The famed UK-based Marks & Spencer retail chain was at the center of a political and financial power play in Libya two years ago, a secret U.S. cable revealed, according to a report published Sunday in the prominent British Guardian newspaper.
The classified document sent to Washington by the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli was part of a massive dump leaked by the WikiLeaks Internet site over the past few months.
According to the cable, dated June 18, 2008, M & S opened a location in Tripoli in April of that year, and immediately became “a magnet for controversy.”
The store was closed by Libyan authorities on at least two occasions, said U.S. foreign officer Chris Stevens, and the retailer was further harassed on numerous occasions. “M & S employees have received close scrutiny by Libyan security officials who have been used as a strong arm adjunct in this political play,” Steven said.
Some of the “strong arm” tactics involve accusations of “Zionist” connections and “Jewish origins,” he noted.
“The Libyan government's public narrative has taken the form of persistent anti-Semitic rhetoric alleging that that the company is a 'Zionist entity' with Jewish origins that supports Israel and 'the killing of Palestinians,'” Stevens continued in his cable.
He went on to describe a “strongly-worded statement” released to Libyan media in early June 2008 by the General Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, which represents all private business in the country, Libyan and foreign. The statement, he said, criticized the timing of a visit to the store by the visiting UK Trade Minister, saying it fell “on the eve of al-Nakba” – the “disaster”, as Arabs term the founding of the modern State of Israel.
“The UK Commercial Counselor told us that M & S had been removed in 2007 from the Arab League's list of companies to be boycotted because of Jewish ownership or Israeli equities,” Stevens wrote. “Both M & S and the UK Embassy had done careful vetting with the GOL (Government of Libya -ed.) before the Tripoli store opened in an attempt to preclude any related complications.”
Senior Libyan government officials “have a direct stake in virtually anything worth owning or selling,” according to the document. As a result, the M & S saga provided the business community with a warning about the “potential consequences for investors of the sheer lack of coordination and fecklessness in the GOL... [counselors] have flatly told us that they view the ultimate outcome of the case as an important bellwether of the investment climate in Libya and will advise potential UK investors accordingly,” Stevens concluded.