A guide to Libya – etiquette, customs, clothing and more…

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Libya is a North African country on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a country largely made up of desert, with a long and rich history. The northern coast is adorned with beautiful stretches of tropical beach. The best time to visit Libya is in the autumn or spring, when the coldness of the winter nights has gone but the cooling breeze from the sea moderates the powerful African heat.
Libya became an independent state in 1951. In 1969, Colonel Gaddafi seized power and led the country until 2011. It is an immensely wealthy country, thanks to its bountiful deposits of oil. Gaddafi ensured this wealth stayed in Libya, when he drove out US oil companies and nationalised the oil industry.


Facts & Statistics


Libya has a population of 6.4 million, spread over an area of 1.77 million km. Life expectancy is 73 years for men and 78 years for women. The currency is the Libyan dinar. The capital of Libya is Tripoli.


The history of the country is one of invasion and war. The country is strategically placed on the northern coast of Africa, close to the southern coast of Europe, and is therefore ideally situated for shipping access to the major oceans.


Conquest in Libya started early, with the Romans conquering the country in 74 BC and then the Arabs conquering it in AD 643. In the 16th century, the country became part of the Ottoman Empire before being seized by the Italians just before the First World War, when it experienced a 20-year insurgency, as Omar al-Mukhtar attempted to wrench the country from Italian rule. In 1942, the country was captured by the allies and divided between the French and the British. The country then won its independence in 1951.


Libya has been held under trade and travel restrictions for decades, since the US designated Libya a state sponsor of terrorism in 1979 and following an international military incident in 1981. The sanctions increased in severity through the 1980s. Then, Libya was essentially isolated from the developed world in 1992 when the UN imposed sanctions due to the destruction of a Pan Am airliner over Scotland. The US intervention in the civil war in 2011, which resulted in the downfall of Gaddafi, at first led to a power vacuum but has led to a recent relief of sanctions. Recently, the travel restrictions to Libya have been lifted.


Since 2015, the new unity government, headed by Prime Minister Fayez Sarraj took authority over the country. However, there are administrations in Tripoli and Tobruk who are reluctant to acknowledge the authority of this new government, though the political situation is more settled than it has been in recent years. However, there are still some concerns over the rise of Islamic extremism in the country.


Local Culture & Language


The major language of Libya is Arabic and the major religion is Islam. 97% of these Muslims are Sunni. The strong religious background of the country means it is a deeply conservative society in many respects. However, the young like to have an enjoyable social life – with young men driving fasts cars through Benghazi, with tinted windows. While there are no nightclubs or bars, with little or no popular music, there are shisha cafes and shawarma joints – where people gather. There is no alcohol sold in these establishments. Marriages tend to be arranged, and weddings can last up to three days, with lots of singing and elaborate costume.


The history of Libya, with its turbulent record of invasion and colonisation, has left a varied cultural legacy. There are some spectacular ancient ruins dotted along the coastline – well preserved, mostly due to the lack of tourists in recent years. Lepsis Magna has cobbled streets, Severan Arch, marble and granite lined baths, a basilica and a large amphitheatre. There are the ancient fertility temples in Cyrene. There is also the Temple of Zeus and a Roman stadium. There are also some Byzantine mosaics in Qasr Libya and the beautiful Akakus Mountains, which form the border with Algeria. The cliffs of these mountains feature some of the most vivid examples of prehistoric art in the world.


Culturally, Libya is not geared towards beach life. Instead, the local population prefer picnics. However, there are opportunities for great fun with desert driving and dune surfing. Companies offer the opportunity to drive four-wheel drive vehicles across miles of dunes and some allow you to ride snowboards down the highest dunes.



Etiquette & Customs


Libya is a Muslim country. Therefore, it is important to dress modestly, especially if you are a woman. Upper legs, arms, shoulders and cleavage should be covered. It is also advisable to wear a head scarf, which becomes essential if visiting a mosque, cemetery or any site with religious significance.


Libyans believe in dignity, honour and the good reputation of the family, demonstrated through their conduct. This is important to the people and therefore it is essential to maintain decorum at all times. Do not purposely attempt to humiliate or embarrass someone publicly, as the ramifications are far more serious in Libya. Personal feelings are often secondary to the good of the group as a whole. When meeting people in Libya, the greeting should be enthusiastic and warm. Handshakes can go on for a little while and it is important to fully embrace the extended niceties of conversation. Smiling and intermittent, direct eye contact is important. Men can shake hands with men, though a man should wait for a woman to extend her hand. As a greeting you can say “Asalaamu alaikum” with the typical response being “wa alaikum salam”.


If you are invited to a Libyan’s home it is important to take something sweet with you as a gift. Men must bring gifts for a woman but must say they are from a female relative. Gifts should be given with two hands and they are not generally opened upon receipt, but rather later on in private. Being up to 20 minutes late for dinner is not considered rude in Libya. You should remove your shoes at the door and greet the oldest family members first. You should accept all offers for hot drinks and it is common for perfumed water to be passed around before the meal. Dip three fingers into the bowl, as part of the ritual of cleansing. You should only eat with your right hand and always leave a small amount of food on your plate – after accepting another portion.


Business Meeting & Management Advice


Office hours in Libya are different in the summer from the winter, to take account of the heat. In the summer, work hours are from Saturday to Wednesday between 7am and 2pm. In the winter this changes, from 8am to 4pm. Most businesses will be closed on a Friday, a holy day in Islam. This changes during Ramadan, when businesses work after sunset. Shops tend to open in the evening. English and Italian are widely spoken by the business community in the country. Official documents must all be written in Arabic, or at least translated into Arabic. It will impress Libyans if you hand over business cards and other formal documents already in Arabic. The dress for business is smart-office wear. Women are expected to dress modestly, but many business women still dress fashionably, despite these restrictions.


When greeting people in business meetings you should shake hands, and again at the end of the meeting. Titles are important in Libya – you need to use titles accurately. Refer to government ministers as “Your Excellency” and do not use first names unless invited to do so. Respect for business contacts is crucial to Libyans, therefore it might take several meetings before a business relationship properly begins. Arrive on time to meetings, though expect Libyans to be late, as they prioritise relationships and will not shorten an interaction for the sake of arriving on time to the next meeting. There will likely be an open-door policy during meetings, so expect interruptions. Companies in Libya are hierarchical, but negotiations and decision-making are done through group consensus. Libyans prefer long-term business relationships, so commit time to the beginning of business collaborations. Do not criticise anyone openly and respect the Libyans’ desire for non-confrontational negotiations. There will be a lot of haggling, a lot of bureaucracy and decisions are slow to obtain, often requiring several layers of approval. High pressure tactics will work against you in Libya.


International calls are possible from main towns and cities, as is mobile phone coverage. There are internet cafes in Tripoli and Benghazi, and some other main towns. Wi-Fi tends to be mostly available in hotels – as well as some restaurants. Mailing letters to the west can take up to a week, possibly two weeks. Journalism is a dangerous activity in the country. There is a state-run news agency. There are other independent news agencies, though these tend to be run from outside the country. Islamic extremists have their own news channel in the country. The Libyan economy is fragile, especially since the civil war in 2011. Although there is much money in the country from oil, there was little investment in infrastructure and services, due to the alleged corruption of the Gaddafi regime. The production of oil was standing at 1.3 million barrels per day in 2011 but the economy was further challenged by the reduction in world oil prices. The production of oil is now down to 300,000 barrels per day.


The World Bank warns that the Libyan economy is “near collapse” due to the political stalemate and civil conflict in the area. There is limited liquidity in the banks and there are currently long periods of electricity blackouts. The recent removal of sanctions by the UN means that oil exports have resumed. This will generate vital revenue for the country. However, until there is political unity, with the administrations of Tripoli and Tobruk recognising the UN-supported government, there is a chance for economic difficulties and instability.


Relocating to Libya


Most ex-pats are gathered in Tripoli, Janzour, Benghazim Misurata and Zawai. However, the community of ex-pats is much smaller since the civil war of 2011. A lot of foreign companies left Libya during the upheaval. The situation in the country is uncertain and jobs are not guaranteed, so relocating without confirmed employment is not advised. There is a demand for construction and ESL workers in the country. Due to moving through employment, most ex-pats have accommodation, visas and health covered by relocation agencies. Most ex-pats find the standard of education much lower than they are used to. There are some international schools in the major cities and these are the most popular choice for most ex-pats. These are well organised and reputable, though with the removal of sanctions and potential opportunities for business in Libya, spaces might be more difficult to secure.


Ex-pats report a simple way of life in the country, with a friendly and welcoming local people. However, this is a developing country that has been long damaged by sanctions. Therefore, expect services and wider social life to be severely limited. There also continues to be a threat from extremists in the country, which some embassies see as a reason to issue travel warnings and travel restrictions to certain parts of the country.

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