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Four decades in Libya’s embrace

An enduring friendship... Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. Photo: Frank Attard

An enduring friendship... Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi with then Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. Photo: Frank Attard

Located just a stone’s throw away from Libya, Malta is closely watching the mass uprising against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, a leader that successive Maltese governments have cosied up to for the past four decades. Ariadne Massa traces the historic ties.

The world’s spotlight has shifted onto Libya as everyone waits to see if the bloodshed and the people’s resilience will topple the 42-year regime of their leader.

The wave of euphoric success in Tunisia and Egypt had a domino effect on its neighbours but few predicted Col Gaddafi’s grip on power would be challenged.

Initially, the protests were confined to the eastern Cyrenaica region around the city of Benghazi but when anti-government protesters hit the streets around Tripoli’s Green Square analysts acknowledged Col Gaddafi was facing a real battle... and he was not about to go down without a fight.

The eccentric leader renowned for his flamboyant dress sense is quite accustomed to the confrontations – he has survived assassination attempts and numerous efforts to overthrow him – and does not seem prepared to let go of his title as the longest-serving leader in Africa and the Arab world.

Malta is watching the onslaught with particular attention, not only because Libya is just one hour away by plane but also because of its long-standing relationship with the country.

The ties go back to the times when Prime Minister Dom Mintoff forged a close friendship with Col Gaddafi after the oil rich despot bankrolled him to the tune of millions of dollars when funds ran dry and Britain threatened to pull out its forces – and their cash – from Malta.

As Mr Mintoff was ideologically committed to reducing Western influence in Malta, Libya happily filled the void. Between 1974 and 1980, Mr Mintoff visited Libya 19 times to Col Gaddafi’s four.

Col Gaddafi was made honorary member of the Xirka Ġieħ ir-Reppublika on December 5, 1975 and later honorary companion of honour of the National Order of Merit on February 8, 2004.

In 1980, tempers flared when an Italian-owned oil rig commissioned by Texaco to drill on behalf of the Maltese government was approached by Libyan gunboats and a submarine and was forced to halt operations on the Medina Bank, 68 nautical miles southeast of Malta. Both countries claimed territorial jurisdiction and, in 1982, the matter was referred to the International Court at The Hague.

Still, the friendship with Col Gaddafi was to endure and a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed during the Libyan leader’s visit to Malta in 1984, an event memorable for the way he raged against the US and spoke about how nothing could separate “these brotherly ties”.

These close links remained and Malta stood by Col Gaddafi when the US and Libya clashed in the Gulf of Sidra and the UN imposed sanctions against the country after the Lockerbie bombing.

The Socialist government went on to make the study of Arabic compulsory in schools in the 1980s and, though there were no Muslim Maltese, Col Gaddafi financed the construction of a mosque on the island and the Islamic Call Society.

In 1995, Malta-Libya relations experienced a downturn when Palestinian Jihad leader Fathi Shqaqi was shot dead in Sliema. The killing sparked furious protests outside the Maltese Embassy in Tripoli and the ferry service between the two countries – at the time the only link between Libya and the rest of the world – was suspended for months.

Relations were subsequently restored and, when Malta joined the EU in 2004, Libya said it would be having a member of its own “family” within the Union. The island was being seen as a force to strengthen relations between Europe and Africa.

Business links with Libya always existed but thrived in recent years and, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s latest figures, there are about 300 Maltese who work there.

Trade exchanges between the two countries in 2009 remained flat at a total of about €105 million. In 2010, Malta imported €34.3 million worth from Libya – mostly mineral fuels – and exported €85.2 million worth, with the bulk being electrical machinery.

Travel between the two countries also flourished and the number of Libyan tourists visiting Malta increased by about 25 per cent in 2009 on the previous year at a time when international trends for tourist movements were heading down. In the first 11 months of 2010, this number surged by 11 per cent to a record high of 14,448 tourists.

The friendship was kept up by successive governments and, in 2008, Malta signed a double taxation agreement with the country; the same year Mr Mintoff was awarded the Gaddafi Award for Human Rights.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi flew to Libya – the fourth meeting between the two countries on a political level in just over a year – where he met Col Gaddafi. The two leaders even spoke about renewing the friendship agreement between the two countries.

When asked if the visit was ill-timed in the light of the revolutions sweeping the Arab world, Foreign Affairs Minister Tonio Borg replied it would be naive to halt diplomatic efforts with a neighbouring country.

Just one week before the revolt started in Libya, Dr Borg summed it up in three sentences: “Malta, through successive governments, has had close contacts with Libya since the 1960s because there was mutual friendship. We even remained close when UN sanctions were imposed upon it. It would be a mistake to stop contacts with countries because they have governments different to ours.

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