Leaving Libya: a personal story from a political crisis

11 March 2011

Until three weeks ago, the CIOB's Libya “ambassador” Brian Greenhalgh FCIOB FRICS was working as a commercial manager for Aeroports de Paris Ingenieurs (ADPI), the project manager and designer for Tripoli's new International airport. His thoughts were on signing a new contract with the Turkish/Brazilian JV contractor to ensure completion  by 2013, and last minute negotiations on terms.

Meanwhile, in his CIOB role, Greenhalgh had just helped to set up a Construction Special Interest Group for UK construction professionals in Libya, affiliated to the British Business Group. 

And then the country lurched into conflict and bloodshed. In Tripoli, the first stirrings came on February 17th, with demonstrations calling for more transparency and less corruption. Over the next few days, evening demonstrations were accompanied by increasingly violent clashes, but the official advice from the UK ambassador to British nationals at the time was 'wait and see'.  But by Monday 21st Greenhalgh says it was clear that all foreign nationals needed to leave, urgently.

The QS and former university lecturer was staying at a small, family-run hotel in Tripoli, but found it in darkness and deserted that morning. On the journey to his office at the airport site,  he saw burned-out police stations and heavily-armed security teams patrolling outside Colonel Gaddafi's compound. Traffic was non-existent and shops were closed, with people choosing the safety of their own homes until darkness meant it was safer to join the demonstrations.

Greenhalgh at Leptis Magna, a complete Roman city the size of Chester, untouched since the Romans left

“I never felt in any danger, and I didn't see any violence in Tripoli. It's very much Gaddafi's city, everyone there is loyal to him,” Greenhalgh told CM, speaking from his home on the Wirral . “I really only saw the evidence of what had been happening the night before.”

At work on Tuesday 22nd, his French colleagues from ADPI were contacted by the French Embassy about evacuation, and then on Wednesday 23rd the British Embassy told all UK nationals to make their way to Tripoli airport.

“We were getting a bit fed up – the French had gone, the Poles had gone, the Spanish were going … We had a very difficult wait at the airport, but on the Thursday we managed to get out,” he says.

The Embassy had chartered a plane for UK evacuees, which eventually took them back to Gatwick via a stop-over in Malta.

Aerial view: New Tripoli International Airport Project, which was scheduled for completion in 2013. The building in the centre is the existing terminal which was inundated with people trying to escape

Theatre at Sabratha with the Mediterranean sea in background

The traumatic exodus followed an 18 month stint in Libya, which Greenhalgh looks back on with many positive memories. “I enjoyed it  - the people I met were very friendly, gentle and hospitable. I never felt at all threatened – you could walk around with a laptop and know you wouldn't get mugged.

“But doing business was difficult  - so many contractors just weren't getting paid [by Libyan state-backed clients] and the bureaucracy was nightmarish. They say all the checks and procedures were there to stop corruption, but it led to terrible bottlenecks.”

The Libyan regime's modernisation drive had attracted multiple UK construction consultants. Aecom, Gleeds, architect BDP and project manager Hill international were all working on a programme to build 25 universities for Libya's Organisation for Development of Administrative Centres; other UK consultancies included Mace, Mott MacDonald and PH Warr.

Contractors were mostly from Turkey, Brazil and Italy, although Interserve and Vinci France were also present, and a Russian contractor was building a new railway to link Tripoli and Benghazi.

The future of these contracts is now, of course, extremely doubtful. “Everyone has now demobilised – to go back [to Libya at a future date], everyone would want to renegotiate their contracts. Most will argue their contracts were terminated by force majeure or civil commotion.”

Greenhalgh himself doesn't rule out another stint overseas before he retires. “I was in Baghdad for two and a half years  - there's something about the places I go to!” he says. But in the medium term, he's opting for a quieter life, with time to write the follow-up to his recently-published book,  Introduction to Building Procurement.


Hi Brian,

I was on the University programme based on site with the intalian contractor Impregillo Lidco at the Misurata University. My role was to advise the ODAC project manager with regards to all aspects of the construction process in my normal capcaity of project manager.
I share all your sentiments with regards to the local people and how safe I felt too.

I also have many pictures of the roman sites that I spent most of my spare time at on Fridays (day off).
Our contractor hadn`t been paid for 18months and the effects on the project were very hard. Never the less he did achieve some very good quality concreting in the 11 months I was there.

The first sign of the trouble affecting our site was on the Saturday and I was told to stay on site for my safety. The advise I got from the FCO was "go to Tripoli airport" however that was impossible as there were no drivers willing to go as it was extremly dangerous with the numerous check points along the road controlled by various people some friendly locals and some not.

We were all looked after by the local Libyan work force that the contractor had employed who assisted the Italian contractor and evenually by the italian Goverment who attempted to get us out via the Misurata Airport on the Tuesday which unfortunately failed with a local lad getting accidently shot in a terrible mis- understanding. But we finally got out via a private steel companies dock in Misurata port on board the San Giorgio War ship on the friday the 25th for what turned out to be a 36 hour cruise to Italy.

I can`t quiet believe how the city of Misurata I walked arround on my fridays off, perfectly safe can be the centre of a running battle in the past few days with Tanks driving down the same streets shooting into peoples houses.

I do hope the UN will help the people of Misuarata as they did for the people of Bengazi before its too late.

I too would like to think I will be able to return one day to work or at least visit as a holiday.

Richard Vipond, 2 April 2011

Caption of the airport pic above reads: "Aerial view: New Tripoli International Airport Project, which was scheduled for completion in 2013. The building in the centre is the existing terminal which was inundated with people trying to escape" The building in the center hasn't been built yet, there was another one in its place which was badly damaged in clashes (Aug 2014) later almost completely torn down to be replaced by the one in the photo.

QW, 1 April 2016

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