Moammar Qaddafi’s Libya was a miserable place for a business trip.
In 2008, a few years after renouncing its nuclear and chemical weapons program, the desert nation remained a menacing and ugly place, with cratered highways, awful restaurants with no booze, and Qaddafi’s leathery visage everywhere, staring balefully down from billboards. The dreary capital, Tripoli, sat at the edge of the Sahara, in the least barren sliver of a country defined in the West by dictatorship, terrorism, and billions of dollars’ worth of oil.
Goldman Sachs’s Youssef Kabbaj was one of the few that enjoyed the commute. A securities salesman based out of the bank’s London headquarters, Kabbaj found that Libya reminded him of his native Morocco, and he considered the ruins in Tripoli’s old quarter enchanting. The city had a single decent hotel, the Corinthia, a crescent hulk the color of sand, and that year Kabbaj was such a frequent guest that he stored a rack of pressed suits there at all times. With slick black hair, round cheeks, and a mischievous smile, he was fluent in English, French, Arabic, and the language of international finance.
Qaddafi’s peaceful turn had reopened Libya to Western banking for the first time in two decades. Its $60 billion in oil wealth, no longer dammed up by international sanctions, was ready to flood into the market, as directed by the Libyan Investment Authority, Qaddafi’s brand-new sovereign wealth fund. With his North African pedigree, Kabbaj had been one of the first at Goldman to spot the opportunity. The LIA had become his biggest client, transforming him in a year from rookie salesman into possibly the No. 1 rainmaker at the world’s most profitable investment bank. He was 31 years old.