Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi’s visit to Rome this week has not been without controversy. The Libyan leader recruited hundreds of hostesses from a local modelling agency to attend a lecture where he encouraged them to convert to Islam.
But Gaddafi’s proselytizing – free copies of the Koran were handed out – was not the real reason behind his trip. Gaddafi’s appearance in Rome was timed to mark the anniversary of a friendship treaty signed with Berlusconi in Benghazi two years ago, an agreement aimed at strengthening business ties between the two countries. Italy has pledged to invest $5bn (€4bn) in Libya over a 20-year period to make amends for its 30-year colonial occupation of the North African state prior to World War II.
Among the proposed projects is the construction of a 1,700-km highway along the Libyan coast in which Italian firms are expected to win lucrative contracts. Italian aerospace and defence company Finmeccanica has flexed its muscle with a joint venture with Libyan sovereign wealth funds estimated to be worth €20bn. Earlier this year it opened a helicopter assembly plant in the Arab country and the firm expects its Alenia Aermacchi M-346 trainer aircraft to fly in future with the Libyan Air Force.
Gaddafi has shown interest in directing more investment to Italian shores. The Central Bank of Libya and the Libyan Investment Authority, a sovereign wealth fund, hold a 7 per cent stake in UniCredit, Italy’s biggest bank, and reports indicate it will soon go higher.
For its part, Tripoli has promised to crack down on illegal immigrants, many of whom are refugees fleeing the war-ravaged Horn of Africa. Migrants depart from Libyan shores in hopes of reaching the nearby Italian island of Lampedusa in order to gain entry, and ideally asylum, in the EU. So far, the efforts, which include joint sea patrols, are paying off as illegal crossings are down 90 per cent.
While Berlusconi has emerged as Gaddafi’s closest European ally – Rome helped defuse the recent visa row between Libya and Switzerland – critics say he has turned a blind eye to Gaddafi’s human rights record when it comes to the treatment of refugees in Libyan detention centres.
“Instead of asking him about thousands of migrants’ living conditions, the Berlusconi government offered a stage to someone who wants to be surrounded by pretty girls while doing propaganda,” said opposition MP and former health minister Rosy Bindi.
Observers noted that Italy’s rapprochement is linked to the fact that the African nation sits on the continent’s largest proven oil reserves – leading daily Corriere della Sera even ran a front-page cartoon with a shoeless Berlusconi kneeling before the Colonel carrying a barrel of crude. No surprise then that the CEO of Eni, Italy’s leading oil company, has visited Libya five times in the past month.