LIBYA: Undertaking a complete makeover
Thomas Cromwell

Land of antiquities; a tourist paradise of azure seas and white beaches; a business and travel gateway to Africa; and a force for peace in the region. This is the new Libya that its present leaders want to build. They are serious and they have already taken significant steps to remake their nation.

Incredibly, these are the very same leaders, with Colonel Moammer Qadhafi at their head, who in earlier years gave this small North African state one of the blackest reputations of any nation on earth. For most of the world, Libya has been associated with radical politics, terrorism and the development of weapons of mass destruction.

This dark cloud of black associations is fast receding today, because of two important decisions made by Libya. The first was to take responsibility for the 1988 bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in which 259 people were killed. Libya had always denied culpability, but one of two Libyan agents tried by a Scottish court convened in The Netherlands for that purpose was found guilty, and eventually Libya agreed to pay compensation to families of the victims. This set in motion the lifting of first United Nations and then United States sanctions, which had been imposed in the early 90s.

The second important step was Libya's decision in late 2003 to abandon all of its programs to build weapons of mass destruction.

Representing Libya in Washington is Ali S. Aujali. His long career as a Libyan diplomat took him most recently to Canada, where he served as Libya's ambassador before moving to Washington last October to become Chief of the Libyan Liaison Office, opened at that time. He says that US-Libyan relations are improving "slowly, but with confidence" and that by the end of this year it is hoped that full diplomatic relations will be restored.

Ambassador Aujali says that Libya has "fulfilled all of our obligations" to the international community. Yet Libya remains on the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism. A key objective of his government is to get that changed.

"We gave our full support to the US war on terror after 9/11," he says, pointing out that Libya itself is an Al Qaeda target, although to date it has been spared any terror attacks. Furthermore, Libya "is the first country in the 21st Century to abandon weapons of mass destruction," proving its commitment to peaceful interaction with the world.

The ambassador says that Libya expected a warmer and more emphatic embrace from the United States and the world when it made its historic decision. He says the reaction was, "not according to our expectations," and that, "What Libya got until now was not what we expected."

He believes that what Libya perceives as a slow response to its dramatic changes is not an encouraging sign to other countries contemplating making such a turnaround.

Ambassador Aujali notes that relations were not developing very rapidly before a March 16 report to Congress on Libya by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns helped clarify the progress being made by Libya, contributing to a fresh view of Libya in Washington and an acceleration of the normalization process.

He says that Libya is now a force for peace and stability in Africa and can intervene constructively in conflict situations, such as Darfur, in neighboring Sudan. Washington could benefit from this, working with Tripoli to solve problems in Africa.

The ambassador says that his government is working intensely to make Libya both a great tourism destination and transportation hub, offering access to Africa, as well as a good place for international business. In the past, most investments have been in the oil sector, but Libya wants to see diversification. Some 95% of all Libyan exports are oil-related.

"We are very optimistic now that American companies will return to Libya," he says.

And Ambassador Aujali stresses that Libya has not only long-since abandoned earlier terror activities, such as its support for the Irish Republican Army, but has for more than a decade been cooperating with Europe and the United States in the war on terror. "We have no connection with any terror organization," he stresses. He says that Libya was the first country, in 1992, to alert Interpol of the terror activities of Osama Bin Laden. "No country can fight terrorism by itself. Countries must work together."

He says that, "In the past we supported freedom fighters." For example, the African National Congress, which led the fight against Apartheid South Africa. In the past, the ANC was considered an unsavory communist movement by the West, whereas today it is the ruling party of a post-Apartheid nation, and its leaders are embraced by the West. This would seem to justify Libya's own support for the ANC, the ambassador says.

Libya has "been threatened many times by Al Qaeda," he says. "But we are very well secured and, thank God, we have never been attacked."

Ambassador Aujali says that both Washington and Tripoli "are happy with our cooperation" on security and terror-related issues.

Colonel Qadhafi has raised eyebrows and ruffled feathers in the Arab world by stressing Libya's African, rather than Arab, identity. The ambassador confirms that Libya "believes Africa is the most important continent for us. We try to help African countries and we invite Europe and the United States to work with us on this."

Qadhafi was the prime mover behind the transformation of the Organization of African Unity into the African Union, which has proved a more effective tool for mobilizing African efforts to address economic development, democratization (as seen recently in Togo) and peacekeeping (as in Darfur). Ambassador Aujali says Qadhafi "worked day and night" on the creation of the AU.

For Libya to take on the role of a transport and business hub, it will need to develop its port and airport infrastructure as well as its air and ground links to Africa. This will take many years of work, but steps are being taken now to start this process.

At the same time, there are some major tourism investments underway. An Italian company is developing Farwa Island, near the Tunisian border, as a resort with five hotels and other facilities, at a cost of $285 million. A Dutch company is working on a $1.2 billion tourism development elsewhere, while a third project underway is the construction of a $35 million tourist village 185 kilometers east of Tripoli.

These projects are just part of an effort to diversify Libya's economy, which has depended on oil exports almost entirely. As the economy is largely controlled by the Libyan government a massive privatization program is now moving ahead. Although, foreign investment will be necessary because the domestic private sector is weak, Aujali says. The Great Man Made River is in the third phase of its development, and will bring increasing flows of water to the coastal regions, which are well-suited to agriculture.

A current issue dividing Libya from the West is the case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who were found guilty by a Libyan court of infecting 400 children with the HIV virus at the hospital where they worked. Europe and the US have questioned the legal process that led to their conviction, and sought their release, which Libya has adamantly refused.

The ambassador says that the solution probably lies in the US and Europe working through an NGO that would seek to meet the demands of the families of infected patients. The victims' families want their suffering respected by the international community, the ambassador says. The families "want the international community to care about their families," he says. Part of the solution would be payment of compensation.

In general, he warns that the West should respect local traditions and culture. Even in matters of democracy, Libya claims to have a working system of its own, which is based on local committees and a national assembly, but not on political parties. "We have our own type of democracy," he says. But "We feel we are not respected for our system."

Ambassador Ali Suleiman Aujali
Chief of the Libyan Liaison Office
Washington, D.C.

Ambassador Ali Aujali was named Chief of the Libyan Interest Section in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 2004, after serving as the Charg d'Affairs at the Libyan Embassy in Ottawa, Canada.

Ambassador Aujali has had a long commitment to serving his country, beginning in 1971 as Third Secretary at the Libyan Embassy in London. In 1976, he moved to the Libyan Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he served as First Secretary until he was appointed Ambassador in 1981. In 1984, he was appointed as Libya's Ambassador to Buenos Aires, Argentina, followed by a similar appointment in Brasilia, Brazil from 1988 through 1994. While serving in Canada (2001-2004), Ambassador Aujali founded the Libya/Canada Business Council.

When not on diplomatic assignments outside Libya, Ambassador Aujali held a variety of positions in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tripoli, including Deputy Director General of the Americas Department (1994-1998), Director General of the North and South Americas Department (1998-2000), and Director General of European Affairs (2000-2001).

In his capacity as a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Aujali actively participated in a number of United Nations General Congress sessions, led Libyan delegations to the Forum for Dialogue in the Western Mediterranean (also known as the 5+5 Dialogue), chaired sessions of the Joint Libyan Swedish Committee, and participated in several summits of the Non-Aligned Movement.

Born on October 10, 1944, Ambassador Aujali received his BA in Business Administration from the University of Benghazi.