American Senators and Yellowcake: Libya 2004 with Saif Gaddafi

Admittedly, this topic has got nothing to do with anything remotely “chic” or “London”, but given the current events taking place in Libya, I couldn’t help but reminisce the time when I travelled to Tripoli in 2004 with Saif Gaddafi, in his private plane and while heavily pregnant- an experience which seemed quite surreal then, and seems even more surreal now.

It all started on the 20 January 2004 at 7pm with a phone call from my good friend Zaki Chehab, a London-based Palestinian journalist I had met four years before on a press trip to Scotland. A veteran journalist and the founder of Arabs Today, the largest Arabic language news website, Zaki is the man to know for anyone interested in covering the Middle East, having interviewed everyone from Yasser Arafat to Osama bin Laden.

In the weird world of international politics, the Lybian dictatorship and former terrorist State was being wooed at the time by the Western States, as a new found Arab ally against Al Qaeda, willing to renounce weapons of mass destruction and to open its vast oil fields to American and European companies. As a result, a delegation of seven US senators was about to make a visit to Tripoli, the first Americans to officially set foot in Libya since 1969. Saif, Gaddafi’s second son and heir apparent, then a student at the London School of Economics, had asked Zaki to bring a few fellow journalists to cover the event.

A man of few words, Zaki went straight to the point. He said: “I am travelling tomorrow to Tripoli with Gaddafi’s son in his private plane and wondered if you would you like to join?” Needless to say, I was slightly taken aback, if only because I was six months pregnant at the time with my second daughter. After blurting out something along the line of: “Sounds great, let me come back to you in ten minutes”, I gave a call to my then husband, who, to his credit, said that it was an opportunity I couldn’t miss. My second call was to my obstetrician, who also encouraged me to go, providing I took with me some in flight compression socks and aspirin to prevent any pregnancy induced blood clotting. I then called my editor at Le Point in Paris, to ask if he would be interested in a profile of Saif (he was).

Having never written anything about Arab current affairs before in my eight years as a journalist, I must admit I felt slightly out of my depth travelling to Libya. But one thing I love about journalism is that it gives you endless opportunities to learn about new topics, as long as you are willing to bite the bullet while trying not to make an arse of yourself (an objective not always attained I am afraid to admit!) This has seen me spending time with murderers in prison and covering fashion shows, mingling with homeless people and London’s super rich, and interviewing cross dressers, rape victims, right wing activists, Auschwitz survivors, drug dealers, a professional snake catcher and personalities like Tony Blair, Jamie Oliver, Sebastian Coe and Nicolas Anelka. So while I was very aware of my numerous shortcomings when it came to Middle East politics, I decided to fight my recurring natural tendency to procrastinate and just go for it.

So I packed my bag and there I was the following day in the Libyan dictator’s plush Airbus A340, on my way from Luton airport to Tripoli. Alongside Zaki, other travellers included Amy Kellogg from Fox News, Richard Beeston from The Times and Ewen MacAskill from The Guardian, as well as Saif’s bodyguards, a 25-year old Romanian girl in suspiciously high heels and of course Gaddafi Junior himself.

After dinner, served on fine china and red crystal, we briefly met with Saif, the designer-clad playboy who acted as an unofficial ambassador for his father and the “respectable” face of Libya (despite a reputation as a keen cokehead in certain Knightsbridge circles). Having talked to us about his wish for Libya to become a democracy, he explained, in what remains the star quote of the trip, how his fellow countrymen wanted above all “to eat MacDonald’s not yellowcake”, before retiring to a gigantic bedroom covered in black satin (I had a quick glimpse after we landed in Tripoli), discreetly followed by the Romanian.

The three days that followed were rather surreal, to say the least. Highlights included meeting with then Prime minister Choukri Ghanem, an articulate Harvard graduate who has now sided with the rebels, as well as visiting the Bab al-Aziziya compound alongside the American representatives, slightly bewildered when we were shown the statue of a mighty golden hand crushing a US fighter jet (now destroyed). We also visited a nuclear reactor, for which we had to wear “protective” gear made of paper (a possible cause for my daughter Blanche’s boundless reactive energy). All the while we were looked after by a security team whose task seemed to ensure we always missed Muhammad Gaddafi, but who managed to provide us with a near death experience when our chauffeur decided to beat the traffic by driving on the wrong side of the road, horns on full blast against the dozens of cars trying to avoid us.

At the end, we never met Gaddafi’s Senior, despite our repeated requests. However, I was granted an interview with Saif. I was notified that I should get ready at about 9pm to be taken by car to his house, a farm just outside Tripoli populated with captive jaguars and tigers. At the end, we met at one in the morning, sadly not at his farm, but in a small flat decorated with statues of Indian deities. There, he oscillated between being overly guarded, serving me a pre-ingested speech on Libya’s love for his father, and providing some occasional spontaneous insights about at the utter strangeness of growing up as Muammar “Mad Dog” Gaddafi’s son.

The feeling that I then got was one of a rather intelligent, Westernised young man, slightly arrogant but friendly enough, who had somehow been thrown into a role for which he wasn’t ready. Now the events have taught us than far from being the enlightened democrat that he seemed to be at the time, Saif is just as willing as his megalomaniac father to cling to their lost power. Since then, the “Leader” has met with an unidgnified -if not undeserved- death. Now, like the rest of the world, I am awaiting to see what will happen to his brood.

For those interested, here is the link to the profile of Saif I wrote for Le Point: