Coming out of an infamous father’s shadow is difficult at the best of times, but especially so when your surname is Gaddafi and you’re frequently tipped as the next ruler of Libya. The crude caricature of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the so-called “Brother Leader”, as tribal warrior turned unsmiling despot is certainly one which has dominated the entire life of his second son, Saif al-Islam. Despite recent reforms, which have seen his oil-rich state largely ditching its pariah status, many in Britain still associate it with past horrors. These have ranged from the funding of IRA terrorism and the Lockerbie bombing abroad, to human rights violations at home.
Intriguing then, that Saif should have mentioned a “special relationship” between his country and the UK when I interviewed him in London last week. The affable 37-year-old’s clean cut, corporate image could not have been more different from the desert chic look still adopted by his father. Instead of flowing robes and revolutionary stubble, Saif wore a can-do designer suit and described London as the place to live up to it. Rather than a tent – Colonel Gaddafi’s preferred choice of accommodation – Saif received me in a private suite in Mayfair’s Connaught Hotel. Describing London as the world’s foremost financial centre, he praised it as a place where you could find representatives of almost every community in the world and, indeed, do business with them.
While the millions in oil profits being invested in London by the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA) may be an entirely pragmatic move (the LIA currently appears to be buying up half of the spare office space in the City and Mayfair), Saif’s Anglophile views should not be discounted as a stunt cooked up by his newly hired PR firm. It was only last year that he completed his doctorate in Governance at London School of Economics. He is imbued with unremittingly liberal ideas about the future of his country and the redistribution of its estimated £65bn in energy-wealth profits. A desire to turn Libya into a modern democracy based on the rule of law is expressed at every opportunity, with Saif always highlighting economic progress over dogma.
Saif’s reforming record to date is certainly impressive. He is said to have persuaded his father to end their country’s nuclear weapons programme, prompting Tony Blair to herald a “new relationship” with Libya and the west as far back as 2004. Since then, Saif has become the figurehead of the hugely influential Gaddafi Foundation, which is involved in numerous activities ranging from charitable initiatives to human rights work. An extraordinary national reconciliation effort saw hundreds of alleged terrorists – some with links to al-Qaida – released. Abroad, he has been at the centre of many foreign policy breakthroughs, including formulating a recent roadmap for peace in Kashmir.
An especially controversial success was the freeing of alleged Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi – a move that caused widespread anger in America and Britain, but massively increased Saif’s popularity among his own people. Defending the release of the former intelligence officer on compassionate grounds because of cancer, Saif told me: “I made it a personal issue because he is Libyan, innocent and very sick. It’s very simple.”
Such honesty is typical of Saif, who appears to be more interested in conveying the image of a bright, well-trained technocrat than an heir apparent. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of his profile is that he has no official position in his father’s government whatsoever. Instead he dabbles in almost every policy sphere, overseeing the complex system of allegedly democratic peoples’ congresses the colonel set up after the 1969 revolution that brought him to power. Saif diplomatically concedes there is much work to be done with all of them, without once mentioning, let alone criticising, the current Father of the nation. As a means of becoming his own man, this is undoubtedly Saif’s best way out of the formidable shadow, which has loomed over him since childhood.