In 2008 Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi was riding high. Five thousand young Libyans, evidently besotted by the second child of their dictator, took to the streets wearing orange t-shirts and shouted: “We need you to build the future of Libya.” That same year Esquire Magazine ranked him the 36th most important person in the 21st century. He has a PhD from the London School of Economics and he was working with an American consulting firm to help open Libya to Western investment. Most intriguingly, he ran his own architecture firm and he has worked to attract Western architects to projects in his country. Not that they needed much encouragement. As one architect told Amanda Baillieu at BD Online, Libyan commissions helped his firm ride out the recession. When Baillieu asked him about doing business with one of the Arab world’s most isolated and repressive regimes, “Without batting an eyelid he said: “‘We feel fine. They (the Libyan regime) don’t interfere and they pay on time.'”
For all his European connections and entrepreneurial spirit, Seif Qaddafi has never strayed far from the family business, despotism, partly because he’s the only offspring of Muammar Qaddafi who isn’t a feckless moron. Yesterday, with government buildings in Tripoli and Benghazi in flames, over 220 protesters dead, and police running for cover, Seif Qaddafi appeared on national television in the middle of the night to scold his countrymen for rebelling against his father’s rule. The protesters responded this morning by wrapping their fists in bicycle chains and taking to the streets.
With Libya unraveling, Feilden Clegg Bradley was the first British architecture firm to announce they were pulling up stakes and leaving the country. Their departure begs the question of whether they should have done business with the autocratic regime in the first place. Baillieu points out that Libyans have the same rights to well-designed, responsibly constructed buildings as anyone else, but an estimated one-third of the country lives below the poverty line in an oil-rich state. Seif Qaddafi gave cover to Western architects working there because he had been trained as an architect in Vienna and has been positioned as a symbol of reform.
The ethical issues surrounding working for autocratic regimes are complicated. Most money is dirty if you go back far enough. But recent events in North Africa and the Middle East reveal the tenuousness of these governments and how vulnerable Western firms are to political blowback. So far there are no impending revolts in the United Arab Emerates or Saudi Arabia, the two largest sources of architectural commissions in the Arab world, but any architect doing business there would have to be watching events in Tripoli and Manama very closely. Oil companies are used to running for cover when things get dicey in the region, only to return when the next strong man reasserts order. The social contract for architects is different, however. What do they do when they learn that Seif Qaddafi isn’t one of them?