Emily Maitlis reports from Libya on a land newly entranced by our brands — even M&S — where the West tolerates Gaddafi for fear of the insurgent alternative
Strange things happen to countries hermetically sealed by their dictators. Under Hoxha, Albanians fell in love with Norman Wisdom. Under Lukashenko, the Belarusians have seen mandatory beauty contests nationwide, and as I arrive at the customs desk of Tripoli airport I realise that under Gaddafi, mirrored aviator sunglasses and big hair have become the de rigueur fashion statement among immigration officials. This is not the cool hand of viral marketing, but the unmistakable grip of a leader who believes imitation is the sincerest — indeed only — form of flattery.
The source of their inspiration stares out at us from every billboard on the short trip from the airport into town. There are pictures of Gaddafi shrouded in headscarf, staring into a misty distance, there are images of him peeking out from behind a sunflower — like a cross between a Castrol GTX hero and a malevolent Teletubby — and there are road signs that just flash the number 38. Not a speed limit, but a reminder of the number of years he has been in power. So far. And this issue of longevity pervades so much else here in Libya. A notoriously whimsical leader, he is defiantly preparing his son Saif to take over, but nothing is yet formalised. Some suggest he worries this son may be too liberal — even too popular — with his people.
Perhaps that’s why there are signs, in the frenzied pace of development, that someone is getting ready to celebrate the big 4-0 in a way only a dictator knows how. There is sand everywhere here.