The Gaddafi family could have billions of dollars of funds hidden in secret bank accounts in Dubai, south-east Asia and the Persian Gulf, much of it likely to have come from Libya's vast oil revenues, according to analysis by leading Middle East experts.
Professor Tim Niblock, a specialist in Middle Eastern politics at the University of Exeter, has identified a gap of several billion dollars a year between the amount Libya makes from its oil reserves and government spending – a shortfall he expects has contributed greatly to the wealth of Muammar Gaddafi and his nine children.
"It is very, very difficult to work out with any degree of certainty just how much they have because the ruling elite hides it in all sorts of places," said Niblock, who is also vice president of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES). "But at the very least it would be several billion dollars, in whatever form and it could potentially be a lot higher although I wouldn't want to predict just how much it might be."
Alistair Newton, senior political analyst at Nomura, the Japanese bank and president of BRISMES, agreed that it was difficult to establish the extent of the Gaddafis' wealth but said he "would be surprised if it didn't run into billions".
Where the Gaddafis have hidden their vast funds is anybody's guess, although Niblockexpects that most of it is "in bank accounts and liquid assets in Dubai, the Gulf and south-east Asia" rather than in relatively transparent countries such as the UK, where the Libyan state has invested in London properties and in companies such as Pearson Group, owner of the Financial Times.
In addition to squirrelling away much of their income, the Gaddafis have spent fortunes over the years propping up various African regimes, with Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, widely acknowledged to be one of the recipients, Niblock said.
In the 1990s Gaddafi is thought to have given money to the Zaghawan tribe in Darfur, "and I suspect some of them are among the African mercenaries fighting the civilians in Libya",Niblock added.
Libya's breakneck growth has enabled the country to build up myriad investments overseas. In addition to the Gaddafis' private holdings, the state is thought to have invested close to £61.8bn in assets across the globe.
Their investments in the UK include an eight-bedroom home in Hampstead, north London, with a swimming pool and suede-lined cinema room. Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Libyan leader's second son, bought it in 2009 for £10m.
Most of the state's investments are made by the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), a "sovereign wealth fund" set up in 2006 to spend the country's oil money, which has an estimated $70bn of assets. LIA bought 3% of Pearson last year for £224m, making it one of the group's biggest shareholders, and had a 0.02% stake in RBS, although this was recently sold.
Its UK property investments include Portman House, a 146,550 sq ft retail complex in Oxford Street, London, which houses retailers such as Boots and New Look, and an office at 14Cornhill, opposite the Bank of England in the City.
Aside from the Hampstead home, which is not primarily an investment, the only two direct investment projects that the Gaddafi family are known to be involved with both involve water.
In 2009, when Silvio Berlusconi hosted the summit of G8 leading economies, he invited the Libyan leader as a special guest. Speeding towards the earthquake-stricken city of L'Aquila, which Berlusconi had chosen as the venue, Gaddafi's motor cavalcade stopped in a remote town by a river at the bottom of a deep gorge.
Not many people find their way to Antrodoco, let alone a "Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution". Such was the welcome he received that shortly afterwards a Libyan delegation returned to the town to announce that the colonel wanted to plough money into it.
Agreement was reached on a complex involving a luxury spa hotel and water bottling plant. Last September, Antrodocoís mayor, Maurizio Faina, said the €15m (£12.7m) scheme was "firming up".
Whether it survives the current turmoil in Libya, however, remains to be seen. A similar question mark hangs over the established, if struggling, spa town of Fiuggi, south of Romewhere pope Boniface VIII, among others, took the waters. In January, the Corriere della Sera reported that Gaddafi's family had formalised a proposal to sink €250m (£211m) into a conference centre with an airstrip and a complex that, once again, involved a spa and a water bottling plant.
The paper said the deal was being brokered, not through Libyan channels, but by the Italo-Iraqi chamber of commerce. Fiuggi's mayor, along with his counterpart from Antrodoco, was a guest at a party thrown by Silvio Berlusconi in honour of the Libyan leader when he visitedRome last September.
Gaddafi and Berlusconi have a famously warm personal relationship. Less well-known, however, is the fact that Berlusconi is in business with one of the Libyan state's investment vehicles.
In June 2009, a Dutch-registered firm controlled by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company, took a 10% stake in Quinta Communications, a Paris-based film production and distribution company. Quinta Communications was founded back in 1990 by Berlusconi in partnership with Tarak Ben Ammar, the nephew of the late Tunisian leader, HabibBourguiba.
The Italian prime minister has a 22% interest in the company through a Luxembourg-registered subsidiary of Fininvest, the firm at the heart of his sprawling business empire. Last September, the Libyans put a director on the board of Quinta Communications to sit alongside Berlusconiís representatives.
Libyan investors already hold significant interests in several strategic Italian enterprises. They reportedly own around one per cent of Italy's biggest oil company, Eni; the LIA has an acknowledged 2% interest in the aerospace and defence group, Finmeccanica; Lafico is thought to retain more than 2% of Fiat and almost 15% of a quoted telecommunications company, Retelit.
The Libyans also own 22% of the capital of a textile firm, Olcese. Perhaps their best-known investment is a 7.5% stake in the Serie A side Juventus. But undoubtedly the most controversial is another 7.5 per cent interest in Italyís largest bank, Unicredit.
Last September, the bank's chief executive, Alessandro Profumo, walked out after a row over his willingness to let the Libyans build up that stake. The Northern League, Berlusconi's key allies in Italy's rightwing government, was known to be particularly queasy about the emergence of such a powerful Libyan presence.
Experts say if Gaddafi is overthrown, the investments made by Libya's state funds would probably be unaffected, since a new government would have more pressing matters to attend to, and any sudden movements could damage their reputation.
However, it is thought more likely that a new regime in Libya could look to freeze the assets of the Gaddafi family, as the new government in Egypt did with the assets of deposed HosniMubarak and his family. Since most of these are held in liquid form – and in country's outside Europe and the US – this would have no significant ramifications for business, they argue.
About 150 British companies have established a presence in Libya since the US and Europe lifted economic sanctions in 2004, after the country renounced terrorism, ceased its nuclear weapons programme and handed over two suspects in the Lockerbie bombing case.
The most high profile have been the oil companies, keen to tap Libya's vast reserves of fossil fuels. In a deal brokered in 2007 by Tony Blair, BP signed a £560m exploration agreement allowing it to search for oil and gas, offshore and onshore, in a joint venture with the Libya Investment Corporation. Shell is also exploring for oil in Libya as western companies seek to capitalise on a country with the largest oil reserves in Africa and substantial supplies of gas.
High street retailers such as Marks & Spencer, Next, Monsoon and Accessorize have also set up in the country to serve the growing middle-class population, as oil revenues have "trickled down" into the broader Libyan population.
Companies such as AMEC, an engineering firm, and Biwater, a waste treatment company, have supplied services to Libya, which is using its oil revenues to reshape the country through an infrastructure spending spree that will cost about £310bn over the next decade.
British exports to Libya have soared to about £930m in recent years, while the business momentum in post-sanctions Libya is so great that the economy managed to grow by about 5% last year, while much of the rest of the world struggled.
Many British and foreign companies – including M&S, BP and Shell – are evacuating staff from Libya and it could be some time before they return. Tom Bawden
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011