Wednesday 6 September 2023

Afriqiyah One - How Gaddafi Travelled The World In Luxury (But Not In Style)

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

''I am an international leader, the dean of the Arab rulers, the King of Kings of Africa and the imam of Muslims, and my international status does not allow me to descend to a lower level.'' (By Muammar Gaddafi)
The conclusion of the Libyan Revolution in 2011 led Libyans on a worldwide frenzy in search of the billions Muammar Gaddafi salted away during his 42-year long reign and the luxurious life style he was able to afford with it. Some 40% of Libya's population of six million lived below the poverty line during Gaddafi's reign with little to no access to affordable health care despite the fact that Libya has the most abundant oil reserves in Africa. [1] When Libyans could finally catch a glimp inside of the palaces owned by the Gaddafi family, the main thing that stood out was not the abundant luxury one perhaps expected, but rather their poor interior design styles. Whether it was the horrendous looking supercar wall murals encountered in one of the homes of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi or a huge stone water fountain placed in the middle of a hallway in one of Gaddafi's family resorts, money clearly doesn't equal style.
Gaddafi's unique interior taste was further reaffirmed when rebels took a first peak inside 'Afriqiyah One', Gaddafi's $120 million private Airbus A340. [2] Stuck at Tripoli International Airport after the United Nations Security Council established a no-fly zone over Libya, the aircraft largely escaped damage during the fight for the airport in August 2011 that eventually resulted in full rebel control of the capital Tripoli. Encountered at Tripoli IAP was not only one of Libya's two An-124 cargo aircraft, but also most of Gaddafi's private jets. [3] For a man that pretended to have disavowed luxury, this fleet still consisted of one A340-213 (5A-ONE), an A300-600 (5A-IAY, which was completely destroyed during the fighting) and a Dassault Falcon 900EX (5A-DCN, which was found at the nearby Mitiga air base). Also found in Tripoli was Gaddafi's personal high-speed train, a gift from Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. [4]

The inside of the A340 revealed a ghastly silver-grey interior that arguably looked on par with that of a 1990s limousine. Yet what the four-engined A340 lacked in style, it more than made up in luxury, with several bathrooms, two showers, a jacuzzi and leather sofas and seats available to Gaddafi, his entourage and his all-female Amazonian Guard. Considering all this abundance of luxury, it is perhaps surprising that Colonel Gaddafi, or Brotherly Leader and Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya as he liked to be referred to, actually preferred to use his A300. This likely had much to do with the fact that Gaddafi was already the third owner of the A340, and had not chosen the interior himself. The A300 was similarly second-hand, having been acquired from the Abu Dhabi Amiri Flight in 2003, but subsequently redecorated according to Gaddafi's taste. [5]
The story of how the A340 came into Gaddafi's possession is a fascinating story in its own right. The A340 was ordered by Brunei's Prince Jefri Bolkiah in August 1996, who spent $250 million on its acquisition and decoration. [6] Now $250 million is already a lot of money, but it's even more so considering it was not even his own money. You see, Prince Jefri had somewhat of a habit for misappropriating Brunei's state budget, and was accused of unrightfully taking $14.8 billion from Brunei's treasury and spending it on his many palaces, yachts and no less than nine private jets, including this A340. [7] Anything but amused by his brother's actions, the Sultan of Brunei exiled his brother and sold all of his belongings. After Prince Jefri spent $250 million on 'his' A340, the Sultan sold it for only $95 million to Saudi Arabia's Prince al-Waleed bin Talal Al Saud, one of the richest people in the world, just three years later. Looking to make a quick buck, the Prince then attempted to sell it to Gaddafi, which would bring about even more scandals.

The ghastly silver-grey 1990s interior of Gaddafi's A340.

The opulent throne that belonged to Colonel Gaddafi (and previously to Prince Jefri) onboard Afriqiyah One.

The first obstacle Prince al-Waleed ran into was that Colonel Gaddafi simply had no interest in the A340 when it was first offered to him in 2001. Already not a keen flyer to begin with, Libya's sanctions regime and its increasing political international isolation meant Gaddafi hadn't flown abroad for more than a decade. In the 1970s and 1980s, when he was still a welcome guest in many parts of the world, Gaddafi simply used a commercial Libyan Airlines Boeing 707, apparently lacking any interest in a private aircraft for his personal use. This posed somewhat of a problem for al-Waleed, as no other party had shown an interest in the A340. The lack of interest from buyers might have been influenced by the aircraft's interior and exterior, both of which were remarkably unappealing. Prince Jefri had chosen a largely similar interior design to his brother's three(!) A340s but in a silver-grey finish rather than the gold one used by his brother the Sultan. Seemingly satisfied with the result, the A340's exterior received the same treatment.

Seemingly fixated on the drabness of silver and grey, even the exterior of Brunei's Prince Jefri Bolkiah's A340 was painted in these lackluster colours. (Image by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)

Undeterred by Gaddafi's disinterest in buying a $120 million flying limousine, Prince al-Waleed commissioned Daad Sharab, a Jordanian fixer with connections to Gaddafi, in an attempt to convince him to buy the aircraft. Nonetheless, it took Sharab nearly 1.5 years to secure a meeting with him, which finally occured in January 2003. [6] During the meeting, Gaddafi eventually exhibited an interest in the Airbus but mentioned that he was also assessing several other aircraft that had been presented to him. Several days later, Sharab reached out to the Prince and advised sending the Airbus A340 and a Boeing 767, which he was also trying to sell, for Gaddafi to inspect. In April 2003, both aircraft flew to Libya, with the Prince personally traveling on the A340. Gaddafi liked the Airbus, and asked that the plane remained in Tripoli until a sale could be finalised, a measure intended to prevent any tampering with the aircraft. The Prince returned to Saudi Arabia on the Boeing 767, presumably satisfied with the prospect of a successful deal.

Evidently grasping the detrimental impact of the silver-grey livery on the potential sale of the A340, Prince al-Waleed replaced it with the more appealing Kingdom Green livery. It was in this livery that Gaddafi laid eyes on the aircraft for the first time.

Apparently, there was some confusion between the Prince and Sharab regarding the price they were seeking for the A340. [6] Sharab believed it was $135 million, while the Prince thought $110 million would be the maximum they would get. Even at this price, the sale would still net a $15 million profit for him. Nonetheless, the Prince attempted to increase his earnings by tricking Gaddafi into believing that the cost of the A340 was actually much higher, writing him that ''the aircraft price of $135 million represents what the aircraft cost us. This includes the various extras and modifications that were made to the aircraft since we bought it''. [6] When later questioned about these modifications, the Prince admitted that no modifications had actually been made to the A340. It wasn't only Gaddafi who was being deceived: Sharab claimed that the Prince had initially agreed to provide her with any amount exceeding $110 million if she managed to sell the aircraft for more, something the Prince later denied. In the end, Sharab filed a lawsuit and won, with the Prince being ordered by a British court to pay her $10 million in commission fees in 2013. [8]
Exactly a decade earlier, in June 2003, it was Sharab who successfully brokered the deal with Gaddafi to sell the Airbus A340 for $120 million, with an additional $20 million in Libyan investments embarked for the Prince's agricultural project in neighbouring Egypt. [6] The payment was to be split into two installments, with the first $70 million going directly to the Prince. The Libyan Agriculture Investment Company was to provide the remaining $70 million for the second installment, with $20 million designated for the agricultural project and the remaining $50 million for the aircraft. The Prince received the initial $70 million payment in August 2003, but the $50 million for the aircraft and the $20 million for his agricultural project did not materialise. In February 2004, the chairman of Libya's Afriqiyah Airways, who would operate the A340 on behalf of Gaddafi, met with the Prince's representatives. In the course of the meeting, the chairman said Gaddafi believed $70 million was a fair price and that he wouldn't pay any more than that.
It appears that Gaddafi may have experienced buyer's remorse at this point, considering there was little need for an additional long-range VIP aircraft alongside his recently purchased A300. In all likelihood, his decision to acquire the A340 was primarily influenced by its size and the presence of four engines. While the significance of four engines might not be immediately evident to the average reader, prominent Middle Eastern government leaders typically possess either a four-engined Boeing 747-400 or the more modern and larger Boeing 747-8, as larger aircraft convey greater prestige for both the leader and their nation. Even though the A340 was previously considered prestigious, both the Turkish and Egyptian governments have augmented their A340s with the larger Boeing 747-8. The twin-engined A300 may have contributed to a sense of inferiority on Gaddafi's part when he compared his aircraft to those of other Arab leaders, whose planes clearly outclassed his. It doesn't seem unlikely that this was the motivating factor behind Gaddafi's acquisition of the A340, a purchase he obviously wasn't keen on forking out $120 million for.

Even after acquiring the A340, Gaddafi continued to frequently use the twin-engined A300 for his flights abroad. (Image by Dennis)

If the spectacle of two billionaires bickering over the price of a four-engined private jet formerly owned by a third billionaire isn't sufficiently amusing, the situation is about to become even more comical. Gaddafi evidently had no intention of paying the $50 million he still owed to Prince al-Waleed, but the Prince had a hidden ace in his hand. The A340 was still parked in Tripoli, where the Prince had left it since April 2003. However, to keep an aircraft in an airworthy condition, it has to undergo regular maintenance checks, typically carried out in Europe. In March 2004, it was the A340's turn to be sent to Germany for routine maintenance. The Libyan authorities expected its return to Tripoli, but to their surprise, it never returned. The aircraft had seemingly vanished without a trace. While Gaddafi previously appeared to have hoped that the Prince would acknowledge his $25 million loss and formally transfer ownership of the A340, the Colonel was now left without the A340 and the $70 million he had already paid for it.

Gaddafi must have assigned his top agents to the task of finding the aircraft, as he would soon discover that Prince al-Waleed, still the legitimate owner of the aircraft, had the A340 flown back to Saudi Arabia after it completed its maintenance in Germany without notifying Gaddafi, an action that deeply infuriated the Colonel. [6] The Jordanian fixer Sharab found herself entangled in the midst of this escalating dispute and ultimately could do little but convey Gaddafi's demand for the immediate return of the aircraft or a refund of the $70 million. Realising that the aircraft might have been tampered with during its stay in Saudi Arabia, Gaddafi subsequently decided to cancel the deal altogether. In response, the Prince expressed his willingness to cancel the deal for the Airbus but intended to retain the $70 million as compensation. [6] Prince al-Waleed had, quite literally, outmaneuvered the Colonel.

While Gaddafi had previously attempted to resolve conflicts through outright invasions of other countries, the absence of a land border with Saudi Arabia and the lack of a functional military rendered this option unfeasible. With the Prince in possession of both the A340 and the $70 million, Gaddafi had no leverage remaining. After three months of deadlock, Sharab devised a plan to resolve the impasse by arranging a face-to-face meeting between Prince al-Waleed and Gaddafi in Tripoli. After all, she stood to earn a commission of at least $10 million. To avoid the risk of Gaddafi impounding one of the Prince's private aircraft out of revenge, the Prince traveled to Libya on a chartered jet. A public meeting between the Prince and Gaddafi followed, during which the Colonel finally declared his intention to pay the outstanding $50 million. [6] But when ironing out the details in another meeting a day later, the Libyan side had apparently reversed its decision once more and once again asked for the return of the $70 million.
Having travelled to Tripoli to rescue the deal and enduring a lengthy meeting with Gaddafi, Prince al-Waleed must have been far from amused by this sudden turn of events. But eventually, the Libyan side relented and agreed to proceed with the purchase. [6] While the $20 million investment in the Prince's agricultural project was no longer on the table, the Libyans would pay the outstanding $50 million to finally get ownership of the aircraft. The new argeement was signed by the Prince in September. However, the Libyan side waited another six months to put down their signature, and it took them a further six months to actually pay the Prince. In September 2006, the ownership of the aircraft was finally in Gaddafi's hands, concluding a $120 million deal that had taken 3.5 years to finalise! The Prince gained $25 million in profits from the sale, though the Jordanian fixer Sharab insisted that a $10 million commission was owed to her. Curiously, it was the Prince who, this time around, refused to make the payment. [8]

A340 '5A-ONE' in its new Libyan livery. The black and white colour scheme is far more visually appealing than the silver and gray one used by Prince Jefri.

However, the Prince not paying her was not Sharab's biggest concern during this period, as she had apparently incurred the wrath of Gaddafi to the extent that he had her placed under house arrest in Tripoli, despite her Jordanian citizenship. [9] The justification for her house arrest seemed to be nothing more than Gaddafi's paranoia, as he claimed that Sharab was conspiring with Abdullah II of Jordan and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to overthrow him, stating: "I know what your King is planning against me with the President of Egypt''. [9] Denied the chance to defend herself against these allegations, she endured 21 months of house arrest in Tripoli until she was freed by Libyan rebels during the 2011 Libyan Revolution. After her release, she continued her efforts to claim the $10 million from Prince al-Waleed, which she was ultimately awarded by a British court in July 2013. [8]

A Libyan rebel contemplates the intriguing interior design choices aboard Afriqyah One in 2011.

Following the successful sale of the A340 to Gaddafi in 2006, the aircraft was repainted at Lufthansa Technik in Germany. Similar to what was done with Gaddafi's A300 previously, the A340 was adorned with the Afriqyah Airways' branding to create the false idea that Gaddafi was actually traveling on a commercial airliner. The prominently displayed 9.9.99 logos commemorated the signing of the Sirte Declaration on the 9th of September 1999, which called for the establishment of the African Union. The date '9.9.99' formed a substantial part of Afriqyah Airways' livery (at least until 2012), and symbolised Gaddafi's newfound affinity for Africa. After his unsuccessful attempts to unify the Arab countries under his leadership in the 1970s, Gaddafi made a renewed effort with Africa in the late 1990s and 2000s, using the African Union as a platform to move toward positioning himself as the leader of a future United States of Africa. However, nearly every African leader quietly distanced themselves from his proposal, and the African Union effectively marginalised him during his tenure as chairman, leading Gaddafi to express his regret for having invested funds into the organisation and other African initiatives, further remarking, "Had I known in advance how little power the chairman wields, I would have refused the job". [10] Irrespective of of the intentions behind Afriqyah Airways' African-themed livery, it's undeniable that the 9.9.99 livery on the A340 looked exceptionally striking.

Gaddafi, dressed in military uniform, salutes Libya's national anthem shortly after disembarking 'Afriqiyah One' during a state visit to Italy in June 2009. Note the Libya-Africa 9.9.99 markings commemorating the Sirte Declaration.

While the aircraft's exterior received a fresh coat of paint, Gaddafi opted to keep the interior completely unchanged. This decision might have been influenced by the fact that it had already taken 3.5 years for Gaddafi to receive the plane, and he didn't want any further delays of it entering service. Alternatively, Gaddafi's interior design preferences might have aligned with those of Prince Jofri. In any case, the interior, though unconventional in appearance, offered the Colonel all the opulence he could desire, complete with amenities like a jacuzzi and plenty of seating for his all-female bodyguard unit, known as the Revolutionary Nuns or the Amazonian Guard. The A340 eventually transported Gaddafi on multiple trips abroad between 2006 and 2011. Despite speculation that Gaddafi had used the A340 to escape to Venezuela or Zimbabwe during the Libyan Revolution, he remained in Libya until the United Nations imposed a no-fly zone, which effectively severed his last viable escape route. Gaddafi was killed in October 2011.

Gaddafi's bed aboard Afriqyah One.

The repulsive-looking chairs intended for the Colonel's female bodyguards.

Fortunately, the A340 emerged from the Libyan Revolution largely unscathed, in stark contrast to Gaddafi's A300 that was located at the same airport and completely destroyed. Following repairs in France, the Airbus briefly served as a VIP aircraft for the new Libyan government, sporting a fresh livery. However, due to the deteriorating security situation in Libya, the A340 was flown to France for safekeeping in 2014. Subsequently, it remained grounded in France, incurring a daily cost of $1200, until the year 2021 as the aircraft became entangled in various legal disputes. [11] These legal battles included attempts by international companies to impound the aircraft due to outstanding debts owed by Gaddafi. Nevertheless, the French high court ruled that the aircraft enjoyed sovereignty immunity and could not be seized. [11] However, international companies were not the sole entities attempting to seize the A340, as both the governments in Tripoli and Tobruk asserted ownership claims over the aircraft. Ultimately, the internationally recognised government in Tripoli successfully secured ownership of the aircraft and took possession of it in June 2021.

The A340 in its new livery, which undeniably meets the mark. This picture was captured during the aircraft's stay in France from 2014 to 2021.

The history of this A340 is fraught with scandals, from the initial purpose of its construction to its subsequent sale to Gaddafi and its service in Libya. Throughout these years, one constant has persisted: its unattractive interior. The aircraft endured a battle for the airport where it was stationed and faced numerous legal disputes with entities attempting to repossess it, ultimately surviving these challenges. For the first time in its 27-year history, the A340 will take flight with an elected government on board, a departure from its previous role of serving billionaires and a dictator. Despite its turbulent past, one can only hope that the A340 will continue to grace the skies for many more years without encountering further controversies or conflicts.

Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibeh proudly presents the A340 after it returned from France in June 2021, where it had been stranded since 2014 at a cost of $1200 a day.

[2] Libya Conflict: Inside Colonel Gaddafi's Private Jet
[3] Giants Of The Skies - The An-124 In Libyan Service
[4] This Was Gaddafi’s Personal Italian High-Speed Train
[7] How The Playboy Prince Of Brunei Blew Through $14.8 Billion
[8] Billionaire Saudi prince loses UK court battle over Gaddafi jet
[9] Colonel Muammar Gaddafi memoir author: ‘Judge him for yourself’ 
[11] Qaddafi’s former Presidential plane returns to Libya – end of a saga 
Header image by Joan Martorell.