American business in Malta
That not much American direct investment has come to Malta is not for lack of trying. Practically every new US ambassador appointed to Malta starts, soon after presenting credentials, with a declaration to do his or her best to bring that about. By way of example, three appointments back, the new American ambassador told The Times that the American embassy was continuing to work on the commercial side of relations with Malta. A seminar on doing business with the United States was organised, in co-operation with the Maltese American Chamber of Commerce.
I recall commenting at the time that the declaration of further good intent should be more than an introductory pro-forma touch.
The ambassador at the time said she knew that her predecessor had taken representatives to Houston to visit the oil industry. She proposed to follow that path. She thought Malta was an attractive place for American business because of the highly educated work force and the location in the Mediterranean.
The background includes quite a lot more effort than that which went into the Houston connection, and other efforts since then. George Feldman led the long list of ambassadorial appointees to Malta since the island became independent in 1964. He and successive ambassadors all declared their intention to promote American investment in Malta.
Quite a few of them backed their intent with some sort of action. Over the past five decades, a stream of US business people were brought over to Malta. They included various individuals who were well connected with the political world. The visitors included, I seem to recall, the odd senator or two, and even relatives of people in very high places in Washington and elsewhere.
Nor were successive Maltese governments idle, on their part. Prime Minister Dom Mintoff had charged me, then heading the Central Bank, to follow up a contact made by Albert Mizzi with Frank Zarb, who was of Maltese origin and was already orbiting high in the financial skies in the US at the time. That was in the early 1970s, when I went to one of the first International Monetary Fund annual meetings I have attended in Washington.
Frank Zarb continued to be mobilised in later years by both Labour and Nationalist governments, whose transiting ministers, particularly at Finance, also marshalled other resources to persuade Americans to view Malta as a good investment location.
The Malta Development Corporation (now Malta Enterprise) and the Malta Financial Services Authority were very active in that context.
Some former American diplomats who had served in Malta continued with their commercial efforts well after their term was up. That can be viewed and assessed particularly in the context of the fact that a string of non-career ambassadors with a business background or connections have served in Malta.
Efforts to promote Malta were also continued with an attempt to mount a promotional campaign which involved the Fox television network, along with related expensive advertising sought from Maltese enterprises.
For some reason or other, any resulting spark, if a spark there was, was never enough to light much of a fire, or sustained a small one. That might be attributed to the sad Lockerbie saga and the insistence by American authorities to lump Malta with embroilment in it. But, I do not think so.
One cannot rule out that our island’s geo-political location in the Gaddafi era was deemed unattractive, possibly coupled with the size of the market and the additional cost to ship to the mainland, to the north and south of us.
That latter constraint – which does not apply to services, anyway – did not deter Americans from investing heavily in the Republic of Ireland, but that is altogether another story. At one point it seemed to be the case that, in Malta’s regard, another story was beginning.
When the $18.5 million purchase of land by the US government to locate a compound in Ta’ Qali was made, a controversial new phase in the diplomatic political use of Malta by the US was planned. So far, even some seven years later, it has not been accompanied by significant real American direct investment in Malta’s manufacturing and services sectors to parallel that development.
It remains to be seen to what extent the new US ambassador will succeed where her predecessors have failed. She has a better case to try to sell. Gaddafi is no more. A new Libya is emerging. It is doing so slowly, since too many weapons are still in the hands of loose militias who maintain a pall of uncertainty over their country. The unity of Libya is also questioned.
Nevertheless there are opportunities in Libya and more will follow. Much rebuilding needs to be done. These will not only be of a physical nature, but will be important also in terms of relationship building. I am told that many post-Gaddafi Libyans are suspicious of outsiders who had, through whatever means, good relations with members of the hated Gaddafi regime.
Malta offers an ideal base for companies which wish to start building fresh relations with an emerging Libyan business class. American companies are one example. Demonstrating to them the advantages of using Malta as a base should not be the job of the American ambassador alone. But she stands a better chance of truly helping to promote Malta than her predecessors.