NOX (Pan-Arab men's magazine based in Jordan) October 2007
Libya is going green in a big way. Not green with jealousy or green as in Muammar’s Gadafi’s notorious (and rather amusing) Green Book or Libya’s green flag. Environmentally green. At least that’s the idea and why 200-plus journalists and guests from all over the world were flown to Libya for a 24-hour trip to witness the inauguration of the world’s largest sustainable area, a 5,500 square kilometre area in the Green Mountains.
Gadafi’s son, Saif Al-Islam, was on hand to stumble through his speech as well as the director of UNESCWA, plenty of security and the world’s press corps scrambling behind for good shots and quotable quotes. The whole trip was a carefully organized exercise in public relations, with guests kept in a bubble away from the reality of Libya.
Three private jets flew attendees in from London and Paris to the semi-military airport of La Braq, where 1960s era French Mirage jets dotted the edges of the runway.
No visa stamps were given on arrival and no Libyan currency was needed – it was as if none of us were actually there, but then few knew exactly where they were, other than 1,000 kilometers east of Tripoli and some 300 kilometers from the Egyptian border. All quite disorientating.
It would have been a perfect opportunity for hundreds of foreigners to disappear into the blue, á la Musa Al Sadr in 1978 when the Iranian-Lebanese imam mysteriously disappeared after allegedly boarding a flight from Tripoli to Italy.
But 2007 is not the 1970s, and Libya came in from the cold last year once Washington dropped the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, as it is formally called, from its list of rogue states. Gadafi’s Libya is now part of the so-called “free world.”
It was no real surprise then that Libyan officials were driven around in Hummers and guests were ferried to the “accommodation village” in over 40 identical Mercedes vans.
But driving through villages that appeared to have been hastily cleaned, the roads were lined with Libyan men and children – not a woman to be seen – goggling at the motley crew cruising past. Reminiscent of any rural area in the Middle East with its ubiquitous concrete block buildings, the only difference was in the “great leader” billboards - celebrating 38 years of Colonel Gadafi’s rule.
Under the watchful eye of local inhabitants and soldiers in blue camouflage uniforms (how do you blend into the scenery in blue? Yalla chebab, make like a pond!), the guests were ushered into a fenced-in area the size of a couple of playing fields next to the ancient Greek Temple of Zeus.
Temple of Zeus
The Temple of Zeus
The “accommodation village” consisted of two large tents decked out with white couches, and 150 smaller tents furnished with beds and electricity – all this for one night. A fire engine had even been lined up, along with firemen stationed with extinguishers at the end of each row of tents.
It was like a luxurious refugee camp minus bawling babies and swarms of flies, but not without night time interruptions – two Libyans, on separate occasions, stuck their head through the tent flaps at two in the morning, probably to check the author was where he was supposed to be and had not made a run for it.
Leaving the "tent city."
A Libyan hauls a bag from the tent city while the British ambassador to Libya walks behind.
The Big Idea
After the evening’s events, which had culminated in a dance by three local lovelies in their early forties shaking gravity defying bums and breasts, omelettes were served up the next morning by a team of Sri Lankan chefs – clearly no Libyan was up to such a complex culinary task.
But Saif Al-Islam’s plainclothes security certainly knew their stuff as attendees shuffled through the security cordon at the entrance to the ruined Hellenic city of Cyrene, a sprawling site of pillars, amphitheatres, mosaics, and ancient rubble known as the Athens of Africa.
The Greeks certainly chose locations well, with the area commanding cracking views of the Mediterranean. The PR firm obviously thought the same thing for Saif Al-Islam to sign the Cyrene Declaration in front of the world’s media.
The amphitheatre at Cyrene.
The ruins of Cyrene with the Med in the background.
The plan that Libya has is to turn the area, about half the size of Lebanon, into the Green Mountain Conservation and Development Authority (GMCDA). The idea is to learn from the mistakes of other Mediterranean countries and develop the country’s pristine coastline in a sustainable way without hundreds of cheaply built hotels springing up that would block the sea view and screw up the environment.
Environmental degradation in the Green Mountain area has got steadily worse over the past 15 years, with the water table falling from 200 metres below the surface to 600 metres, and forested area declining from half a million hectares to 180,000 hectares.
To curb such degradation the aim is to move towards a carbon neutral zone and build eco-tourism facilities that are built from local materials, use renewable energy, and blend into the surroundings (hopefully better than Libyan army uniforms).
“We have developed a technique so that if you look [at the hotel] it is like the rock face. It is about the principle of camouflage – tourism is great but the rules are, I don’t really want to see you,” said Stefan Behling, head of research and development of sustainable design at British architectural firm Norman Foster and Partners.
Architect Stefan Behling points out the environmental design of the project.
The GMCDA will initially consist of the Cyrene Grand Hotel, Spa Resort and Canyon Resort, a national park, archaeological conservation and fields for biomass and organic farming. All this is expected to create 190,000 jobs, said Saif Al-Islam.
“No politics, maybe next time”
Sitting down to be interviewed after his speech, Gadafi Jnr. was bombarded by questions. But before the grilling started the Libyan archaeology minister called out: “Interviews are strictly about the declaration.”
That didn’t stop some journalists from trying to sneak in a few bonus questions, particularly about democratization, but Saif Al-Islam carefully rebutted with “today we talk about ecology, environment and culture. No politics, maybe next time.”
Nevertheless, Libyan politics was present at the press conference when attendees were handed copies of local newspaper Quryna, which had photos of Gadafi Senior and Junior prominently displayed on the front page beneath a rather strange strap in English, “Comprehensive, miscellaneous, Libyan journal.”
More bizarrely the whole event wrapped up with a Libyan female army officer shrieking political slogans into a microphone about the great people of Libya and going on about “al haq,” the truth. The revolution clearly lives on, this time as part of Libya’s new ideology, eco-capitalism.
What was not mentioned at the ceremony was that the whole idea of the GMCDA was not the Libyan government’s but the brainchild of the Tatanakis, a wealthy Libyan family that made its money from drilling company Challenger Ltd. The Tatanakis are to finance a $300 million hotel at the GMCDA and stumped up the money for the whole PR trip.
Much of the excursion had such a degree of mystery, with several guests not saying whom they worked for or why they were there. And what the Princess of Albania, the Archduchess Valerie Salvador Habsburg-Lothringen, the strategic advisor to the Crown Prince of Qatar, and the head of development for the Prince of Monaco were doing there was never explained.
Presumably planning to invest some greenbacks in green obsessed Libya.
'THE SWORD OF ISLAM'
Saif Al-Islam, “the sword of Islam,” is Gadafi’s second son and has no official governmental role but is allegedly being groomed to be Gadafi Senior’s successor as “Guide of the Revolution.” A painter in his spare time, Saif Al-Islam is studying for a PhD at the London School of Economics and has raised eyebrows over criticisms of his father’s regime.
Earlier this year he famously said that the Bulgarian medics held by the Libyans for nine years for allegedly infecting hundreds of children with HIV had been tortured while imprisoned.
Curiously, some people believe that Gadafi Junior will play a major role in a future conflict between France and the Arabs, if a prophecy by the 16th century soothsayer Nostramadus is to be believed : “The Libyan Prince will be powerful in the West, the French will become so inflamed of Arabs, learned in letters he will agree to translate the Arab language into French.”
The only snag with this prediction is that Libya, despite its formal title, is no longer an Arab country after Colonel Gadafi stormed out of the Arab League in 2002. As Jr. told the BBC a few years ago: “The new Libya is black, because we are African now and we are Mediterranean at the same time.”
Saif Al Islam’s younger brother, Al-Saadi Gadafi, is known for having played football for Italian team U.C. Sampdoria and negotiating a 7.5% financial stake in Juventus.
- Photos by Paul Cochrane