In the auditorium of Tripoli's Corinthia Hotel, a number of Libyan officials sit onstage in dark suits and ties, addressing scores of Western executives in flawless English about the country's new business opportunities. A few feet away is a huge portrait of the most famous face in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, in his trademark African robe and sunglasses, fist in the air, a defiant look on his face, as if to say to the roomful of businessmen: I still run things around here. But the businessmen don't seem to notice. Instead they are transfixed by a tall young man with wire-rimmed spectacles and a fashionably shaved head. When he talks about a new economic strategy for Libya, including private enterprise, job creation and international financial institutions, the audience hangs on his words. After decades of centralized state control, he says, "we have a new reality in Libya."
The hip-looking speaker should know. He is Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, the second son of Libya's leader. Seif says he spent most of 2003 coaxing his father into transforming his 35-year-old revolution, which Gaddafi has led since he waged a military coup in 1969. The aging revolutionary has ruled over a centralized socialist system, repressing dissent and supporting armed attacks against American targets. Seif, 32, is believed by many analysts and diplomats to be Gaddafi's probable political heir. He is a doctoral student at the London School of Economics, a skilled artist and a keen tennis player who frequents the courts of Tripoli's Regatta Club, a favorite beachside haunt for the city's resident expatriates and Libyan élite. With no official role in government, Seif heads the Gaddafi International Foundation, a quasi-independent organization that has negotiated hostage releases and sent relief aid around Africa. He finally persuaded his 62-year-old father to make peace with the international community thus opening the country to foreign investment. "It took nine months nine months!" Seif told TIME, stretching his long legs out in front of the couch under another portrait of his father.
Whether Seif is Libya's future and his father its past is still unclear. But Gaddafi agreed to curtail Libya's nuclear-weapons program as well as pay damages to the families of those killed in the 1988 Pan Am airline bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the non-American survivors of the 1986 bombing of a West Berlin discothèque. As a result, President Bush announced he would begin lifting economic sanctions against Libya. The European Union recently followed. "It was the right decision," says Seif of his father's new Western-friendly stance, "the right initiative."
Since then investors and executives of all stripes have poured into Libya especially oil executives. Oil accounts for more than 90% of Libya's revenues. At a time when world oil prices are over $40 per bbl., analysts estimate that Libya's known oil reserves hold 30 billion bbl. more than $1 trillion worth enough to keep the pumps turning in Libya for decades. What's more, only about 25% of the country has yet been explored. Some 120 companies have joined Libya's first open bidding process to dig for new oil in 15 areas; the bid results are expected at the end of this month.
Oil companies regard Libya's crude as some of the best on the planet. Relatively thin, it is among the easiest to refine. And tankers leaving Libya need far less time to reach U.S. and European ports than those leaving the Persian Gulf. Given the turmoil in Iraq, and the fact that Washington is on chilly terms with Iran, many U.S. oil companies see Libya as a dream prospect. "There's a huge amount of oil that hasn't been discovered," says Michael Thomas, director of the London-based Middle East Association, a trade-promotion group that organized the business conference in Tripoli where Seif spoke. "The money is all there. There is nothing like this in the world."