Meet Saif Gaddafi, Libya's Bloodthirsty Cultural Ambassador
The conflict in the North African nation of Libya has spiraled towards bloody stalemate as strongman Muammar Gaddafi clings to power in the face of a rebellion inspired by the waves of unrest sweeping the region. The conflict might also serve as occasion to highlight the duplicity of the West, now eager to intervene against a "madman" but just yesterday willing to support the corrupt despot as an ally, and lap up his petrodollors. The cultural sphere has been no less implicated, with an ongoing series of scandals related to Gaddafi, and, in particular, his sons.
Entertainers like Beyonce, Usher, and Mariah Carey have been shamed into returning millions they made performing at private parties for the jetsetting scions of the Gaddafi clan. And just today, the Daily Mail has heaped scorn on a British Formula One team that was involved in a £25 million deal pressed by Saif Gaddafi to decorate its race cars with "Visit Libya" signs.
The London School of Economics-educated Saif, Gaddafi's second son, has long served as the liberal face of the regime, helping to show a country that was once an international pariah in a more cosmopolitan light — not least through his patronage of the arts. Now, however, it turns out he didn't actually write his LSE thesis on the virtues of international democracy, and the LSE had been disgraced by the fact it took major donations from Saif's charity. Meanwhile, back in Libya, Saif has been pictured in a video brandishing a gun, calling enemies of the regime "bums, brats and druggies," and exhorting Gaddafi supporters to slaughter their countrymen. Reconsidering Saif's legacy, the Guardian quoted one acquaintance describing him as "urbane, charming and psychotic."
One of Saif's pet projects had been a museum of Islamic art in Tripoli, which was to open in September to honor the anniversary of his father's rise to power. The Art Newspaper reports that work on the project has ceased for the moment, amid the chaos in the country. The institution had been set to be housed in an 18th century Ottoman palace, being renovated by the Italian firm Studio Italia Construzioni. According to a video released about the project, the institution was to include a large sculpture exhibition hall, a gift shop, luxurious courtyards, a large garden, and such details as a reception counter decorated with the original ceramic tiles from the palace.
Saif has reportedly been active at the Islamic art auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's, acquiring "mid-range" items for the new collection through a London-based agent. The Financial Times reported that when some consigners to the October sales were recently informed that an unidentified buyer would not be paying, it was widely assumed to be Saif.
But the Islamic museum project is modest compared to the Green Mountain Sustainable Development Area, a $3 billion coastal development that Saif announced to the international press in 2007, in partnership with Sir Norman Foster. The project was billed as the "world's largest sustainable region," and promised everything from archeological conservation initiatives and eco-tourism to "the finest quality organic food and drink." At the time, the Guardian reported that some suspected the whole thing was little more than "'greenwash' — a lofty statement of eco-babble designed to cement Saif al-Islam's status as Libya's heir apparent."
Foster's right-hand man Spencer de Grey told the paper that Green Mountain was "a wonderful opportunity for Libya to leapfrog everybody and show the world how ecological tourism can be integrated with the local community." Foster and Partners marked the launch by putting on a small exhibition within the Cyrene ruins, featuring diagrams and photographs and models of previous eco-friendly projects by the firm. The Green Mountain development is still listed on the firm's Web site.
Finally, it's worth noting that Saif himself is something of an artist, and has widely toured a suite of his paintings, titled "The Desert is Not Silent." "Colonel Gadafy's son may be an able cultural ambassador but as a painter he is not even a gifted amateur," the Guardian's Jonathan Jones wrote in 2002 of the London outing of the show. After Saif has thrown his support behind the carnage in Libya, you can't even say the former.
For a video of the plans for Saif Gaddafi's Islamic art museum, see below: