I was in Sanaa, Yemen, with an appointment to interview President Ali Abdullah Saleh in the 1980s. The publishers and editors in chief of Saudi newspapers had received invitation from Libya to assign editors to attend an important press conference by Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Editors from other Middle East newspapers were also invited to the press conference. I was then the managing editor of this newspaper and used to write a column everyday in Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, which was the leading Arabic daily in the Middle East printed in over a dozen cities from Washington to Cairo and in-between.
I flew back to Jeddah the next day where I found a Libyan Airlines confirmed ticket booked in my name. I was also given some cash. Early morning I was in Tripoli where I found scores of others waiting to meet Qaddafi. I was eager to see him and ask him a question that could make a headline for my newspaper. We spent two days touring the capital and watching promotion films. The food in the hotel was far below the mark and the hotel service, if any, was awful to say the least.
On the third day we assembled for the much-awaited press conference. When this happened we were utterly disappointed. He came amid cheers of his staff and as usual he never looked at us and sat down to make the eagerly awaited statement, which we had expected to be something very significant. In fact, he said nothing of substance. He spoke for a little while mainly attacking the Palestine Liberation Organization for doing nothing to justify its name and objective. His staff clapped and he got up and left the conference hall without even a word of thanks for bothering us to travel to his desert wilderness.
That was certainly the dullest presidential press conference I have ever attended. We were asked if we wanted to see more of the country especially the large salt-drying areas where seawater was pumped out and residue salt was transported to markets, which probably did not need it. Since I was born near the salt works of the British colony of Aden in present day Yemen I did not care to spend a day visiting the salt-drying areas. The other colleagues decided like me to rush to the airport and catch a plane to Rome, which was more interesting to visit, especially after the press conference of Qaddafi.
Qaddafi, seldom, if ever made friends for himself or for Libya. He was arrogant beyond words with weird ideas for ruling the country. Content, as he was, with its rich oil resources and small population, which was not expected to rise against him or against anybody else. He had a number of ideas to rule the country, but he did not put them into practice as he was a dictator and ruled by whims. As he was suffering from deep depression he behaved like a sick man, rejecting to form a proper government and calling himself the instigator of the state.
That is what he also told us during the meeting. There were no ministers as such and he used or misused the country’s resources as he wished. He spent huge amounts on arms but had no proper army and air force. When he annexed land belonging to Chad his so-called army succumbed to the very poorly armed Chadians who captured a lot of arms including tanks and heavy guns bought from the Soviet Union at high prices. Indeed he was so enraged by the defeat that he lambasted his army and its leaders publicly going as far as announcing the cost of the arms destroyed and captured by the poorly armed and badly dressed adversaries.
The whole thing was a fiasco as the world watched and laughed at the man and his so-called army that lost four billion dollars worth of arms in a few days according to his own statement.
The country he ruled by force was a farce. Some well-known personalities that he did not like simply disappeared, like Musa Al Sadr of Lebanon whom he had invited to Libya for talks. Some of the Libyans were kidnapped from other countries. They had escaped earlier because they could not bear the suffering in their own country.
He clung to power facing no internal threat to his dictatorship until the Arab Spring revolution supported by foreign powers ousted him. He escaped the capital and gathered a few diehards with money which he had kept safe for such needs but the foreign air force and army followed him until he was cornered in a hole where he managed to shout at his assailants — don’t shoot I am your president. Throughout his career he had denied being a president, only the instigator of the revolution, “brother leader” and even “king of kings.” His tenure was a huge waste of time and wealth for Libya and its people.
His major and costliest achievement was the “Great Man-Made River that supplies water to the Sahara Desert from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, dubbed as the largest irrigation project in the world.”
The total cost of the project was projected at more than $ 25 billion. Libya claims to have completed the work to date without the financial support of major countries or loans from world banks. Since 1990, UNESCO has provided training to engineers and technicians involved with the project.
The fossil aquifer from which this water is being supplied had accumulated during the last ice age and is not currently being replenished. If 2007 rates of retrieval are not increased, the water could last a thousand years. Independent estimates however indicate that the aquifer could be depleted of water in 60 to 100 years.
Analysts say that the $ 25 billion groundwater extraction system is ten times cheaper than desalination.
According to its website, it is the largest underground network of pipes (2,820 km) and aqueducts in the world. It consists of more than 1,300 wells, most of them more than 500 m, and supplies 6,500,000 m3 fresh water per day to the cities of Tripoli, Benghazi, Sirte and elsewhere. Qaddafi described it as the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
— Farouk Luqman is an eminent journalist based in Jeddah.