Sometimes the desperately unimaginative question is the right one to ask. One summer’s day in 2002, I decided to rise grandly above the temptation to wrap up an interview with the hoary “So, where do you see yourself in 10 years?”. I shouldn’t have. Given that my subject, perched on a sofa in his suite at the Ritz, was Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, then 30 years old, the reply might have been a useful thing to have in the files around now.
Saif Gaddafi, now 39, still has about 12 months left to provide that answer. None of the likely scenarios look encouraging. This time next year – indeed, this time next week – he could easily be dead, or exiled, or contemplating decades of Dutch prison food (the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest in June, and has mistakenly announced his detention once). He might be – indeed, given his dwindling options, must be – staking his hopes on some sort of compromise, but it has to be suspected that what Saif is mostly doing is cursing his father’s intransigence and impetuosity.
In 2002, Saif was denying any political ambition. He claimed to be happy pursuing his trade as an architect, chairing his Gaddafi International Charity Foundation and exhibiting his – mostly mediocre – paintings, several of which featured his pet tigers. “I’m a lot more conservative than my father,” he told me. “My father is a real revolutionary. Even when I agree with him in principle, I always say we should be rational and practical, and give things time to mature.”
Over the next few years, Saif’s apparent pragmatism made him a much-feted figure. He was widely perceived as the route by which Libya – and Libya’s natural resources – could be reincorporated into the global economy following years of isolation prompted by the crimes of Gaddafi Sr. Saif is generally believed to have been the go-between who oversaw payments of compensation to the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing, and the dismantling of Libya’s WMD programmes. His charitable largesse was lapped up by the London School of Economics, and his company sought by the likes of Nat Rothschild, Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson.
In the end – if this is the end – blood proved thicker than water. As the anti-Gaddafi rising stirred, Saif pledged himself to his father with a fervour that bordered on the demented. He was barely recognisable as the cool, urbane creature I’d met. Back then, of course, he could afford to be charming: he was the future, presumed heir to the family business, with a clear yearning to move his country beyond the dogmatic eccentricities of the Colonel. One question I did put to him was about his father’s oft-declared ambition of uniting the Arab people. “Forget it,” Saif laughed. “It’s an illusion. Arabs are very difficult, you know.”