Shop assistants showcase elegant Italian menswear, next door a fast-food restaurant buzzes with customers and nearby a German sportswear shop hawks the latest high-end running shoes.
The scene could be downtown New York or Milan if not for the occasional gun battles, car bombs and bearded Islamist fighters flourishing rifles and fundamentalist beliefs.
In Benghazi, Libya’s eastern metropolis, the militias that plague much of the country flourish alongside a boom in sales of foreign brands catering to the city’s burgeoning rich.
Libya’s second-largest city stands for almost everything wrong with the North African country and its fragile central government since the 2011 ouster of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
The Tripoli government has little say in the rundown port where militias and Islamists set up private checkpoints, often beneath black al-Qaeda flags. The US ambassador was killed here during an Islamist assault on the US consulate in September last year.
Benghazi sits at the heart of an autonomy movement resisting central government authority and taking over eastern ports to choke off nearly half of the OPEC nation’s oil shipments in a push for more independence.
However, that lawlessness has not hindered the arrival of expensive outlets and a three-floor mall. Venice Street, as it is called by locals, was once a dull backstreet. A year ago, luxury retailers turned it into a bustling commercial strip.
“People have more money than under Qaddafi so business is excellent,” said Mohammed Lara, chief executive of a perfume retailer which has two Benghazi shops and plans another.
Customers are hungry for luxury goods because shopping under Qaddafi was frustrated by state controls and sanctions, he said. State markets sold anything from Turkish-made chocolate to Chinese socks to cover basic needs, but quality goods were out of reach for most on state salaries.
Despite suffering from anarchy and poor public services, Libyans are now better off financially. Qaddafi increased salaries for the public sector just before the NATO-backed uprising in a futile bid to ease dissent.
The new government, struggling to assert control over a vast country still filled with arms, has kept the salary increase and handed out more benefits, and not just for civil servants.
This year it raised salaries for oil workers by 67 percent in an apparent attempt to end protests at oil ports.
Half of the US$54 billion national budget goes to state salaries and subsidies for anything from bread to gasoline, healthcare and plane tickets to keep people happy.
“I am upgrading my fashion shops from Chinese textile to European brands as I see demand for quality products,” said Ghanem Sheikhi, who is partner in a shopping mall and owner of fashion, computer game entertainment and fast-food shops.
One sector that is booming is travel. Local air traffic has risen to 1.8 million passengers annually, compared with about 800,000 in the Qaddafi era, said Qais al-Baksheshe, head of an organization helping local authorities attract foreign firms.
Benghazi’s tiny airport, with two ramshackle buildings dating back to before Qaddafi, is already served by carriers such as Turkish Airways or Egyptair.
DECADES OF NEGLECT
Benghazi, a city with about 1 million residents, had been neglected for decades by Qaddafi, who held a grudge against the eastern region known as Cyrenaica, the cradle of the uprising.
Despite the east sitting on 60 percent of Libya’s oil wealth, buildings in Benghazi are dilapidated. Many houses built by Italian colonial rulers still show damage from air strikes during World War II when the city changed hands between British and German troops.
Tripoli’s government, hampered by infighting and militias refusing to disarm, has done little to improve public services. Aged hospitals, schools and universities have yet to be refurbished. At night, Venice Street is lit by sparkling shop fronts, not street lamps.
That has fueled calls for more autonomy from Tripoli under a federal system to share wealth and power under post-colonial divisions of the Cyrenaica region to the east, southern Fezzan and Tripolitania to the west.
A Cyrenaica movement has already grown, declaring itself independent and set up its own administration and oil firm. Protesters have controlled oil ports in the east for months. It is still uncertain how much autonomy they can really exercise.
“We have many problems with the government in Tripoli,” Baksheshe said. “For any project we need to go to Tripoli.”
If there is development in Benghazi, it comes from the private sector such as Chinese firms planning 20,000 housing units. Four large building projects and eight tower blocks are under way, and a Turkish firm plans an American University campus like in Cairo or Beirut.
However, the biggest obstacle in Benghazi remains the lack of security. Car hijackings are widespread, and assassinations of army or police officers are commonplace.
New luxury also attracts unwanted attention. When an armed gang attacked one perfume shop, some locals blame radical Islamists who tend to consider perfume or makeup as haram, or forbidden, under their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
“You can have growth for this, and the next, maybe three years, but what then?” Lara said, sitting in his office in a high-rise tower in central Benghazi.
Baksheshe’s institute is trying to persuade investors to come by guaranteeing them protection.
“We had a Turkish firm ... which was afraid to come and demanded security. They’ve been here for three months and everything is going well,” he said.
Even Islamists publicly welcome the shop bonanza, and say they reject violence. They said the Islamists would always respect others’ beliefs, but hint they can show who is in charge when they are unhappy with Benghazi’s direction.
“We only have a problem with violations of Islamic law like interest payments, alcohol or immoral places,” said Ahmed Zlietny, spokesman for a local Islamic group campaigning for the introduction of Shariah law. “If we really wanted to impose Islamic law on Libyans we could do so by force.”
Gogoro Inc (睿能創意) yesterday launched its first electric bicycle, the Gogoro Eeyo 1, in Taiwan, after unveiling the bike in New York in late May and in France on Tuesday. The company said it would also introduce the series in other European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands. The “Eeyo project” is the fourth of Gogoro’s eight projects that concentrate on smart transportation, which includes Gogoro’s electric scooter, battery swap system and electric scooter sharing service, company founder and chief executive officer Horace Luke (陸學森) told a media briefing in Taipei. “There are various types of city commuters. We will not
EXPERIMENTAL DRUG: While news about a COVID-19 vaccine is more eye-catching, developing a treatment would be more viable, the Senhwa boss said Senhwa Biosciences Inc (生華科) aims to raise NT$1.5 billion (US$50.57 million) by issuing 15 million new common shares in the third quarter of this year to fund the research of new drugs, including the experimental drug Silmitasertib for the treatment of COVID-19, the company said on Monday. That would be the firm’s largest fundraising effort after it raised more than NT$1.4 billion from an initial public offering on the Taipei Exchange (TPEX) in April 2017, chief financial officer Sarah Chang (張小萍) told the Taipei Times by telephone. The price of the new shares would depend on the firm’s average share price
NOT A PANACEA: Offering 5G services would not solve the problem of declining telecom incomes, chairman Sheih Chi-mau said, expecting a flat 5G telecom revenue Chunghwa Telecom Co (中華電信) yesterday became the nation’s first telecom to debut its 5G services, offering tiered tariffs that include a threshold of NT$599 and flat rates, as it aims to switch half of its subscribers to the 5G network within three years. Subscribers would have unlimited data transmission for monthly fees starting at NT$1,399 — the same flat rate as when the company launched its 4G service in 2014 — and they can subscribe to the highest-rate plan for NT$2,699 per month for faster data transmission speeds and larger bandwidth, the company said. Data transmission speeds would be within the range
ROW: A probe would determine if the rights of shareholders who were not allowed to vote yesterday had been violated, while the stock exchange also wants answers The election of board directors yesterday at Tatung Co (大同) sparked controversy after the company blocked some institutional and individual shareholders from participating in the general shareholders’ meeting, prompting the Financial Supervisory Commission (FSC) to announce that the vote would be investigated. Lin Kuo Wen-yen (林郭文艷) was re-elected as chairwoman of the household-appliance maker’s nine-member board, but prior to the vote she announced that several shareholders would not have voting rights. They were being denied a vote because they had contravened the Business Mergers and Acquisitions Act (企業併購法), and the Act Governing Relations Between the People of the Taiwan Area and