x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Saif al Islam Qadafi, Libya's master of arts

He is a painter in oils with political acumen who many would like to see succeed his father.

Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

Saif al Islam Qadafi is, among other things, a painter. Three weeks ago in Moscow, he put on a crisp white shirt and a black suit with the white triangle of a handkerchief poking from the breast pocket and cut the ribbon on The Desert Is Not Silent, an exhibition featuring his work alongside Roman and Libyan antiques.

"Let us listen to the colours of the Libyan desert, which is definitely not silent," he said. Then he led guests including Russian ministers and the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch, through the exhibit. The paintings were oils mainly on canvas and sometimes on wood, and occasionally on coarse material referred to as "Bedouin fabric". There were desert scenes, abstract splashes of colour and the stylised forms of horses, giraffes, raptors, bison and - a favourite Qadafi theme - white Siberian tigers.

"This is to show our Russian friends that not only do we buy weapons and sell gas and oil, but we have culture, art and history," Mr Qadafi said. For four decades Libya has been identified with its leader, Muammar Qadafi, Saif Qadafi's father, who toppled the country's pro-western monarchy and seized power in 1969. Banning political parties, he set up a system of committees with himself as "Brother Leader and Guide of the Revolution". For 30 years, the elder Qadafi's support for militant groups and liberation movements left Libya ostracised and facing all manner of sanction; for the past decade he has focused on rebuilding ties with the West and flexing the country's economic muscle. But Saif, 38, is the Qadafi that many western leaders would like to see run the country. Urbane and articulate, he has pushed for democratic reforms at home, while seeking to make Libya a kinder, gentler force abroad. He is widely believed to be the catalyst behind Libya's turnaround on the world stage. Although considered a potential heir to his 68-year-old father, Saif Qadafi has so far rejected this idea; the political succession in Libya remains far from certain. For now, he keeps busy running an architecture firm in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, and heading the Qadafi International Charity and Development Foundation, a humanitarian organiation set up in 2003. Over the past week, the latter role has thrust him once again into international affairs. Last Saturday, the Moldovan-flagged Amalthea set sail for Gaza from Greece, carrying 2,000 tonnes of supplies, nine passengers and 12 activists from the Qadafi Foundation, which sponsored the ship. By Wednesday, Israeli warships had drawn alongside to order the Amalthea away from Gaza. After a day of tension and uncertainty, the ship docked at the Egyptian port of El Arish on Thursday, with Mr Qadafi claiming he had struck a deal with Israel to allow Libya to spend US$50 million (Dh184m) in Gaza via the UN Relief and Works Agency. Last Monday, the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al Awsat reported that Libyan authorities had blocked private flights from leaving the country in order to prevent Mr Qadafi from joining the Amalthea in person. Thus Mr Qadafi remained in Libya, where he owns a large house of red stone about a half an hour's drive from Tripoli. He also owns a home in London and has tended to be seen socialising with the likes of Britain's Lord Mandelson and Prince Andrew. While he has said many times that he gets along well with his family, the even-tempered, politically engaged Saif - his father's second child - often comes across as a foil to the other Qadafis. His elder brother, Mohammed, is said to be more interested in computers than politics. Younger brother Saadi is a football enthusiast, who was dropped from playing for Perugia. Hannibal is known for fast driving and run-ins with foreign police. Khamis has reportedly worked as a police officer in Libya. Little is known about Saif al Arab, another brother. Sister Aicha is a charity worker and lawyer who served on Saddam Hussein's defence team. Among Mr Qadafi's siblings, only his brother Mutassim, a political conservative, is engaged in Libyan politics.Then there was Hanna, an adopted infant daughter of Muammer Qadafi, who was among 60 people killed during a US bombing raid in 1986 that struck the family compound in Tripoli. Two of Mr Qadafi's brothers were also injured. "It was very unpleasant," he told The Guardian newspaper in 2004. "But that experience helped to shape my new and more mature personality." In 1988, a bomb brought down Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, killing 270 people in an attack blamed on Libyan agents. Within a few years, Libya was staggering under international sanctions. It was in this period that Mr Qadafi began to paint the works featured in The Desert Is Not Silent. In 1995, he painted a smiling portrait of his father. The following year came a classic fruit still-life and a white horse galloping over a green field. But as the 1990s wore on, the paintings acquired a dark, Dali-like surrealism. In 2000, he painted The Challenge: a beach at sunset, a boat pulled up on the sand, three hooded figures brandishing a pair of crosses and the sepia cut-out of Muammer Qadafi gazing down defiantly from a corner of the sky through the outline of a giant eagle. Whatever moved him to paint as he did, he became convinced that Libya's interest lay in peace with the West, not opposition. He was instrumental in persuading his father to renounce the quest for a nuclear weapon in 2003. That decision, coupled with the surrender in 2001 of Lockerbie bombing suspects, was key to getting sanctions lifted and rebuilding relations with western countries. Meanwhile, he earned an engineering degree from Tripoli's Al Fateh University in 1994 and a master's in business administration from Imadec University in Vienna in 2000. Last year he was awarded a PhD in global governance from the London School of Economics. Fluent in English and German, he has often served as a channel for foreign diplomats, academics and journalists. Although he has never held a government position, he has regularly involved himself in politics both domestic and foreign. In 2007, he helped broker a deal for the release of one Palestinian and five Bulgarian nurses initially sentenced to death in Libya for having allegedly infected more than 400 children with the HIV virus. The following year, he launched a project to draft a proposed constitution for Libya Then, abruptly, he announced that he was dropping out of political life. He has since been largely eclipsed by his brother, Mutassim, in what analysts say are most likely efforts by Muammar Qadafi to balance reformist and conservative factions within Libyan politics. Last year, Mutassim travelled to Washington to meet Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, and was named Libya's national security adviser, while his hardliner political ally, Musa Kusa, became foreign minister. Mutassim also sits on a new council overseeing Libya's oil industry, effectively clamping down on Saif's reformist ally, Shoukri Ghanem, who heads the national oil company. Meanwhile, authorities last year nationalised an independent TV station linked to Mr Qadafi, and this year restricted the publication of two newspapers he founded. There have been a few positive moments for Mr Qadafi in the past two years. Last August, he helped deliver Abdelbasset Ali al Megrahi, convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, home from Britain after his release on compassionate grounds. The following October, his father tapped him for a job running tribal-based committees. However, Mr Qadafi has reportedly rejected the job pending a written constitution for Libya. The country has not had a constitution since 1977, with policy decisions made in obscure fashion and largely according to the agenda set by his father, according to analysts. Since 2006, Mr Qadafi has branded his own agenda "Libya's Future", a plan for freer civil society, independent judiciary and media, and US$70 billion (Dh257bn) spent on improving the country's infrastructure. "The whole world is going through more freedom, more democracy," he told Time Magazine in April. "We want to see those changes now, instead of in 10 years' time, or 15 years." There is no question what Mr Qadafi wants for his country. The question of whether he can help make it happen, however, is entirely open. @Email:jthorne@thenational.ae