The Washington Diplomat / September 2007
By Larry Luxner
The outdated brass sign affixed on the door of Ali Suleiman Aujali's mission in Washington says "Libyan Liaison Office." But don't let that fool you.
This is a real embassy in every sense of the word, and has been ever since May 15, 2006, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice formally restored full diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya.
That means a world of difference to Aujali, who came to Washington in July 2004 as chief of the newly established Libyan Interests Section.
"Three years ago, we were still working out of the United Arab Emirates embassy, we were only issued U.S. visas for three months at a time, and we were not allowed to move outside a 25-mile radius from the Washington Monument," recalled Ali, a gregarious diplomat with a big smile.
"Now I am an ambassador by rank, and have been treated very nicely by the State Department. I've been to 15 states, I've spoken to universities and various business communties, and I have never encountered any hostility," said Ali, who joined the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1969, the same year Qaddafi came to power.
Libya today has only 5.6 million inhabitants, yet it's the fourth-largest country in Africa, rich in oil and gas reserves. It became off-limits to U.S. citizens in 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 the adopted daughter of President Moammar Qaddafi.
In December 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 was ripped apart by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland. Four years later, the UN imposed sanctions on Libya after it refused to hand over for trial two of its citizens suspected of involvement in the attack.
Ali's arrival followed an agreement by Qaddafi to pay $2.7 billion as compensation to the families of the Lockerbie bombing victims. Libya also accepted responsibility for the 1988 terrorist attack in a letter to the UN Security Council, which promptly lifted all sanctions.
Shortly after, Qaddafi's abandonment of a secret program to develop weapons of mass destruction prompted the Bush administration to end the U.S. travel ban against his country. 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.
"Since June 2006, Libya is no longer on the State Department terrorist list. We have full diplomatic relations with the United States and there are no more sanctions, though some restrictions remain," he said.
For example, Libyan nationals boarding U.S. airlines in Europe are still subject to special security procedures and baggage searches — a hassle that "will not encourage Libyans to come to the United States or use American carriers," the ambassador says.
"If there are any outstanding issues between us, they must be resolved through discussions and diplomacy, not sanctions," he said. "Sanctions definitely hurt the Libyan economy; there's no doubt about that. But nothing was achieved in 25 years of harsh diplomacy. On the other hand, in the last three years, we've been helping each other fight terrorism. This is the kind of cooperation we need."
Relations are likely to improve even more, following the release last month of five Bulgarian nurses and one Palestinian doctor who had been sentenced to death for allegedly infecting 426 Libyan children with AIDS.
"This nightmare has now ended. Libya was determined to find a way out of this crisis, and at last, we were able to resolve it," said Ali, adding that "there were some donations from private organizations in Europe, and compensation was paid to [the families of] Libyan victims."
These days, Ali's embassy — located on the seventh floor of the Watergate Office Building overlooking the Potomac River — functions just as any other in this town. But one thing Ali cannot do is issue tourist visas, a consequence of the stalemate between Washington and Tripoli on the visa dilemma.
"We want tourism, but at the same time we want Libyans to come here and see the United States. We have some money to spend, but unfortunately visas are an issue of reciprocity. If the Americans would facilitate visas for Libyans, then we would do the same."
Ali said U.S. authorities "must speed up the process for Libyan students who want to come and study here. This is a very important issue. This is a bridge we must build between our two peoples."
While tourist visas are still out of the question, Ali said his office is currently issuing 300 to 350 business visas a month for U.S. executives. An additional 150 or so people seek visas through the Libyan Embassy in Ottawa, meaning no more than 6,000 Americans are traveling to his country every year.
"I believe the potential is much greater," he told the Diplomat. "So many Americans really want to visit Libya. People have been brainwashed for such a long time, and when they finally go there, they come back impressed with the generosity of the people and with our rich culture and civilization."
Yet there's only one decent five-star hotel in Libya to speak of.
"We need a lot of investment in infrastructure in tourism," he said, noting that the world's best-preserved Roman ruins at Leptus Magnus is only an 80-mile drive east of Tripoli. "I encourage U.S. companies to go there and research the market. We're already getting lots of tourist arrivals from the Gulf countries."
In addition, the country's 2,000-kilometer Mediterranean coastline is attracting thousands of German, Italian and Spanish tourists annually.
More importantly, the Man Made River project — a $26 billion undertaking — aims to divert fresh water from the south to the more populated north. A number of companies are participating in this mega-project, including conglomerates from Brazil, Canada, South Korea and the United States.
In the meantime, Ali said Libya is "playing a very important role in bringing peace to Africa," and especially to Darfur, where as many as 400,000 people have died since the genocide began in February 2003. Another 3.5 million people are trying to survive the ongoing civil war between rebels and the Sudanese government.
"We're trying to bring all the parties together," he said. "This is one of the positive steps to have happened after the re-establishment of bilateral relations."
Andrew Natsios, the U.S. special envoy to Sudan, told the Diplomat that Libya has already sponsored two conferences on the Darfur crisis, "and the last one is what led to the Arush meeting just concluded, and also to the notion of the participation of civil society."
In a conference call, Natsios said: "I have been working with Ali Traike, Libya's former foreign minister, and we've been talking on a regular basis. He's been very constructive in trying to get all the regional players to work with the United Nations and the African Union leadership."
Asked if Libya's efforts in this regard will help heal old wounds with Washington, Natsios said "it's certainly not hurting."
But normalization of bilateral ties isn't supported by everyone in Washington. At least four Democratic lawmakers have threatened to block the Bush administration from sending its designated U.S. ambassador, Gene Cretz, to Tripoli until Libya pays compensation for the 1986 German disco bombing. Ali hinted that discussions are ongoing betwen the Qaddafi Foundation and the U.S. lawyers representing victims' families.
"Libya is ready to move ahead, and we have already made many good proposals. The ones who have to move now are the Americans," he said, adding that "if [some members of Congress] oppose having an American ambassador to Libya, they're not really serving the interests of their country." - END -