed for their expertise, in order to produce oil, which was the mainstay of the economy. The Libyan people were subjugated by Gaddafi’s military regime, and forced to develop his style of government. He had produced a booklet of his political philosophy, similar to Mao Tse Tung’s little red book, and quotations from this were plastered all over the airport, and public buildings.
“How we solved the problem of Democracy”
“The most tyrannical dictatorships the world has known have existed under the shadow of parliaments”
“There are no wage-workers in the socialist society, only partners,”
“Your vehicle should not be owned by others.”
This was all strange and exotic to me; the airport was left over from the 2nd world war, smelly, dirty, incredibly hot. Nothing like the European airports I’d become used to, and chaotic in the extreme. An incoming passenger might be met by a family member, who had brought a sheep in with him. Arabs were lying asleep, scattered on the floor, waiting for God knows what. No-one spoke English, of course, and were not inclined to help foreigners even if they did. No luggage carousel here, a truck drove in with our suitcases piled in the back, and were just thrown out onto the floor. Having negotiated the various passport controls, form filling and stamping from officials variously picking their noses, or hawking and spitting on the concrete floor, I made my way outside, to a line of taxis, which were all old, noisy and belching smoke. I only had the address of the hotel, where I was to stay for 3 days while my required passes and paperwork would be prepared by Mobil. My first sight of palm trees, a blue sky that hurt the eyes, and the incredibly hot sun. The temperature must have been near 100 degrees, I was sweating madly, struggling to breathe, and felt close to passing out. It didn’t help when the taxi driver stopped at the side of the road after about 10 minutes, took out his prayer mat, and went through his full prayer routine at the side of the road while I melted in the back of the taxi, wondering what he was doing, and what I’d got myself in to. 15 minutes later, he climbed back in, and delivered me to the Palace Hotel in Tripoli.
Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Libyans didn’t have a national dress. Everyone seemed to be dressed in a motley collection of rags. There were no nice or smart clothes; the favoured dress of the native Muslim Berbers was a pair of baggy white pants, tight around the ankles, with a long loose shirt worn over the top, and, invariably, flip-flops. Often bareheaded, sometimes with various types of head-dress, but the vast majority looked as if they’d bought their clothes from a rag and bone man.
The buildings and streets were in a poor state of repair, and the goods in the shops were very basic. No nice restaurants or bars, meeting places were either barber shops or small cafes, with poor quality furniture, where the drink was either the local chai, or nescafe. Walking onto the seafront, there were the remains of a once beautiful esplanade, which curved around the bay. Unfortunately, the bay had been reclaimed, and instead of looking out at the blue Mediterranean, they had turned it into a parking lot for containers. There were still some lovely buildings around the Esplanade, probably built 50 years and more previously, when the Italians ruled. The palm trees around the esplanade, and the buildings themselves, still showed signs of the fierce fighting which took place here during the 2nd world war, with holes through some of the trunks of the palm trees, and bullet and shell marks on the walls of the buildings.
The state of the roads was in general very poor, often not tarmacked, and frequent potholes some deep and wide. The streets were busy with vehicles, though, cheap taxis, open backed small Peugeot and Datsun trucks, usually with a couple of goats or sheep or even a camel, in the back, along with the woman of the house, while the husband drove, with the kids clustered in the front seat. There were also many Land Rovers and Range Rovers, testament to the wealth that some managed to harvest, and of course, plenty of Army transports. Also, lots of rubbish, and abandoned or crashed or burned out vehicles. There seemed to be no system for clearing the streets, and people just drove around these obstacles. Actual driving was at best, chaotic. There was certainly no highway code in place, or system of enforcement. In general, people drove on the right hand side of the road, but it was common to see cars coming towards you on the wrong side of the road, even on the dual carriageway from the airport. Roundabouts were great fun, with drivers going in both directions depending which was the quickest way to the required exit. Altogether a shambles of a place.
Oceantech employed an agent, Mohammed B……, whose job it was to organise the required passes and passport visas. He had also worked for Peter White in the same role during the Divecon days, and was a business man who had had to adapt to the change in the political climate since the revolution. He kept a very low profile, and was difficult to contact, but was good at his job, which depended on him being able to pay baksheesh , or bribes, to the right people, in order to get things done. Whatever he paid out was charged to Peter White at Oceantech, who then passed on the payment to the client, in this case Mobil, as expenses.
Mohammed made a lot of money from this, but knew exactly how precarious it was, and was careful to cover his tracks. In the early ‘80’s he got caught up in one of the government’s anti-corruption purges. They had found paperwork while investigating Libyan Arab Airlines, which showed he was an “agent”.
This apparently, was a dangerous word, which caught their attention, and so they arrested Mohammed and focused more attention on him. There was going to be a show trial, televised, to demonstrate the Libyan stance against corruption. 8 people from Libyan Arab were charged, along with Mohammed, and they were all basically dead men.
I don’t know how badly he was treated in jail, but he managed, to alert Peter White to his situation. I had just gone on leave, and was in Malta, only a 30-minute flight from Tripoli, relaxing at the Dragonara Hotel. Peter phoned me, explained the situation, and asked me to return to Tripoli with paperwork, which he would provide. I knew this could be awkward for me, just to get involved even peripherally in this kind of investigation, but agreed. Peter sent out his documentation, which they had fabricated back in the office. I had an entry/re-exit visa for Libya at this time, which made my return relatively easy, and he booked me into the Palace Hotel.
As soon as I arrived in Tripoli, I went to the Mobil Office with my package of documents. I dealt with an English Lady, who’d been there for years, and while walking down the corridor towards her office, saw her coming towards me, being followed by 2 Libyan men. She saw me, and gave a slight shake of her head, so I just walked past her without stopping. I wasn’t sure what to do now, so decided to return to the Hotel, and try again the next day. That evening, there was a knock at my door, and it’s the lady from Mobil. She told me that since the arrest of Mohammed, she’d had her “escort” all the time, with a car parked constantly outside her villa, and close attention all the time whilst at work. She was a brave lady, who detested the regime, and said how easy it was for her to leave and re-enter her villa without being seen by the police. She’d contacted Peter about the situation, and knew about the package he’d prepared. She said she knew exactly who to get the paperwork to, and that I was to leave Libya as soon as I could organise a ticket, and not to come into Mobil for any reason.
I was out of there back to Malta 2 days later. The trial was a couple of weeks later. All the Libyan Arab employees were found guilty, and sentenced to death. Mohammed had been charged with different offenses, including being an agent for a Foreign company. This had been shown not to be the case, he was not an “agent”, he was an employee of the foreign company, which was in good standing with the Libyan Government, and had therefore been found innocent of all charges. This also showed that the Justice of the Libyan system worked correctly, and therefore he was to be released immediately. Within a year, he’d been able to get his family and himself out, and lived happily, and comfortably, abroad, done with the country of his birth.
Over the years, Oceantech had 2 other contracts that I was involved with in Libya, 1 in Marsa Brega, the other in Zavia near Tripoli. More about those contracts later, including a stint when I left Oceantech and took a full time job in Ras Lanuf for Mobil, which lasted for about 3 years.
© mick binns 2018