|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives|
|Resident Alien: Gaddafi's Son and Our Friends in Africa|
Robert Hanks, Independent (London)
Sunday June 1, 2003
The thing to keep in mind about Saif El Islam Alqadhafi is that he doesn't play football - that's his brother, Al-Saadi. Saif's interests are painting, architecture, charitable works - he's the head of the Gaddafi Foundation, Libya's largest charity - and world peace. This last is what brought him to London House on Mecklenburgh Square, a hostel for overseas students, to talk on the subject "Reforming the UN Charter".
I had hoped to corner Saif before dinner for a brief informal interview, but since he didn't turn up until moments before dinner was served, I ended up talking to Hamish Wilson instead - which in all honesty was probably more interesting. You may have seen Hamish on a superb BBC2 documentary three years ago, about following Richard Burton's footsteps to the forbidden city of Harrar, in Somalia. His family's connections with that country go back to the Second World War when his father, Eric Wilson, was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for his action during the Italian invasion of what was then British Somaliland. Uniquely, more than 60 years after winning a posthumous VC, Mr. Wilson is still alive and well, there having been something of a foul-up in communications. After the war, Mr. Wilson resumed contact with the family of one of his Somali comrades, and Hamish has kept up the connection, spending much of the last 17 years living there. In the early 1990s he was involved in the war against the dictator Siad Barre which led to the establishment of the independent Republic of Somaliland - a nation of perhaps three million people, mostly leading a nomadic pastoral life. These days, Hamish lives in a house at the end of a track in the Welsh borders, three miles from the nearest village, and makes his living by writing in the morning - he has a contract for a book about Somalia - and working as a shepherd for a local farmer in the afternoon; he has the raw-boned, healthy air of somebody who spends a lot of his time outside in the weather.
On the side he does some work for a "risk consultancy" business, advising on conditions in Somalia. Most people's ideas of the country are shaped by the Black Hawk Down incident, the ambush of American troops in Mogadishu in 1993; but according to Hamish, the country outside Mogadishu is pretty safe, especially Somaliland itself. He is particularly keen to scotch the suggestion that Somalia could be a haven for al-Qa'ida: while the country is Muslim and has its share of fundamentalist groups, most Somalis resent what they see as Arab attempts to colonize Islam.
On visits to London, Hamish spends his time cycling about, visiting the Somali communities in Whitechapel, Bethnal Green and elsewhere. Somalis have been in London for more than a century (many came over as stokers on ships, being about the only people who could stand the heat in the engine-rooms) but they maintain strong links with Somalia. Contact has become easier in recent years thanks to the large number of independent Somali airlines that have sprung up. Most began in the early 1990s, when defecting pilots from new Soviet republics flew to Mogadishu, creating a small pool of cheap aircraft.
But to Saif Alqadhafi, who was giving a "port talk" - London House does quite a plausible imitation of an Oxbridge college, and this is a very Oxbridge idea: instead of a formal speech, somebody leads the conversation, while port is passed round in the background. In fact, far too many people had turned up for informality to work, and only a minority managed to get their hands on the port.
I don't know quite what I expected from a dictator's son and, supposedly, heir apparent: I was certainly unprepared for a sweet, almost cripplingly shy idealist. He mumbled a bit, stumbled over his English, shuffled and tapped his feet under the lectern, and had difficulty looking the audience in the eyes. The contrast with his father, famous for speeches that can drag on for days, could not be starker. The physical resemblance is remote, too: instead of that distinctive mop, he has a shaved head. In contrast to Colonel Gaddafi's favored combat dress, he wears small, oval, wire- rimmed glasses, a blazer with white handkerchief neatly tucked into its breast pocket, a wide silk tie, and pressed jeans.
On to the speech: Saif's big idea (he stressed it was his, not his father's) is that the UN should be completely recast, giving a voice not just to national governments but to corporations and the "third sector" - NGOs, which he believes can be more responsive than governments to people's wishes. This new structure would be ratified through a global "e-referendum", which would give it a legitimacy the old UN lacks.
At question-time it was apparent that nobody thought this plan was remotely practical. Still, this commitment to democracy was as welcome as it was startling. The one wrong note was struck by his PhD supervisor (he is studying at the LSE) who, introducing Saif, drew the audience's attention to his impressive CV, and the fact that, at 30, he has already had a successful career as an architect, with three major projects built in Libya. Oh, and I wonder what the bidding process was like for those?