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MAY 5, 2004

Why Formula 1 might go to Libya

Libyan leader Colonel Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi was rumoured to be planning to visit the recent Grand Prix in Bahrain but instead he sent his Prime Minister Shukri Mohammed Ghanem.

His presence, not unnaturally, has led to speculation that Libya might be interested in funding a Grand Prix as part of its plans to rebuild relations with the West. Qadhafi has been seen as an extremist since the 1970s when he began supporting terrorist movements. The country was linked with the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 and this led to United Nations sanctions against Libya in 1992 although these were suspended in 1999 after Libya handed over two suspects for trial as part of an effort to end the country's international isolation.

In recent months Qadhafi has managed to get sanctions against Libya lifted and is in the process of trying to liberalise the country's economy in order to improve oil output. One of the areas in which he wishes to build is tourism. It boasts some of the most spectacular ancient Roman remains and has 1100 miles of Mediterranean coastline, compared to neighbour Tunisia's 700 miles. Tunisia now pulls in more than five million tourists a year and generates more than $2bn a year in revenues. Libya earns almost nothing from tourism, despite having a coastal strip of land which is well suited for the industry. British Aerospace is already negotiating to help Libya upgrade its airports and may also be talking about deals to sell planes for the national airline. There are also plans for the development of hotels, marinas and golf courses. The country is also well-advanced in its plan to rebuild the railway system which was dismantled in the 1960s. The plans include lines which will link the country with Egypt in the east and Tunisia in the west. There will be a second line south to the town of Sabha, with the ultimate aim being to link the country to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa.

Libya and Tunisia have put in a joint bid to hold the 2010 soccer World Cup.

The country does have a tradition in motor racing. The first races took place in 1925 on a racing circuit at Mellaha, near Tripoli. A new track was built by the Italians in 1933 and the Tripoli Grand Prix became a major international event until 1940. Since then motor racing has not returned although there have been stages of the Paris-Dakar Rally on Libyan soil.