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Europe

Gaddafi on controversial visit to Rome to push closer ties

Video by Nicolas Rushworth

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2010-08-30

Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi is likely to arouse the usual mixture of curiosity and controversy on his latest trip to Italy. But behind the theatrics, the colonel’s lucrative investments underscore Tripoli’s growing influence on the Italian economy.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi arrived in Rome on Sunday ahead of commemorations to mark the second anniversary of a friendship treaty signed between his country and its former colonial power, Italy.

The flamboyant Colonel landed at Fiumicino airport with his customary following of “amazon” female bodyguards, Arabian thoroughbreds and trademark Bedouin tent, the proposed location of which has been the subject of much debate in the Italian media.

Gaddafi and his close ally Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, will attend ceremonies on Monday to mark the anniversary and underscore tightening relations between the two countries.

The Libyan leader will also attend conferences and exhibitions on the North African state, as well as a series of meetings with Italian business leaders.

Koranic lessons

While much of the programme has been kept secret, Gaddafi and his retinue will be expected to indulge in the sort of “spontaneous” walks round Rome’s city centre that so intrigued the locals the last time he was in town, in November of last year.

The Libyan leader will also stage a repeat of the most talked-about event of his last visit, when 200 attractive – and somewhat bemused – women recruited by an agency were invited to a Roman villa and treated to a surprise lecture on Islam by the Libyan leader himself.

Those who had come expecting a party and lavish gifts were instead handed copies of the Koran and a book of sayings by Gaddafi, as well as a 50-euro note.

This time, the guests have been warned they will be attending no party, but rather “an important project of integration between two peoples adhering to different traditions and religious beliefs,” as detailed on an ad posted on the Hostessweb agency’s website.

Post-colonial reconciliation

Gaddafi’s theatrics have made him into something of a darling of the Italian media, to the point of obscuring the real interests that underlie his alliance with Berlusconi’s Italy.

“In the media coverage of Gaddafi’s visits, the choreography always trumps the substance,” said Ettore Livini, a journalist at Italian daily La Repubblica, in an interview with France24.com.

Under the treaty signed two years ago in Tripoli, Italy offered a formal apology and financial compensation for the hardships suffered by Libyans during the colonial era.

In return, Gaddafi promised to halt the waves of illegal migrants seeking to reach the Italian coast, a pledge he has so far fulfilled, but in a manner “totally incompatible with the most basic human rights,” said Livini.

The treaty helped change Libya’s status from pariah state to respectable partner, and gave the go-ahead to a series of bilateral investments between the two countries, the total value of which has been estimated at 40 billion euros.

Petrodollars

Much of that money has come from none other than Gaddafi himself, who as undisputed leader of Libya is also the main recipient of the country’s oil wealth.

Over the past two years, the Colonel has acquired stakes in a number of strategic Italian companies, becoming the fifth-biggest shareholder on the Milan stock exchange.

“Gaddafi’s purchases have been guided by Berlusconi himself,” said La Repubblica’s Livini. “Nowhere is this more the case than with Unicredit,” he added, referring to the hugely influential bank at the heart of a tangle of shareholdings that stretch into virtually all sectors of the Italian economy.

Livini says these investments give the Libyan leader a word in the management of a whole array of companies, including Il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s leading newspaper and one Berlusconi has long sought to control.

In the meantime, Italy has recovered its position as Libya’s main trade partner, while Italian firms Ansaldo and ENI have recently secured lucrative contracts to renew Libya’s transport infrastructure and exploit the country’s plentiful natural resources.

But the next step of the Berlusconi-Gaddafi alliance, selling Italian arms to Libya, is likely to prove more controversial.
 

Date created : 2010-08-29

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