NS Profile - Colonel Gaddafi

Britain's new friend struts about in fancy dress and throws dollars to the poor. But will the Libyan

Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Britain's new friend, basked in the eulogies from the Foreign Office minister Mike O'Brien, who called at his tent recently. The British minister oozed praise for the Libyan leader who had honoured international law and not invaded his neighbours.

Not quite. Gaddafi has plunged into armed conflict with five of his six neighbours, sparing only Niger, which is too weak to resist. He only withdrew from Chad in 1994, three years after Saddam Hussein left Kuwait. Observers could be forgiven for thinking that Britain's changing national interests had more to do with policy than ethics.

Gaddafi's date of birth is unknown, although it probably coincided with the battle of El Alamein in 1942. Gaddafi's myth-makers say he was born in a tent in the scrublands around Sirte, the youngest son of a poor camel herder. His relationship with Britain is an old one: the Signal Corps gave him his military training in England, which Gaddafi, aged 27, rewarded in 1969 by closing Libya's British and American military bases and toppling Libya's British-made King Idris.

Colonel Gaddafi controls by confusion. In 1976, he unveiled his Third Universal Theory, and its accompanying manual, The Green Book - a Libyan version of Mao's little red one. Established parties, unions and army units were reconfigured with popular committees; democracy was outlawed. On television, football players must be cited by number, not name, lest their stardom eclipse the Great Leader.

Every year, a new set of rules and regulations telling Libyans what to wear, eat, say and read is enacted by the Gaddafi regime. In 1977, Libyans were told that to achieve self-sufficiency, every family had to raise chickens at home - even if they lived in inner-city apartments. Time, too, has been reformatted. The Gregorian calendar has been replaced with a new solar calendar that begins with the migration of the Prophet Mohammed in 622, and the months renamed by Brother Leader. The traditional lunar Islamic calendar has also been changed to begin with the death of the Prophet, rather than his migration. After 30 years of his topsy-turvy world, many Libyans are as dizzy as their leader.

When Libyans need some escapism, Gaddafi provides the theatre. He struts the stage, preaching the Arab origins of the Elizabethan playwright "Sheikh Zubeir". The set is not always genuine - aside from killing 20 people, including Gaddafi's adopted daughter, the US bombing of Gaddafi's mansion in Tripoli in 1986 also exploded the myth that he lived in a camel-hair tent. He preaches the simple life, bedecked in an array of ethnic costumes worthy of a Christmas panto. But insiders say he wears underpants under his African tunics. And he so liked the Italian fabrics used by his costume department that he bought 16 per cent of the company that produces them, the Milan-based Olcese.

Can the leopard-skin wearer change his spots? He was the first foreign leader to condemn the 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States - although he pointed out that President Bush should bomb Britain as well as Afghanistan, on the grounds that it, too, provides a safe haven for Muslim militants. (At the same time, somewhat confusingly, his son's Libya Foundation paid a reported $17m ransom to the Bin Laden-backed hostage-takers Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.)

Over the past ten years, the leader of the revolution kicked out the Palestinians from Libya and invited the tens of thousands of Jews he expelled in 1971 to return and invest. "If they come as warriors, we will fight them," said the global militant. "If they come trading cheese, we will buy cheese."

Expecting Gaddafi to abandon his global ambitions might be just too much to ask. The Libyan leader has always been too big for his country. He donned Nasser's mantle to struggle for a United States of Arabia. But the Arab world never wanted him, so now he champions a United States of Africa. Libyans armed with machetes showed their support by launching pogroms on black African migrants, and sending hundreds of thousands fleeing from the oil state.

When Gaddafi drove back from this summer's launch of the African Union in Durban, South African security guards recorded 400 guards, three jets armed with 27 sub-machine guns, a ship and 60 armoured cars. But instead of advocating merger by force, the colonel now uses dollars. In one car, guards found $6m in cash, which his entourage later flung at the crowds who flocked to watch the trans-African roadshow speed past.

The bribe hasn't worked. There was the minor dividend of being the African nations' choice to chair the next session of the UN Human Rights Commission. But at his prayer-meetings, the congregation made off with the carpets. And South Africa and Nigeria snubbed Libya's offer of sponsorship for the African Union in favour of G8 backing.

Could football be Colonel Gaddafi's next conduit to conquer the world? Already the Gaddafi clan has announced its intention to bid for the 2010 World Cup Finals. Gaddafi has discarded his call for the demolition of sports stadia, and instead funded "Gaddafi" sports grounds from Lagos to Lahore. Meanwhile, the state foreign investment arm, Lafico, has purchased a share of Italy's football team Juventus.

There's much more to spend. On top of its oil proceeds, the state benefits from its subjects' bank accounts, which, in accordance with the Third Universal Theory, were nationalised in the 1980s. "Wealth, weapons and power lie with the people," says The Green Book. But one man decides which people, and it is often a rather small group. Lafico displayed its own independence from the ruling family, for instance, by nominating Gaddafi's son Saadi as its representative on the Juventus board.

Fortunately for his portfolio, Gaddafi the investor is rarely ready to put his money where his mouth is. For all his invective against the west, much of Lafico's $6bn investments are in Italy, Libya's former colonial master; only about $800m is invested in Africa and the Arab world. Even then, this is hardly for the benefit of the masses. Lafico's investments include 6 per cent of King Mohammed of Morocco's company Groupe ONA. Gaddafi's African debtors have also learnt the hard way that he does not forgive loans. Robert Mugabe, say diplomats, may be forced to give Libya much of the prime land he is seizing from white farmers in Zimbabwe in order to pay for an oil deal with Gaddafi.

In the main, the colonel prefers more reliable partners. Lafico holds $1bn in British real estate, including the Carlton Towers Hotel. And holiday-makers can take comfort from the fact that when they visit Corinthia Group's 18 five-star hotels in Prague, the Gambia, Malta, Portugal, Tunisia and Turkey, they are filling Libya's coffers.

The Arab Banking Corporation, which is 27 per cent owned by the Central Bank of Libya, has offices on New York's Park Avenue, and has somehow avoided the US Treasury's blacklist. It helps to have friendly associates. Bloomberg reports that the chairman of Libyan Arab Foreign Bank, together with HSBC executives, has sat on the board of British Arab Commercial Bank, a correspondent bank of Al-Shamal Islamic bank founded by Osama Bin Laden.

It might be funny were it not for the Libyans who are suffering. Libya has $12bn of oil earnings to share between five million people. But those billions are drained by a leader with either a pathological propensity for altruism or messianic fantasies.

How much more can Libyans stomach? Intellectuals and students were scared into silence in the 1980s by a series of barbaric hangings carried out at the country's universities. Islamist rebels were crushed during the 1990s. Yet even this oppression cannot stop Libyans from wondering how their leader could waste millions rescuing western hostages in the Philippines and transporting them in a presidential jet lined with leather sofas?

When will Libya stop squandering its wealth? For 30 years the Libyan people have watched as their fun-loving southern Mediterranean beach culture metamorphises into a quixotic barren state, where waiters who once poured chianti now perfect the art of a final twist with a bottle of water. Islamists might cheer, had they not been alienated by Brother Leader, who declared that he alone is qualified expositor of the Koran.

Muammar Gaddafi today resembles nothing as much as a petty Arab dictator bent on destroying his two main threats: democrats and Islamists; and establishing a dynasty under his jet-setting sons. And now, thanks to Mike O'Brien, he has a new friend in Britain.