NEW YORK // It was hard to imagine how Libya's flamboyant leader, Moammar Qadafi, could upstage the US president, Barack Obama, when the two statesmen performed back-to-back in the UN's assembly hall yesterday. But Mr Obama's long-winded, 40-minute oratory was trumped by the North African leader's rambling rant against global inequalities, which kept diplomats looking at their watches for more than an hour and a half. Well-known for his protracted diatribes, Mr Qadafi, clad in flowing, mud-brown robes, brandished a pocket-size copy of the UN charter as he railed against the oppression poor nations suffer at the hands of the powerful.
Before him, Mr Obama's much-anticipated debut before the UN General Assembly won rounds of applause as he signalled changes to a discredited US foreign policy, urging his audience of some 120 leaders to cease viewing "America with scepticism and distrust". But Mr Qadafi, the self-styled African king, had led Libya for 40 years before making it to the UN's golden pulpit - and used the rare chance of a global spotlight to address a range of radical topics. Among them were worthy criticisms of a global structure that cemented the power of the permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council - the US, Russia, China, France and the UK - in 1945. "The veto is against the charter," complained Mr Qadafi, wielding a copy of the UN rulebook, his untamed, black hair springing from beneath a cap and an Africa-shaped brooch glistening on his breast.
"How can we be happy about the world security if the world is controlled by four or five powers? We are just like the decor ? It should not be called the Security Council, it should be called the Terror Council." But it was perhaps un-statesmanlike to also complain about the jet lag endured from a New York-bound flight, implicate Israelis in the assassination of President John F Kennedy, or levy fines against the assembled guests. Speaking "in the name of 1,000 African kingdoms," he demanded compensation from the West for colonisation of the continent and provided a precise figure: US$7.77 trillion (Dh28.5 trillion), while struggling with his translator ear-piece. "The Africans will call for that and if you don't give that amount - $7.77 trillion - the Africans will go to where you have taken these trillions. They have the right and they will bring the money back," he warned.
The speech took Mr Qadafi's shrinking audience from the ruins of the Second World War through the Suez Crisis and on to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, all the while presenting his trademark analysis on global ills. Leaders following Libya on the speaker list - from France's Nicolas Sarkozy to Sheikh al Thani of Qatar - were likely irritated once their schedules had been thrown into disarray by Mr Qadafi's protracted speech. The Colonel was clearly readying to grandstand when, after Mr Obama had finished speaking on world security threats, he broke protocol by waiting at Libya's assembly-hall seat chatting for 15 minutes with diplomats and leaders from Africa and the Arab world. Despite an earlier etiquette warning from Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the UN, that Mr Qadafi "comport himself" suitably and adhere to the advisory time-limits while in Manhattan, the Libyan maverick was unapologetic.
Once at the marble podium, he thanked Mr Obama, calling one of the world's most powerful men "our son", referring to his African and unconfirmed Muslim heritage in a tone that many Americans will consider patronising. But he warned that the president's term may be only a "glimpse in the dark for the next four or eight years" before coming to an end and "we may go back to square one". His suggestion that Mr Obama remain president indefinitely won scattered applause. Mr Obama's poise and compose throughout a well-scripted speech was in stark contrast to Mr Qadafi, who regularly broke off mid-sentence and flitted between topics while clutching ripped-out notepad leaves daubed in marker pen notes.
And when the Libyan leader was escorted from the podium after one hour and 35 minutes of verbosity, a view of the 192-nation chamber revealed a sea of turquoise, grey and blue seats that had been vacated by weary diplomats and ministers. Mr Qadafi's presence in New York was always going to be controversial, particularly as Libya is now emboldened by holding one of 10 rotating seats on the UN Security Council and chairmanship of the African Union. Libyan diplomat Ali Treki assumed the post of General Assembly president last week, making him the master of ceremonies for the week-long event and able to introduce Mr Qadafi as "the king of kings".
The eccentric leader continues to be pilloried in the media, notably in the wake of controversy over Abdel Basset al Megrahi, who was jailed in Scotland for the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988. The Libyan official's release, on grounds of clemency due to terminal cancer, and jubilant cheering upon his arrival at Tripoli airport last month sparked outrage in the US, home to two thirds of the blast's 270 victims. As Mr Qadafi spoke, relatives of Lockerbie victims rallied outside UN headquarters shouting: "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Qadafi must go!" But critics were drowned out by a radical black American group lauding the "African King". Before he even arrived in Manhattan, the famously eccentric Libyan leader had been turned away from several sites around New York where he hoped to pitch his traditional Bedouin tent and receive guests.
It is only seven months since the Colonel's last controversy, when he publicly lashed Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, saying the octogenarian was "propelled by fibs towards the grave and ? made by Britain and protected by the US" at an Arab summit in Doha. While Mr Qadafi's speech does not break any records, such as Cuban leader Fidel Castro's epic offering of almost four and a half hours in the 1960s, it will likely go down in the UN's ever-growing list of diplomatic debacles. Classic moments include Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe on a desk in 1960; Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez describing George W Bush as "the devil" in 2006; and Ugandan president, Idi Amin, comparing UK prime minister Edward Heath during to Adolf Hitler in 1973.