Page last updated at 11:19 GMT, Saturday, 5 September 2009 12:19 UK

Libya leader's green-tinted spectacle

Dancers perform at a lavish private dance spectacle thrown for African Heads of State by Libyan Leader Col Gaddafi
A cast of dancers, acrobats, actors, and scores of galloping Bedouin horsemen recreated Libya's history

The Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi has been celebrating the 40th anniversary of the military coup which brought him to power in 1969. David Willey, who first visited Libya seven years before Gaddafi took over, witnessed the festivities.

It could stand comparison with any Cecil B DeMille Hollywood production - a lavish one-night seafront spectacle costing millions and ending with an apocalyptic firework display in the steamy heat of an African summer night.

Imagine a monster Bedouin tent, the sort that the nomadic Libyan tribesmen from whom Colonel Gaddafi claims descent call home during their journeys through the unending desert wastes of the Sahara.

The colonel still likes to take a tent with him to stay in when he travels abroad. A sort of home from home. And a useful place for meeting and greeting foreign dignitaries.

The flaps of the plastic and steel mock-up mega-tent opened to reveal a stage larger than that of La Scala opera house in Milan or the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi
The often eccentric, unpredictable leader has come in from the cold

A cast of nearly 1,000 dancers, acrobats, actors on stilts, and scores of galloping white-robed Bedouin horsemen recreated the history of this huge country during a three-hour sound, light and laser extravaganza.

All this against a running backdrop of films of the resistance movement in the early years of the last century against the often brutal Italian colonial occupation, and of the achievements of Colonel Gaddafi's 1969 revolution.

It all ended at 0300 in the morning in a paean of praise for African unity with a voiceover giving a roll-call of all the countries of Africa.

The image of the Lockerbie bomber recently returned on compassionate grounds from a Scottish prison to Libya had also flickered very briefly before our eyes.

What interested me was the size of the audience.

The colonel and his distinguished guests sat on a raised platform to watch the show and we journalists sat in front of them, with a dramatic view of the galloping desert horsemen thundering past.

Political bible

But where were the people?

The streets around had been closed to traffic for hours and only a few thousand had managed to make it through the police security cordon thrown around the whole of central Tripoli to watch the show, magnified on giant TV screens around the park.

Where were the people, I asked myself, whose committees now run this country in an idiosyncratic political system invented by their leader which has dispensed with all the normal trappings of democracy?

His revolutionary political bible, the Little Green Book, with its - to our ears - strange slogans such as "partners not wage workers" featured prominently in the show we had been watching.

Oil, that was the real backdrop to this week's mega-show on the Tripoli waterfront

Actors on stage opened its pages while the slogans were projected on screens.

When I first visited Tripoli seven years before Colonel Gaddafi took over, Libya was officially designated the poorest country in the world, a desert kingdom whose sole national resource was selling for scrap the twisted metal relics of the bitter desert war of the 1940s, the war material abandoned by the Allied and German armies after battling it out back and forth along the shores of North Africa.

Italy's colonial adventure had collapsed with dire results for the local population. There was not a single qualified Libyan doctor when the country first attained independence under King Idriss, later forced into exile by Gaddafi.

Although I was unaware of it at the time, international oil companies had just struck some of the world's largest oil and natural gas reserves here.

It meant unimaginable future oil wealth for this country of endless desert and a tiny population concentrated for the most part along a narrow semi-fertile coastal strip.

The Italian Air Force perform above a military parade in Green Square, Tripoli, Libya
There were arguments over the colour of the vapour trails

Oil, that was the real backdrop to this week's mega-show on the Tripoli waterfront, not the scratchy cinematic record of past colonial indignities I saw projected on the mega-screen.

The sometimes eccentric and unpredictable leader has, as it were, come in from the cold, with Libyans assuming key posts this autumn at the United Nations and taking their place at international negotiating tables.

Now that Colonel Gaddafi has foresworn the nuclear option and become internationally respectable, centre stage are the contracts for the future exploitation of Libya's oil wealth by the powerful foreign companies that alone have the know-how to extract liquid gold from the desert.

Colour spat

You have perhaps to be a bit colour blind to understand what is really going on behind the scenes in Libya today. Let me explain.

Italy, the former colonial power, and Libya, the former colony, have been engaged in a small but telling emotional spat this week over national colours.

The daredevil Italian Air Force close-formation aerobatic team invited to scream overhead during Gaddafi's military anniversary parade trailed the red, white and green national colours of Italy.

The Libyans had insisted that only green vapour trails would be acceptable to local sensitivities. But at the last minute they backed down, and the Italians sprayed the sky red, white and green.

Yet if you look at the official pictures of the flypast on one Libyan website you will see only green vapour trails.

The picture has been doctored to conform with Gaddafi Land's Brave New World which is seen only through the idiosyncratic leader's green-tinted spectacles.

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