How to sum up Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, that emblematic figure of our times, with his doctorate from the LSE ('The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions'), his charitable foundations, his extensive property portfolio, his playboy lifestyle, his motley collection of friends (Peter Mandelson, Nat Rothschild, Prince Andrew), his ready access to Libya's sovereign wealth fund, and his recently professed willingness to eliminate the enemies of his father's regime one bullet at a time? He's a hypocrite, of course, but that hardly does him justice (who isn't?). He is also, on some accounts, a victim: his unfortunate mentor at the LSE, David Held, has described the predicament the ostensibly reform-minded Saif found himself in after his father's people had revolted as 'the stuff of Shakespeare', but that surely is letting everyone concerned off far too lightly. He may just be a smooth-talking thug, and many online observers have noted that he seems to model himself on the smooth-talking thug and would-be businessman Stringer Bell from The Wire. But the word that best captures Saif Gaddafi comes from Nicholas Shaxson's blistering account of the role that tax havens play in international finance. Shaxson doesn't discuss the Gaddafis themselves, but he does paint a picture of the world in which the young Gaddafi, until very recently, felt right at home. This is the world of 'offshore'. Shaxson doesn't limit the term to its technical meaning, as a simple description of the particular jurisdictions that enable people to eliminate their tax bills. He applies it to people as well as places, and to a way of life along with a state of mind. Seen like this, it turns out to be a very useful word. Saif Gaddafi is just an offshore guy, living in an offshore world.
LRB 14 April 2011 | PDF Download