Cablegate: Libyan Foreign Bank - Primed for Expansion
DE RUEHTRO #0584/01 2031018
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 211018Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 3704
INFO RUCPDOC/DEPT OF COMMERCE WASHINGTON DC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC
RUEHRB/AMEMBASSY RABAT 0666
RUEHTU/AMEMBASSY TUNIS 0554
RUEHAS/AMEMBASSY ALGIERS 0720
RUEHEG/AMEMBASSY CAIRO 1155
RUEHVT/AMEMBASSY VALLETTA 0325
RUEHRO/AMEMBASSY ROME 0455
RUEHFR/AMEMBASSY PARIS 0550
RUEHLO/AMEMBASSY LONDON 0869
RUEHMK/AMEMBASSY MANAMA 0006
RUEHTRO/AMEMBASSY TRIPOLI 4214
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 TRIPOLI 000584
DEPT FOR NEA/MAG (JOHNSON) AND ISN/CPI (MCGEEHAN)
E.O. 12958: DECL: 7/21/2018
TAGS: ECON EFIN EINV ETRD PTER KCOR PGOV KBIO LY
SUBJECT: LIBYAN FOREIGN BANK - PRIMED FOR EXPANSION
REF: A) GODFREY-MCKEEHAN EMAIL 7/15/2008, B) TRIPOLI 214, C) TRIPOLI 230, D) TRIPOLI 126, E) TRIPOLI 199, F) TRIPOLI 227
CLASSIFIED BY: John T. Godfrey, CDA, U.S. Embassy - Tripoli, Dept of State. REASON: 1.4 (b), (d)
1. (C) Summary: The Libyan Foreign Bank (LFB), Libya's longtime conduit for international trade, is pursuing a substantial program of expansion involving a ten-fold increase in its capitalization and creation of an onshore bank. Its chairman is aggressively seeking new investment opportunities in Africa and beyond, and is contemplating whether and how to get into the U.S. market. The LFB recently doubled its capitalization of Bahrain-based Alubaf Bank, of which it has a 95 percent share. Regarding much-anticipated GOL reform initiatives, the LFB's Chairman expects a reprise of past efforts that featured form over substance. End Summary.
2. (SBU) CDA and Econoff met with Dr. Mohammed Abdullah Bayt Almal, Chairman of the Libyan Foreign Bank (formerly known as the Libyan Arab Foreign Bank) on July 16 to discuss recent changes at the LFB and its plans for the future. Established in 1972 as an offshore bank, the LFG has been Libya's leading institution for transactions essential to the conduct of international trade (issuing letters of credit, providing currency exchange services, etc.). The LFB has historically been the only Libyan bank that handled foreign currency accounts; Bayt Almal confirmed that it still does not possess any Libyan dinar-denominated accounts.
3. (C) CDA asked about press reports detailing recent initiatives made by Bahrain-based Alubaf Arab International Bank. Bayt Almal confirmed that a proposal to double Alubaf's capital to $100 million and to appoint Bayt Almal to the Board of Directors were approved by shareholders in a meeting on July 9. He offered that Alubaf Bank nearly collapsed after a significant number of Iraqi-owned accounts were closed in 2003, but said the bank had since rebounded. He confirmed that the LFB owns a 95% share of Alubaf's Bahrain branch and 100% of its branch in Tunisia (ref A). Libya's Central Bank owns 100% of LFB, and is therefore the ultimate owner of Alubaf.
DIVERSIFIED & SEEKING A PRESENCE IN THE U.S.
4. (SBU) The LFB's foreign interests are diverse and growing. It currently has "participation" (i.e., interests) in thirty-seven foreign entities located in twenty countries, from Mexico to China. Most of its interests are focused in sub-Saharan Africa, including every country in the Maghreb except Morocco. Bayt Almal estimated the LFB's current capital at $1 billion, with assets in excess of $21 billion worldwide. We had heard and reported previously that all Libyan government and financial institutions had divested themselves of holdings and accounts in the U.S. in response to potential seizure of assets under Section 1083 of the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act (the so-called Lautenberg Amendment. According to Bayt Almal, the LFB continues to hold U.S. dollar accounts and - despite efforts by the Libyan Investment Authority and other Libyan government entities to limit their exposure in the U.S. (ref B) - is actively exploring the possibility of establishing a "strategic partnership" with a major U.S. bank and investing in a U.S.-based bank.
LAND HO: MOVING ONSHORE
5. (SBU) Bayt Almal said that the LFB planned to open an onshore bank in Libya soon, contingent on approval by its parent institution, the Central Bank (CB). A plan currently before CB Governor Farhat Ben Gdara calls for a ten-fold expansion of the LFB's capital, from $1 billion to $10 billion. Conceding that LFB had aimed high, Bayt Almal said he would be happy with $6-7 billion, and expected to get it. Part of the justification for expanded capitalization involves establishing an onshore entity, which would allow LFB to diversify the range of products it offers in the Libyan market. With the continuing reform of the Libyan banking system, to include the purchase of stakes in Libyan banks by foreign entities (refs C, D), the LFB wants to ensure that it will remain competitive. It intends to inaugurate risk management and asset management services, which would both be entirely new service lines for the bank. (Note: Risk management and asset management are areas CB Governor Ben Gdara told us are most in need of help. End note.) In anticipation of this step, the LFB has expanded its training TRIPOLI 00000584 002 OF 002 efforts, sending employees abroad for hands-on training at partner institutions in Europe (Britain, France, Belgium, and Germany) and the Middle East (Jordan and the UAE). Bayt Almal cited a dearth of trained employees as one of the biggest stumbling blocks to banking reform in Libya.
AL-QADHAFI'S PROPOSED GOVERNMENT REFORMS - "FORM OVER SUBSTANCE"
6. (C) Responding to a question about expected privatization and government restructuring stemming from Muammar al-Qadhafi's dramatic speech to the General People's Congress on March 2 (refs E, F), Bayt Almal wearily noted that Libya had "been through this before". He referred to his own experience in 2000, when the Libyan Cabinet underwent wholesale changes, leaving only Bayt Almal (then the Finance Minister) and the Foreign Minister in a "Prime Minister-plus two" formulation. During that round of reform, other ministries were re-labeled as "Haya" (translated as "institution" or "entity"). Despite the semantics, the old structures were essentially left in place. Bayt Almal expected a similar outcome at the end of the current reform exercise. He predicted that foreign affairs, defense, finance and the security services would be left intact in their current guises as "sovereign ministries" that would report directly to the Prime Minister-equivalent, a formulation al-Qadhafi himself hinted at in his March 2 address.
7. (C) Biographical Note: Bayt Almal was born in Egypt in 1948 and spent his childhood in Benghazi, despite the fact that his family originally hails from Misurata. He spent 1970-1978 in U.S., where he obtained an MA in accounting (in Muncie, Indiana) and PhD (at the University of Kentucky in Lexington) in finance. He then returned to Libya, where taught accounting at Garyounis University in Benghazi before serving as Secretary of Finance (1992-2000) and Auditor General (2003-2005). Various sources report that he served a three-year prison sentence in 2000-2003 in connection with an embezzlement case in Benghazi (Emboffs were not able to corroborate this story during their office call). Bayt Almal was married in 1970 while in the U.S., and he has seven daughters (two of them AmCits by birth), all of whom currently reside in/around Misurata. End biographical note. GODFREY