As the son of deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi prepares to run for the presidency of Libya, a Queenstown family remember the time he came to their South Island town to party. By Peter McKenzie.
Jim Boult has met everyone from Tom Cruise to former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd. But his strangest brush with the rich and powerful came in 2009, when a senior government figure asked Boult – at that time the chief executive of Christchurch Airport and now the Mayor of Queenstown – to meet two Middle Eastern men with a very specific request.
Boult says the men explained that every year they went on a New Year's trip to a new place with an old university friend. This year, the friend had chosen Queenstown. There was a problem, however: "The person is coming in their own private jet – but it's too big to land in Queenstown."
"That pricked my ears up," says Boult. "There aren't many private jets in the world bigger than A320s or 737s."
The plane turned out to be a four-engine Airbus A340 complete with a hot tub and cinema. The old university friend? Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, favourite son of brutal Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi was an amateur artist who had grown up in luxury. He owned a London townhouse and a villa in Vienna; he had two pet white tigers and had his art exhibitions sponsored by foreign oil companies. But he had also studied at the London School of Economics, which helped him develop a liberal reputation. According to the New York Times, while he was studying in London, he dined with a Jewish-American congressional staffer who asked him what Libya needed most. "Democracy," he answered.
Nevertheless, he was among his father's top aides. The approach to Boult came soon after Gaddafi brokered the early release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi – the Libyan agent involved in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, which killed 270 people. Gaddafi personally ferried the agent back to Libya on the customised A340.
"They wanted to fly into Christchurch and charter an Air New Zealand aircraft to fly them to Queenstown," Boult recalls. "They asked if I could accommodate the A340 and give them some assistance in arranging for a charter. So I did. It became quite a big deal."
By agreeing to help, Boult was pulled into a strategically timed party trip, which immediately preceded the collapse of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in 2011. And a decade on, it no longer seems inconsequential. It has recently been reported that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi has emerged from hiding in the Libyan mountains to try to win back the Libyan leadership for his family.
Boult stood on the runway of Christchurch Airport and held a cardboard box adorned with a piece of string. Inside the box was a hookah pipe, and beside him was the airport's head of security.
One of Gaddafi's associates asked Boult to smuggle it on to the plane. "I had it in the boot of my car," says Boult. As they strode towards the turbo-prop, which was about to head to Queenstown, the security boss eyed the box and asked, "What have you got in the box, Jim?" Boult joked, "I've got the bong!" The chief of police guffawed. "Oh, I don't want to know!"
Among Gaddafi's entourage was an old Australian friend, Tony Kazal – one of eight brothers who have established a vast property empire in Sydney in part, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, by drawing on friendships with politicians such as the Gaddafis. The group also included two young women, an aide carrying a bag of American dollar bills, and an assortment of discreetly armed bodyguards.
Boult lived in Queenstown. He was invited to join the flight and pointed out local landmarks on the way. "As we came in over Lake Hayes, I pointed out where I lived."
He left the group at Queenstown Airport. "It's fair to say, they had high-profile experiences there: a few parties, lots of champagne poured." According to local newspaper Mountain Scene, that included a hunting trip and a New Year's Eve celebration at party spot Barmuda.
Barmuda's doorman told Mountain Scene he was approached near midnight by a ponytailed member of the entourage who pointed at the bar's private lounge and said, "We want that room." The man told the doorman, "Find me beautiful blondes – no fat ones. We'll buy them drinks, we will look after them." He peeled off US$200 from a gold money clip, handed it to the doorman and walked away.
The doorman invited a dozen locals to join the group, which eventually consumed thousands of dollars' worth of alcohol. It was a relatively tame New Year's Eve for Gaddafi, whose parties were famously wild. According to Australian media reports, on a trip to Sydney in 2002, "his entourage became involved in a late-night sex romp at Port Douglas". On the same trip, one of his bodyguards allegedly pulled a gun while on a charter boat that was cruising the Great Barrier Reef.
Back then, says Boult, the relationship between New Zealand and Libya was easing, "probably driven by Libya's position on oil and our reliance on that. I wouldn't say we were getting friendly, but the door was being cracked open. So there was some Government interest." The then-Minister of Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, asked to be kept updated. "I had a couple of phone calls with him, just to keep him up to speed with what Gaddafi was up to."
Clive Geddes, who was mayor of Queenstown in 2009, recalls the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) briefed council staff ahead of the visit. An MFAT spokesperson declined to comment. In an email, McCully said, "I do recall being advised of the visit, but do not recall taking any particular interest in it. Nor can I recall any engagement with New Zealand officials or trade interests relating to the visit."
In any event, Boult didn't expect to be roped back in himself. But on New Year's Day, as his family were celebrating his daughter's 13th birthday at home, the phone rang. Gaddafi wanted to drop by.
Boult's daughter, Victoria, remembers the day well. "I remember the outfit I was wearing – it was a panda T-shirt – and thinking, 'I look like such an idiot and I'm meeting this really important political figure.'"
When Gaddafi found out it was her birthday, he insisted on having his photo taken with her. If she ever travelled through the Middle East, that photo "would open every door", he explained.
Together, they admired the view over Lake Hayes. Gaddafi suggested the lake would look far more interesting with crocodiles.
According to Boult, he also spoke of how he expected to take over from his father.
"He spoke about his father's regime – these are my words – being a thing of the past. He knew that at a point in time … he would embrace more of a social-welfare-oriented regime. He wasn't putting his father down, he just said he was a person of his time."
"Rivers of blood"
It was later revealed the trip to New Zealand wasn't coincidental. Scandals and political unrest had imperilled the Gaddafi regime. Leaked US diplomatic cables said that Saif al-Islam Gaddafi had ''strategically disengaged'' by spending ''New Year's Eve far away from Tripoli in a small New Zealand town of 8000 people, on a hunting trip''.
It's also possible he was scouting for a safe place to invest his money; in 2011, the Canberra Times reported "rumours in Canberra's diplomatic circles that Colonel Gaddafi's sons may have investments in New Zealand". According to Boult, there was interest shown, but nothing came of it.
When Gaddafi flew home, it was to a region holding its breath. Over the next year, the Arab Spring erupted. On February 17, 2011, widespread protests broke out in Libya. State forces tried to quell the crowds, and Muammar Gaddafi warned of "rivers of blood".
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi returned from a trip to London. According to Richard Worth (a New York Times journalist who has long covered Libya), when Libyan state media announced Muammar Gaddafi's son would deliver a televised speech, Libyans "expected Saif to announce that his father was stepping down and that he would inaugurate a new era of milder autocracy and neoliberal reforms".
Instead, he embraced his father's brutality. He wagged his finger at the camera, denounced the "storm of democracy", and warned that, "All of Libya will be destroyed."
If the door had ever been cracked open by New Zealand's Government, it slammed shut. McCully denounced the violence in Libya and said of Muammar Gaddafi, "This man has shown for many years that he is irrational and self-absorbed. We know now that he has no compunction in killing his own people to hang on to power."
The revolution turned violent. Airstrikes by Western militaries stymied the regime, which collapsed after months of fighting. Revolutionaries surged into Tripoli. Muammar Gaddafi was found hiding in a stormwater pipe on the outskirts of Sirte and met his end.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi fled, but, while trying to escape to Niger, was captured by an independent militia and secreted away to the mountain town of Zintan. Libya descended into civil war.
Like a striptease
In 2020, the United Nations brokered a ceasefire between Libya's factions, and plans were made to hold democratic elections later this year. The news prompted hope for the country's future and curiosity about a figure from its past: what role would the son of Muammar Gaddafi play?
This year, Worth became the first Western journalist to interview Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in a decade. They met in an opulent two-storey villa in the mountains near Zintan. Worth noted that something was missing: Gaddafi 's right thumb and forefinger. He claimed they had been severed by shrapnel from a Nato airstrike. Other reports say the Zintan militia cut them off as punishment for his finger-wagging.
He also claimed the Zintan militia had grown disillusioned and freed him. "Can you imagine?" he asked Worth. "The men who used to be my guards are now my friends."
The interview reads like a campaign launch, but at that stage, he remained coy about the presidency. "I've been away from the Libyan people for 10 years," he explained. "You need to come back slowly, slowly. Like a striptease. You need to play with their minds a little."
Libya's limited polling indicates he may be in with a chance, as a result of nostalgia for a time when the country was comparatively stable. If he is successful, it would be a bizarre twist of history. He continues to denounce the protesters who overthrew his father's regime, and refuses to criticise his father in strong terms. A victory would in many ways be a damning repudiation of the Arab Spring.
In the decade since Gaddafi's visit, the Boults have alternated between bemusement at their brush with Libyan politics and shock at their guest's roller-coaster journey. "I don't really know how to feel," says Victoria Boult. "He seemed super lovely to me, but I was also very young and it was a very different political context. A lot has changed, in retrospect. It's something that exists in a very strange grey area."
Her lasting memory is of a supremely confident man who was certain of his own power. "It's fascinating to see that he might have been right. He's been able to use his charisma and resourcefulness to pull himself back."