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Canadian businesses wary about Middle East operations as unrest spreads

Canadian businesses with a presence in the Middle East are dusting off and, in some cases, putting into effect employee evacuation plans as political unrest and bloody revolts spread across the Arab world.

A number of Western companies said Monday they were preparing to pull employees out of Libya, a major oil producer, which has seen a revolt turn increasingly violent in recent days.

At least three Canadian companies, Suncor Energy, engineering and construction firm SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., and Pure Technologies Ltd. were evaluating Monday the security of major operations in the country.

Jack Elliott, president of Calgary-based infrastructure manager Pure Technologies said the company was preparing to evacuate 14 employees there who monitor construction of the Great Man Made River project, a pipeline being built to transport water from the southern Libyan desert to urban centres in the north.

“The situation’s very unstable there, so we thought it’s better to get them out, at least until things settle down,” he said, adding that the company is communicating with others operating in the area.

“There are a number of Canadian companies operating there and quite a large number of expatriates in the area, but they’re all safe right now.”

Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin said Monday that all of its employees in Libya were safe, but that work on some of its projects had been temporarily suspended.

“Regarding the situation in Libya, we are in contact with our people and have managed to currently secure the safety of all our employees on our projects,” said SNC-Lavalin spokeswoman Leslie Quinton.

“Some work on certain projects is temporarily suspended, although all remain under supervision and we will continue to monitor the situation to determine next steps,” Quinton said in an email.

“The health and safety of our employees, as always, remains our primary concern.”

SNC-Lavalin has a $450-million contract with the Great Man Made River Authority to develop the Al Kufra Wellfield. Its factory at Sarir also has a contract for the construction of 45,000 gigantic concrete pipes to carry water to coastal cities.

In addition, SNC-Lavalin has a contract for the construction of the Benina International Airport in Benghazi, where the revolts had been centred before spreading Monday to Tripoli, the capital.

Suncor spokesman Brad Bellows said the Calgary-based oil and gas company has contingency plans to ensure the safety of its staff in all countries and regions in which it operates.

“This obviously includes Libya, where we are monitoring and responding to events,” Bellows wrote in an email.

“In the interest of the safety and security of our people, we do not provide details or status commentary on contingency plans, he added.

Three Canadians were among a few dozen workers who escaped to another facilty after their Suncor rig was attacked by armed rebels on Monday, the company said.

Suncor is developing energy resources in Libya’s oil fields, a project that it inherited when it merged in 2009 with Petro-Canada.

Earlier this month, a leaked U.S. diplomatic note said that Libya had threatened to nationalize Petro-Canada’s operations in the North African country over a spat with the Conservative government in Ottawa.

Canada, the United States and many European countries have already urged their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Libya because of the continuing clashes between protesters and security forces that have so far have led to at least 200 deaths.

Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said Monday that there are an estimated 500 Canadians in Libya and about 350 have registered with the Canadian embassy in Tripoli. He said about 50 are working for Canadian energy firms, which have their own contingency plans to protect workers.

There are no immediate plans for a government evacuation of Canadians in Libya, Cannon said, adding that the airport in Tripoli remains open to commercial flights.

Oil prices jumped nine per cent, or US$8.05, to US$97.76 a barrel Monday in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange amid fears that protests in the Arab world could disrupt oil supplies from Libya and other OPEC producers as well.

Regular trading in U.S. markets was closed for the Presidents’ Day holiday and market experts say the thin trading volumes had the potential to amplify price fluctuations.

Meanwhile, European countries sent planes and ferries to Libya to evacuate their citizens, and some oil and gas companies pulled their foreign staff out and suspended operations as the anti-government protests spread to Tripoli for the first time.

Many countries had already urged their citizens to avoid non-essential travel to Libya, or recommended that those already there leave on commercial flights. But as Libya’s bloody crackdown against protesters moved to the capital, countries and companies alike stepped up their contingency plans.

Oil companies, including Italy’s Eni, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, U.K.-based BP and Germany’s Wintershall, a subsidiary of BASF, were evacuating their expat workers or their families or both. BP and Wintershall said they were temporarily suspending operations; Eni said production continued normally.

Libya is one of the world’s biggest oil producers and has the largest proven oil reserves in the whole of Africa. Eni, Italy’s largest natural gas and oil company, has operated there for more than 50 years and is the biggest foreign player in Libya.

Portugal and Austria sent C-130 planes to pick up their citizens and other EU nationals, and Turkey sent two ferries to fetch construction workers stranded by the unrest.

The Dutch government was seeking clearance to send a military plane to evacuate its citizens on Tuesday and Russian gas company Gazprom was dispatching a plane that was due to return Tuesday, a Russian news agency reported.

Turkey was sending two ferries to Libya to evacuate Turks — mostly construction workers. The decision came hours after authorities at the airport in Benghazi, the country’s second-largest city and a centre of the protests, would not allow a Turkish Airlines plane to land, forcing it to circle the airport and then return to Istanbul.

Norway-based Statoil is pulling a “handful” of expatriate workers out of its office in Tripoli, said company spokesman Baard Pedersen. Locally hired staff will remain in Libya but are off duty while Statoil’s office is closed, he said.

German industrial giant Siemens AG said it was evacuating about 100 international employees. Siemens’ three main divisions — industry, energy and health care — are active in Libya with annual revenue of about €160 million ($220 million), a spokesman said.

Russia’s state rail monopoly said it was evacuating its 204 employees who are building a 550-kilometre coastal railway from Sirt to Benghazi.

Meanwhile, credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s cut the Bahrain government’s credit ratings Monday because of concerns that political unrest could roil the small island kingdom for some time to come.

With files from The Associated Press.