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Going Green in Libya

September 11, 2008


One of the hopes shared by environmental and development groups is that developing countries can progress without causing severe damage to the environment. Traditionally, a developing country looks for the cheapest (not cleanest) way to develop, hoping they will become rich enough to clean up the mess they are causing along the road to prosperity. One interesting model which other countries might follow closely is Libya. That’s right — the former pariah state of Libya has proposed developing a historically significant area in an environmentally friendly way [“A Green Resort is Planned to Preserve Ruins and Coastal Waters,” by Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York Times, 16 October 2007]. I concede that Libya is not your typical developing country — it has both oil revenue to spend on development projects and stunning archaeological sites that are desirable tourist destinations. Nevertheless, Libya’s plans are worth a look. The area that is the focus of Rosenthal’s article contains the ruins of Cyrene.


Cyrene was for centuries the most important Greek city in North Africa. It was founded in the 7th century BC. In 322 BC, Cyrene came under the control of the Greek general Ptolemy I and his dynasty. In 96 BC the Romans took possession of Cyrene, and it became a province of Rome eighteen years later. Thereafter, it enjoyed a period of peace until a Jewish revolt in 115 AD caused widespread destruction. Following reconstruction of the city, principally under the Emperor Hadrian, Cyrene again entered a period of prosperity. In 365 AD, during the Byzantine period, an earthquake destroyed much of the city, which, at the time, had not yet embraced Christianity. A grand rebuilding program took place, although former places of pagan worship were desecrated including the great temple of Zeus. All that remains today is the spectacular ruins of Cyrene, which include: the Sanctuary and Temple of Apollo, the Acropolis, the Agora, the Forum, the Stoa of Hermes and Heracles, the House of Jason Magnus, the Nine Muses and the Temple of Zeus. It is these ruins that Libya wants to protect and exploit. This is also where Rosenthal begins her article.

“In an area where many residents are illiterate, newly erected signs in crisp white and blue say ‘Airport’ in Arabic and English. Development is coming to town. In an area the size of Wales centered on the Greek ruin here, [Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, eldest son of the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi], a group of wealthy Libyans and a bevy of consultants are planning a carbon neutral green-development zone, catering to tourism and serving as a model for environmentally friendly design, they say. The plan will protect Libya’s fantastic Greek and Roman ruins from haphazard developments as it protects the coastal ecosystem, one of the last remaining natural areas of the Mediterranean. Waters off Libya are the last remaining breeding grounds for a number of Mediterranean species, environmentalists say. The idea is that as Libya opens to the outside world it will not become ‘like the Spanish coast,’ said the project’s financial adviser, Mahmoud A. Khosman. (It will also be a good investment.) But the intention is clearly broader than that. ‘They want to show the world that Libya has turned a corner, that they can fit into the modern world,’ said George Joffe, a research fellow at Cambridge who specializes in the region.”

As Col. Qaddafi’s sons position themselves for potential succession to their father, they are trying vigorously to remove the tarnish to Libya’s reputation he created. The younger Qaddafi, who earned a PHD degree in economics from London school of economics and political science, openly admitted this.

“Mr. Qaddafi referred to this important subtext in September at a news conference. ‘In our area, it’s not common practice to talk about environment and emissions and the like,’ he said in English, seated on a plush couch surrounded by slick architectural models erected in the midst of a seventh-century B.C. Greek Gymnasium. ‘It’s time now to join developed countries. So we make this statement about the environment, about culture.'”

The big announcement for the project attracted an eclectic group of people.

“For the inauguration, hundreds of people arrived at a landing strip for the ceremony and party, with music piped in from the Temple of Zeus at sunset. Friends. Royalty. British peers. But there were also experts on waste recycling and sustainable farming, as well as architects, engineers and hoteliers, all hoping for roles in the project.”

The project remains in its infancy and exists mostly on paper. According to Rosenthal, there are lots of skeptics who don’t believe it will ever materialize. If it does come into being, it will be a modern marvel.

“Its energy would come from wind and solar power. Its waste would be recycled, and its trash converted to biofuel. Resorts, hotels, villas and residents’ villages would blend into the rugged landscape. With Foster and Partners, the British architectural firm, designing the Green Mountain Conservation and Development zone, and Unesco aiding with restorations, there is no shortage of star power to encourage [the] project.”

Libya is trying to put all of the pieces in place to move from a developing to a developed country. It has a good economic base (oil revenue), relative stability, and improving relations with the West.

“The icy relationship between Libya and the West has been thawing since Colonel Qaddafi renounced unconventional weapons and paid billions of dollars in compensation for the bombing in 1988 of the Pan American World Airways jet over in Lockerbie, Scotland, a disaster blamed on Libyan intelligence agents. Washington re-established diplomatic relations in 2004. … The Libyans have come a-courting. European politicians, academics and, especially, businessmen have responded happily. … Contracts with French and German companies have been signed.”

People are always happy to get in front of flows of money. One of the things that Libya still needs to do is invest in its human capital as well as it economic interests. In many areas, illiteracy remains high and pockets of poverty remain. The fact that Qaddafi’s sons have received first rate Western educations provides hope for the future.

“Green Mountain also yields clues to future Libyan leadership, experts said. ‘One had to assume that there is a lot of jockeying for position right now, and among Qaddafi’s sons all want to demonstrate an innovative view of how to be part of the world,’ Dr. Joffe said. Saif, the sponsor of the Green Mountain project, is the current leader, experts say. Educated in Britain, well dressed and fluent in English, he has been a bridge between the Libya power centers and the West.”

The Green Mountain project will surely help cement Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi’s place in Libya’s future, whether it is as head of government or simply as a mover and shaker in its economy. Either way, his stress on protecting the environment is welcome.

“There was also important talk of carbon offsets, waste recycling, solar energy and protecting an endangered seal that lives only off the coast. ‘We have big plans for touristic development,’ said Mr. Khosman, the consultant. ‘But before that starts, we want to make sure there is an authority for sustainability in the region in terms of building codes, ecology, archaeology.’ The developers plan luxury hotels, villas and golf courses, as well as community housing. The Libyan coast is ‘a unique and important and untouched ecosystem, almost the only one left in the Mediterranean — it’s like Sardegna 50 years ago before development,’ said Alessandra Pome of the World Wildlife Foundation Fund for Nature, who is working in Tripoli. Ms. Pome noted that the area was the last breeding ground for some species of turtles and tuna in the Mediterranean. ‘If we carelessly develop the coast here as we did in Spain, Italy and France,’ she said, ‘the Mediterranean is going to turn into a swimming pool lined with concrete.’ … For archaeologists, this is one of the most enticing regions in the world. Cyrene was a vast Greek city in the seventh century B.C., including temples, gymnasiums and villas with luxurious mosaics. ‘This place was really, really rich,’ said Serenella Ensoli, director to the Italian Archaeological Mission to Cyrene who has worked on the site for nearly 30 years.”

Although conserving historically and environmentally important areas is critical, so is providing jobs for Libya’s citizens.

“Mr. Qaddafi noted that the project would produce tens of thousands of jobs and small industry in an impoverished region. In a speech, he said the project ‘had the potential to support the local economy based on environmental and cultural tourism.’ A brochure filled with photos and renderings portrays the project as a green, upmarket version of the luxurious Phuket resort in Thailand, though it is not clear where tourists will come from. Basics like an airport remain to be built. ‘They’ve got 1,000 miles of undeveloped coastline which they are trying to develop in an environmentally friendly way,’ said Anthony Pearce, an environmental consultant and a former head of the International Road Federation. ‘You’ve got to give them credit for that.'”

Often it is the construction of supporting infrastructure that creates significant environmental damage. If Libya realizes it vision and creates an environmentally friendly, sustainable tourist area in a socially responsible way, it will encourage other such developments around the world.


On the seventh anniversary of terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, it’s worth reflecting how the world has changed in those seven years. Seven years ago, Libya was part of President Bush’s “axis of evil.” Last week, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the North African country since John Foster Dulles, the Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, in 1953. Although Libya is still led by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, he has apparently “seen the light” and is trying to bring Libya into the developed world. He understands that to achieve that end he must have deeper and broader connections with the West.

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