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The Good Bad Son

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Saif relaxing on his yacht, Blue Bay, in Croatia in 1999.  

Saif didn’t completely rely on Monitor for connections—he was a skilled roving diplomat in his own right. He developed ties with State Department officials and congressmen from both parties. He spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations and the World Economic Forum, where he announced his intention to create an organization devoted to tracking human-rights abuses in the Middle East. According to a former Bill Clinton aide, Saif called the ex-president from time to time for advice.

As he grew more comfortable on the international stage, Saif further distinguished himself from his father. At a dinner meeting in London, he requested to be seated between a Jewish congressional aide who worked for a leading pro-Israel congressman and a member of a prominent Jewish lobbying association. (Saif was rumored to be dating an Israeli actress at one time.)

He even openly criticized the regime. At the same dinner, the congressional aide asked him what Libya needed most. His one-word answer: democracy.

“You mean Libya needs more democracy?” the aide asked.

“No. ‘More democracy’ would imply that we had some,” Saif said.

In 2007, after persuading his father to free a group of Bulgarian medics in Tripoli, he publicly admitted that they had been tortured into confessing, falsely, to having spread HIV in their hospital. He brought in Human Rights Watch to prepare a report on the notorious Abu Salim prison, where Muammar had ordered the killing of more than a thousand inmates. He initiated a program to rehabilitate Libyan jihadists and worked behind the scenes to help American intelligence break up the network of Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan, who had provided Libya with nuclear materials. “We wanted to know if [Saif] could take an idea and work it through the Libyan system,” the former State Department official says, and it seemed he could.

His Al-Ghad media group provided non-state-controlled news in Libya. His Qaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation sent students abroad. With a Libyan committee and the Monitor Group, he wrote the first and only constitution Libya has ever known.

In 2008, the U.S. posted its first ambassador to Libya in 37 years. That November, Saif was rewarded with his first visit to Washington, a city his father had never seen. In reaction, Qaddafi’s old guard accused Saif of acquiescing to American demands and profiting from economic reforms. Like his brothers, he enjoyed a steady income from the national oil company, but he also seems to have held special sway over state coffers. “It was crony capitalism, not a real market,” says former Libyan immigration minister Ali Errishi, who claims it was common knowledge in Libya that Saif took generous fees for foreign deals.

His personal expenditures didn’t go unnoticed, either. While at the LSE, he lived for a time at the Lanesborough hotel, before buying a $16 million house in a London suburb (since the uprisings, the house has been occupied by anti-Qaddafi squatters). There were birthday parties in Monaco and St.-Tropez, hunting trips in Europe and New Zealand, and a pair of pet Bengal tigers in Tripoli that figured in his surrealist paintings, which he shipped to galleries around the world. (“Everyone admired them because it would have been disruptive to your commercial relationship with Libya not to,” Richards says of the artwork.)

“Occasionally I’d meet him in London, and he’d be in a leather suit with a beautiful Polish girlfriend on his arm. It would be a completely different Saif,” Barber says. “I’d go to meet him at a restaurant, and he’d be sitting at a table with a group of girls and friends, partying.”

But Muammar gave Saif tacit approval and sometimes more. He took to speaking publicly about the need for reform, even promising elections. He provided Saif with cover from hard-liners and put some of his reform-minded allies into government positions.

One thing Saif would not accept, which Muammar repeatedly pressed on him, was an official post in his father’s government.

In August 2008, Saif, at the height of his popularity, was preparing to go to Washington. Before he left, he gave a speech at an annual youth gathering, as he had done for the past three years. But this speech would prove to be his most infamous. He claimed that Libya had been in “stagnation for decades.” In a swipe at his father, he said, “we want to have an administrative, legal, and constitutional system once and for all, rather than change ... every year.” Referring to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, he called Arab countries with their ruling families a “forest of dictatorships.”

It’s unclear why Saif took his criticisms so far. Some think he was flush with recent diplomatic successes. Others, however, believe he was beginning to realize that changing Libya was a fool’s errand. Most of his family, content with their fiefdoms, still seemed indifferent to the problems. “There wasn’t much evidence of reform,” says Sandra Charles, the head of C&O Resources. “There were too many people around Qaddafi who had more persuasion.”


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