The price of power: paying homage to the 'Brother Leader'

Daniel Howden reports on Gaddafi's display of Libya's new strength

Thursday 03 September 2009 00:00

The 40th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power has offered a salutary lesson in the exercise of power in Colonel Gaddafi's Libya. As Tuesday night became Wednesday morning and a sprawling, hagiographic retrospective drew to a winding close, all eyes turned to one man. The last item on the programme suggested that the Brother Leader would speak.

Seated by that stage among the handful of leaders still hanging in there after 12 hours of events, Col Gaddafi stirred.

A stampede ensued as photographers, cameramen and courtiers elbowed for a close-up of the Libyan leader. In the crush, the remaining dignitaries were trodden underfoot – a small fight even broke out in the equivalent of the royal box.

It was a useful reminder of what happens to those who get close to Col Gaddafi. It is a point that has not been lost on Gordon Brown or the Swiss President, Hans-Rudolf Merz, both of whom have been bruised by compromising encounters with Libya's "revolutionary guide" in the past fortnight.

In Libya, power and prestige accrues to one man. Guests at the celebrations had just watched as the whole of African history was rewritten to place the son of modest Bedouins at the centre of it.

For once, the famously long-winded leader didn't speak. He simply stood to receive the congratulations of those around him.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Julia Tymoshenko was among the first to greet him. Prim and pretty with her braided hair, she seemed like a girl receiving a school prize.

Her presence was among the more obvious clues as to why the rest of the world puts up with Ronald Reagan's "mad dog" of the Middle East. At least one half of the Ukrainian political establishment is desperate to break clear of its energy dependency on Russia and the political limitations that come with that.

The answer for Ukraine, and much of the rest of Europe, may well lie on and off the shores of Libya. The North African kingdom, the size of Germany, France, Spain, and Italy combined, has potentially vast reserves of sweet crude, easy to refine and just a short hop across the Mediterranean – a potentially priceless resource. Libya has proven reserves of more than 40 billion barrels of oil and may have as many as 100 billion. These are easily the largest reserves in Africa. Only the international embargo of the 1990s that left the country unable to develop them has stopped Libya catapulting into the Saudi league of suppliers. It is rated by many of the oil majors as the single biggest exploitation opportunity in the world. But even this may be dwarfed by the natural gas reserves thought to be lying with the oil under the surface. This is why President Merz was prepared to humiliate himself by apologising for the arrest last year of one of Mr Gaddafi's son's. Hannibal Gaddafi had been detained after he and his wife were accused of mistreating two domestic employees while in Geneva.

Those charges were dropped and Switzerland issued an embarrassing climbdown after Libya responded to the arrest by jailing two Swiss businessmen, withdrawing $5bn (£3bn) in assets from the country's banks and severing oil supplies. Mr Merz cut a deal – just as Mr Brown has been accused of doing. He would apologise and the two countries would set up an independent arbitration panel to investigate the arrest of Hannibal Gaddafi and his wife. In return, Tripoli would release the two Swiss citizens.

Libya has yet to make good its side of the deal and Mr Merz, who is facing calls to resign, has resorted to insisting that he had personal assurances from Libyan Prime Minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi, that the Swiss men would be allowed to leave by the end of August, after relations had "normalised".

What this plea ignores and what was plain from Tuesday;s Gaddafi gala is that there is no such thing as normal relations with Libya, and no real authority beyond the colonel.

"It can be incredibly opaque trying to deal with the Libyan government," one Western diplomat based in Tripoli explained. "The hardest thing can be trying to identify who you need to speak to in the first place.

"Meetings where no one comes and there is no explanation why plans have changed are normal."

In this environment, the rules of engagement are unclear. London and Washington have learnt that Col Gaddafi enjoys crowing over the concessions he wins behind closed doors from his former adversaries in the West. While most Libyans regard the homecoming given to Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi as low key, there have been few opportunities missed to add to the embarrassment felt in England and Scotland over the affair. Instead, the chance was taken to rehash old accusations that Britain may have part-funded an assassination attempt on the Libyan leader's life in 1996.

For companies operating in this context, sycophancy is encouraged and expected. A glossy-coloured pullout in this week's Tripoli Post to commemorate the anniversary of the great "al-Fatah revolution", as Col Gaddafi's 1969 power grab is called, demonstrated this.

Page after page is dedicated to a large corporate advertisement, each rivalling the next in expressions of admiration and gratitude to the Libyan leader. The corporations doing the bowing and scraping read like a roll call of the energy and arms manufacturers hoping to buy or sell a piece of the increasingly rich country: French military aviation company Dassault; Russian energy giant Gazprom; and Spain's oil and gas major Repsol.

The ads are a shrewd investment. Unlike the comparatively camera-shy Saudi royals or the conservative elites in the Gulf states, the 67-year-old Gaddafi enjoys being the centre of attention. And despite his Bedouin tents and protestations of modesty, he enjoys being gauche. The A-list who dined in Tripoli's Green Square enjoyed a meal prepared by the acclaimed Parisian restaurant Le Nôtre. They were handed limited edition gold Chopard watches with an outline of Africa on the face and a single diamond marking Libya.

Those who followed Col Gaddafi's entourage as it swept away from the party yesterday would have seen that it left three unused and unusual golf carts in its wake. These days the self-styled Lion of the Desert travels between tees in a trio of Hummer 3 carts that had been delivered the day before by a British courier from Humberside airport. The post mark had been left on the passenger's seat.

Apologies for absence: Western leaders make an early exit

Western political A-listers were conspicuously absent from Colonel Gaddafi's knees-up, cautious of the political outcome of embracing the veteran dictator, whatever their interest in his oil. But the Libyan leader was far from friendless at the celebrations – even if those in attendance had to rub shoulders with a somewhat motley crew.

The British charge d'affaires and French Minister for Co-operation will have made very sure to avoid the likes of Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Sudanese President Omar Hassan el-Bashir, who, with Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez, formed a formidable anti-Western axis.

Regional stalwarts were also out in force, with leaders from Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and Benin; Turkey and Ukraine, both keen to bolster ties with oil-rich Libya, were also represented, by first lady Amina Erdogan and Prime Minister Julia Tymochenko respectively. Only one fly in the ointment: the Moroccan delegation, disgusted at the presence of separatist Saharan group the Polisario Front, stormed out in a huff.

All in all, Gordon Brown will be pleased he had other plans.

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