But the comedic value of the soccer stint is limited. At a game in Tripoli in 1996, fans booed a referee’s call that favoured Saadi’s team. A riot ensued. According to The New York Times, between 20 and 50 people were killed, some of them shot by Saadi’s bodyguards.
After soccer, Saadi moved on to Hollywood, where he launched a production company, Natural Selection. Its only films—Isolation and The Experiment—went straight to video. Armed with a reported $100-million bankroll, Saadi attracted a few recognizable names—Mickey Rourke, Adrien Brody, Forest Whitaker—to film projects that quickly vanished into obscurity.
Saadi was torn between his playboy pursuits and his sense of destiny. When the sun came up after a long night of courting strippers in Paris, shooting impalas in Tanzania, or crashing his yacht in Sardinia, he still desperately wanted to be viewed as a leader.
As Saadi reached his 30s, his father was making over the image of Libya, and himself, from an outlaw that sponsored terrorism to a viable international partner.
After decades of isolation, the country did not have the modern infrastructure expected from an oil-rich nation. That pent-up demand was unleashed with the lifting of Western economic sanctions in a series of steps from 2004 to 2006. Libya went on a shopping spree. Through the magic of diplomacy, the Gadhafis were transformed from pariahs into valuable customers for some of the world’s biggest firms. Prime Minister Paul Martin headed a trade delegation to Libya in 2004; another followed under the Harper Conservative government in 2008.
SNC was only one of the Canadian companies plunging into Libya. Petro-Canada bought a $75-million stake in an oil concern in the country in 2001, and then barrelled ahead in 2002 with a $3.2-billion deal for Veba Oil, an energy firm with significant Libyan assets. In 2008 Petro-Canada announced plans to double its Libyan output via a joint venture with the state oil company. The partners went 50/50 on a $7-billion (U.S.) development program. The Canadian firm won participation in the project over European giants such as Italy’s Eni SpA and France’s Total SA, which were also expanding operations in Libya.
SNC already had a foothold in the country, thanks to Ben Aïssa’s landing the $230-million water project in 1995, and during the gold-rush atmosphere of easing sanctions the company exerted itself to win favour. Some efforts reeked of obsequiousness. Ben Aïssa persuaded SNC to sponsor a 2005 exhibition of Saif Gadhafi’s paintings in Montreal, a show panned by critics at its various stops as “lurid,” “kitschy” and “a triumph of banality.” SNC also sponsored Al-Ittihad, a soccer club in Tripoli, in a deal that saw Saadi on the field with “SNC-Lavalin” emblazoned across his chest.
Gary Peters, who was a bodyguard to Saadi in Canada, has claimed that SNC also picked up a portion of the massive tab when Saadi, then in his film producer period, showed up at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2008 and 2009. One account described Saadi holding court from the couches of the Panorama Lounge, a rooftop bar in Toronto’s posh Yorkville, while enjoying champagne, Beluga caviar and a private concert by 50 Cent. SNC executive Stéphane Roy was among the guests on that evening, Peters says.
Some of SNC’s efforts to woo the Gadhafis were more low-key. Saadi reportedly took English-language classes—under the protection of guards paid for by SNC—for a few months at the company’s offices in Toronto, meanwhile living in a $1.55-million (Canadian) penthouse he purchased in May, 2008. Property records show that the person who looked after the condominium fees and related issues was a Geneva-based lawyer, Roland Kaufmann. According to Peters, Kaufmann served as a financial adviser to Gadhafi. But the details of the condo purchase are difficult to verify because Kaufmann referred questions to a criminal defence lawyer, who declined to comment.
Peters claims that SNC was also giving cash payments to Saadi during this period. But the allegation raises a question: How exactly did SNC win Saadi’s trust? As the darling son of a dictator who used Libya’s overstuffed treasury as a private bank account, Saadi was never strapped for cash. Lavish parties, moose-hunting trips and soccer-team sponsorship were nice gestures, but Saadi could not have been easily impressed by mere spending.