Uncovering the complex relationships between political risk and MNE firm legitimacy: Insights from Libya
Using the before–after natural experiment occasioned by the Arab Spring in Libya, we explore how market and non-market activity affect foreign firm legitimacy in times of political turmoil. Although all MNEs in Libya had to cultivate strong ties to Qadhafi to succeed during his 40 years of rule, we found that those that also invested in social-benefit projects and in social ties with families with few ties to the Qadhafi family earned a broad-based legitimacy that helped them survive Qadhafi’s overthrow. Our findings contribute to the political risk and political behavior literature the notion that the pursuit of firm legitimacy in general, and especially in the eyes of social-sector actors, is an effective hedge against political risk. More theoretically, our findings support the addition of a social-sector-based path to firm legitimacy in the host country that complements and may at times substitute for, the government-based path to foreign firm legitimacy. Practically, our findings suggest that MNEs’ facing severe political risk can improve their prospects for survival by investing in relationships with influential social groups and by offering goods or services that are perceived as socially valuable.