ITIM, Gaddafi and the Great Satan

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In 2000 I took an executive directorship with a company called ITIM, the other directors had also been in the exhibitions’ business. We, some years earlier, had opportunistically merged one of their shows with our Property Business Show as we were preparing it for sale. Their show had gathered the great and good in terms of exhibitors and speakers, but their visitor marketing was awful, attendance was therefore low. Linking the two provided synergy.

ITIM business card
Libya International Trade Fairs business card

Now ITIM’s activity was overseas missions, similar to EuroMissions, but guided and led by political and diplomatic individuals so that British participants could be assured of meeting local dignitaries and movers and shakers.

The first one, in which I was involved, was to Libya. At the time the country’s status was still dubious. Colonel Muammar Gadaffi had been involved in sponsoring international terrorism. We know this because he had on one occasion invited comrades from many revolutionary groups to a meeting in Tripoli. His lack of appreciation of their differing goals became apparent when he invited the IRA and a Northern Irish Loyalist group to the same meeting. Gaddafi had evidently seen them as colleagues in a common conflict with Britain. The Loyalists left in disgust and advised the British Government of the meeting.

But recently he had espoused the West and had become significant in several sensitive negotiations in Asia. The EU and the UK were slowly acknowledging he was back in the fold, though America was still not yet prepared to recognise him. However, US businesses were working through European subsidiaries to restore their oil and other interests in Libya.

Backed by the Libyan National Bank and a British ex-Ambassador to Libya we organised a mission. I flew out to see what we might achieve. This involved flying via Malta, direct flights were not yet re-established. I over-nighted in Malta where I met up with our agent, a Maltese, who would smooth my passage. I had no idea what to expect and warned Jane I might not be able to keep in touch.

Tripoli panorama

As we drove into Tripoli, I noticed one strange feature. There was a large U-shaped high-rise block to the side of the main route to town. What was interesting was the SAM missile site that sat at the centre of the U. My Maltese guide explained that this was to stop Americans from taking out the missiles because it was impossible for them to avoid taking out the public residences with massive collateral damage – smart, but disturbing.

On arrival we did a fast check-in, our passports had to be handed over and then I was invited to dinner with Nasser, who was proposed as our formal Libyan local agent and business partner. I was told he was probably an illegitimate Gaddafi son, so there was no surprise when he looked and dressed just like the Colonel. We went to a top restaurant that served the local delicacy a fish that as far as I could discover was more about bone than flesh. I was a little surprised that we were drinking alcohol but went with the flow. At the end of the dinner the Libyan tossed his car keys to my Maltese guide and said you know the way to the hotel, take my car.

It was the early hours and there were few locals on the road, but at every intersection there was a small group of vehicles and what my guide identified as secret policeman. I began to worry because I had no passport (the hotel still had it), what if we were stopped? The Maltese said just remember whose car we are in!

Several interesting days were spent looking at the Tripoli Exhibition Centre and meeting with local businesses. The Centre was a tad run-down but perfectly good to launch a new exhibitions’ industry and they seemed keen for someone to take that role on and advise them how best to proceed. But at no stage could I get a phone call or email back home and I wanted to reassure Jane that I was fine.

The next day a conference was being held in our hotel and meeting with its organising team I was delighted to find in their back room two PCs that were on-line. I asked permission, then sat down and banged off some reassuring emails. But as I was tapping away two guys who you could only describe charitably as ‘heavies’ arrived and stood either side of me. They had no English, but helped me to my feet and escorted me through corridors, pushing me into a small seminar room where twenty of so others were looking equally sheepish.

Three female bodyguards entered the room with automatic weapons clasped across their chests, I later learned that Gaddafi only ever used female close-support bodyguards, as he didn’t trust men to remain loyal. Then in came the Colonel and sat before us, we all put on our headset for the translation. What followed would have been comic genius if it was not for the context and message.

Colonel Muammar Gadaffi

Gaddafi started to talk in a very low guttural voice, each word taking an appreciable time to come out, they sounded more like belches. But the amusement came from the eager simultaneous translator who would interpret the first word, then the second, but realised at the third word was uttered that the context was all wrong for his previous translation, too literal. He stumbled and rambled as he corrected his interpretation.

It was also made difficult for me by the fact that a local guy sat next to me had an impediment that meant he kept ‘bop-bopping’ aloud and each time he did the three bodyguards’ weapons would track round onto me and him, I felt sure they were well-trained but a burst from those automatics would claim me too. Uncomfortable.

Gadaffi with his female bodyguards

As the Colonel warmed to his theme he speeded up and I began to follow his thought processes. He first explained he was a peace-maker, Libya had never invaded anyone, but Turkey, Italy and others had each invaded Libya. He had never killed any nationals of the Great Satan (USA) yet they had bombed Libya and killed Gaddafi children.

He pointed out that the many Balkan ethnicities had co-existed for centuries and that it was the West that had led to the recent ethnic-cleansing, mass murders and social disorder there. He talked of the Little Satan (Israel) and how it had disrupted the Middle East, specifically discussing how the naturally-blessed Lebanon had become a battle-ground.

He talked for forty minutes then stopped and waited for a Q&A to begin.  The interpreter was still translating in my ears, however my neighbour was evidently Arabic speaking, because he realised the address was finished and leapt to his feet chanting ‘Jamahiriya’ (the state for the masses) with an upraised fist. All three weapons were now fully trained on him, but I saw Gaddafi was happily acknowledging this celebratory outburst.

ASIDE: The guy in the audience I really admired was someone from the publishers Koogan Page. He asked the first question by explaining that as a young man he had taken great comfort from the Leader’s writings in The Green Book. I had been told that the best way to get through Libyan customs was to place a copy of this book on top of your clothes in your suitcase, it was Gadaffi’s version of Mao’s Little Red Book, it attacked capitalism and democracies and talked of a General Peoples’ Committee directly running the Jamahiriya. It also advocated that the people should control the media, and it talked of a society that would eliminate money and therefore profit. The Koogan Page guy asked if the leader would autograph his personal copy and passed this via a bodyguard to the Colonel who happily complied. I wonder how much it fetched on eBay?

That evening I had another strange experience. I had been talking with a youngish guy who was the Minister of Tourism for Libya, he invited me back to a suite for a drink, where I also met with the Ministers of Tourism of Tunisia and Algeria. The four of us had a big drinking session, but they did seem keen to ask me how they could improve the numbers of European tourists to visit their countries. I had the audacity to try to help, based on no experience whatever of their trade. I did know that they had the seaside resort business in hand, and they had tours of some pretty startling Roman, Phoenician and Carthaginian artefacts already garnering visitors. So my thought at the time was 4×4 driving breaks in the desert between resorts and remains. But they all went silent on this one because unbeknownst to me all private use of 4x4s was illegal, because of regular use by smugglers. Libya has 1770kms of coastline offering opportunities for illicit entry and the 4x4s could speed goods and people away. My career in north African tourism went nowhere.

My overwhelming opinion of the Colonel was that he had argued his corner quite convincingly. On a personal level, around his lower face and neck there was something I thought rather feminine about him, clearly no stranger to moisturiser, and perhaps there had been cosmetic work too.

I certainly told my agent that while I appreciated the opportunity to listen to him, the team I was likely to send over to fulfil any plans could not be subjected to such a tirade.

I guess I should be grateful that the Libyan National Bank never quite came up with the promised monies so our plans dissolved, this added to ITIM’s non-payment of my consulting invoices. I am retrospectively grateful because within eleven years, that’s no time at all in building an exhibitions’ industry from scratch, the Arab Spring wrested power from Gaddafi, he was found hiding in a pipe and summarily executed.

ASIDE: ITIM’s Chairman was a charming guy, a career diplomat in his 70s who was extremely knowledgeable about some global hotspots. On one occasion we had a board meeting at his house on Chiswick Mall beside the Thames (behind Fullers brewery and the old Cherry Blossom roundabout) – a beautiful location and a beautiful home. We sat around a large dining table with some very valuable original paintings on the wall, even I could discern one was an Andy Warhol. It turned out that he was the last remaining descendant of Cecil Rhodes, as he had no children!

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