The Washington Diplomat / January 2005
By Larry Luxner
If you want to find Mu'ammar Qaddafi's man in Washington, look no further than Suite 705 of the Watergate Office Building.
Since Dec. 9, this three-person mission has served as the interests section of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya — the official name of a country that for 17 years was blacklisted by the State Department.
Amazing, as Ali Suleiman Aujali says, how times have changed.
"We're very optimistic," the gregarious diplomat declares with a big smile. "Our relations are warming up, and we hope we'll reach full diplomatic relations between our two countries as soon as possible."
Aujali, in his first-ever interview with an American news outlet, spent over an hour explaining why Libya decided to change course, and what needs to be done in order to renew the friendship that existed long before Qaddafi came to power in 1969.
"I think both sides are now realistic, after all these changes taking place around the world — globalization, terrorism and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both sides have realized that we can achieve a lot if we're able to normalize our relations," he told us over breakfast at the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel, where Libya had maintained a temporary office since July before moving into its current digs at the Watergate.
"It is true that what we've achieved in the last few months is incredible, compared to the boycott of the last two decades. At the end of any crisis is negotiation. People sit together, talk directly, explain their problems and move on. This is what has happened between Libya and the United States."
With only 5.6 million inhabitants, Libya is the second-largest country in Africa, rich in oil and gas reserves. Yet it's been off-limits to U.S. citizens since 1986, when Libyan agents blew up a Berlin discotheque frequented by American servicemen, and the Reagan administration retaliated by bombing residential areas of Tripoli and Benghazi, killing 101 people including Qaddafi's adopted daugher.
In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was ripped apart by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. Four years later, the United Nations imposed sanctions on Libya after it refused to hand over for trial two of its citizens suspected of involvement in the attack.
In 1999, however, the United States began secretly negotiating with Libya through backdoor channels, and in August 2003, the Qaddafi regime agreed to pay $2.7 billion as compensation to the families of Lockerbie bombing victims. Libya also formally accepted responsibility for the terrorist attack in a letter to the UN Security Council, which promptly lifted all sanctions.
"It was a calculated economic decision," Aujali explained. "We were suffering very high costs because of the sanctions, and we weren't able to get certain technology. This was costing us about $5 billion a year, and we had to resolve this problem."
On Dec. 20, 2003 — as U.S. forces remained bogged down in Iraq following their ouster of Saddam Hussein — Qaddafi dropped another bombshell by revealing the existence and immediate abandonment of a secret program to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Shortly after Qaddafi's announcement, the Bush administration lifted the U.S. travel ban against Libya, and invited the Qaddafi regime to establish an interests section in Washington. Even more importantly, it authorized U.S. companies with pre-sanctions holdings in Libya to negotiate the terms of their re-establishment in that country.
That led to the visit of a 15-member U.S. business delegation sponsored by the Corporate Council on Africa — the first non-oil group of its kind to travel to Libya in more than 17 years.
"Our country was never closed to the United States. We have had relations ever since the Americans first came to discover oil in Libya," Aujali told the Diplomat."There is no hatred at all against the Americans — maybe differences, but no hate. People want to see how the Americans can help development in Libya and contribute to the Libyan economy."
According to industry estimates, Libya possesses oil reserves of 36 billion barrels, roughly the same as Nigeria's. Once full diplomatic and business ties are restored, say experts, Libya could easily rank as the fifth or sixth-largest oil supplier to the United States, after Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico and Nigeria.
Despite the sanctions, U.S. oil companies have used foreign subsidiaries to monitor their investments in Libya, which never revoked their licenses. At the same time, Libya has freely traded with Europe, and in 2003, the country's oil revenues accounted for 95% of Libya's $14.3 billion in export earnings.
Besides oil, other promising sectors include agriculture, telecommunications and tourism. Commodities giant Cargill, for example, recently sold 750,000 tons of wheat to Libya; the country also represents a large market for meat and poultry exporters.
"The outlook is very encouraging," said the diplomat. "I can see this reaction from all the American companies that have visited Libya."
Aujali, 60, is perfectly at ease speaking English; he's also quite conversant in Spanish and Portuguese, not to mention his native Arabic.
Born in the Mediterranean port of Benghazi, Aujali studied economics in college, but chose a career in international affairs. He joined the Ministy of Foreign Affairs in 1969, and in 1971 went to Great Britain as third secretary at the Libyan Embassy in London.
In 1976, Aujali was sent to Kuala Lumpur, where he served for eight years — as first secretary and later ambassador — before taking up residence in Buenos Aires as the Libyan envoy to Argentina. In 1988, Aujali was appointed ambassador to Brazil, where he spent another five years. After over a decade of international service, he returned to Tripoli , where he held several high-level positions within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In 2001, Libya resumed ties with Canada, and Aujali's diplomatic experience made him Qaddafi's obvious choice to send to Ottawa, where Aujali was responsible for setting up the Libyan Embassy and encouraging companies like Petro Canada and Calgary-based Talisman Energy Inc. to invest in his country.
That's exactly what the seasoned diplomat and father of five hopes to do in Washington. But first, a few minor issues must be resolved.
For starters, even though the title on his business card says "ambassador," Aujali is clearly not. He's director of the Libyan Interests Section, which is the same status held by other pariah states the Bush administration doesn't fully recognize, such as Iran and Cuba.
"We're still under the protection of the United Arab Emirates," he explained. "We're treated like other embassies and invited to all functions organized by the State Department, but we have to go through the UAE Embassy whenever we want to apply for something. I hope this won't last long."
As soon as the Libyan Interests Section becomes a liaison office, he said, the mission will be able to do many things it can't do now, such as buy cars directly and hire local employees.
Tourist and business visas for Americans, however, must still be issued by the Libyan People's Bureau in Ottawa; since January 2004, said Aujali, that office has issued visas to some 350 Americans, charging them $80 each.
"Libya has a very good strategic location, and plays an important role in Africa. Oil is quite important, and we have atttracted investment from European and Asian companies. It's one of the safest places in the world to live and work in," said Aujali, who last month flew to Houston to promote his country at a three-day conference of Texas oil executives.
"We are also reforming our economy. More than 360 institutions, factories and public companies are all up for privatization," he said. "Everything has to go together — trade, economy, education, diplomatic relations and the fight against terrorism."
All fine and good, but why is Qaddafi suddenly viewed as a respected elder statesman after years of providing financial and moral backing to despotic regimes and violent liberation movements around the world?
"Unfortunately," says Aujali, "we've been called terrorists, but the leaders of these organizations have been guests of honor in many countries. We supported the South African struggle against apartheid, and when those leaders were called terrorists, we called them freedom fighters. Now everybody's happy to receive Mandela."
Some observers say the only reason Qaddafi decided to give up his WMD program was the U.S.-led invasion and overthrow of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Was Qaddafi perhaps scared he'd be next on the list?
Aujali says absolutely not.
"This discussion between Libya and the United States goes back to 1999. The fact that we came to an agreement after the Iraq invasion is nothing more than a coincidence," he insisted.
"What Libya wants now is to be removed from the [State Department's] list of terrorist states, and to install full diplomatic relations. There is no more logic for us to be on that list. We have to be treated fairly. I think Libya should be rewarded for giving up our WMD program, as encouragement to other countries to follow our example."
During the interview, Aujali barely mentioned Qaddafi by name — so we finally asked the diplomat how well he knows Libya's head of state.
"I've met him a few times," Aujali responded. "He's a very simple, easy man, living a simple life. He considers Africa the most important continent in the world, and believes Africa should be united. Under Qaddafi's leadership, the African Union was established, and it is much more effective than the old OAU [Organization of African Unity]."
Qaddafi also has ideas about the Arab-Israeli conflict. On a Libyan government website devoted to the "Revolutionary Leader," he proposes a new nation called "Isratine" that would recognize the national interests of both Jews and Palestinian Arabs while allowing both peoples to share the terrritory each considers its homeland.
Various groups of Libyan Jews have met with Qaddafi over the years, and at least one Israeli political delegation has held talks with his son in Tripoli. Yet Aujali wouldn't say if or when those talks may lead to relations between the two countries.
"The Arab leaders accepted a very important initiative at the Beirut summit. I think that if this initiative can be put into practice, everybody will benefit. The only way for the Middle East to live and develop is in peace. This is the most important thing. All the efforts of the Europeans and Americans should be towards establishing peace."
He added: "I still say that if the Arab initiative is accepted, the Arabs will keep their promises."
Other issues still stand in the way of Libya's return to the family of respected nations. One is Qaddafi's alleged orchestration of an assassination plot against the royal Saudi family, though Aujali vehemently denies his country was involved.
Another is the continued detention of five Bulgarian nurses facing the death penalty for allegedly infecting 426 Libyan children with AIDS, 40 of whom have died. Last month, the Qaddafi regime hinted that if Bulgaria pays financial compensation to the victims and helps build a hospital for AIDS patients in Libya, the verdicts could be reconsidered.
"It's a very sad story," said Aujali. "You can imagine that 400 families have been hurt, but negotiations are going on. I think [Bulgaria] has some obligation towards those families."
Conspiracy theories aside, few people doubt that the United States and Libya will quickly be able to put their differences behind them, get the oil flowing once again and resume a friendship that makes everyone happy, from Tripoli to Texas.
"With Libya's decision to abandon weapons of mass destruction, to close the files with European countries and the United States, it is time for us to work together," said the soon-to-be ambassador. "We need development, we need investment, we need peace. I think this is what most countries in the world demand."