The announcement by Swaziland's foreign ministry that the kingdom will establish formal diplomatic relations with Libya has heightened speculation that King Mswati III is seeking a new source of development aid and business investment to replace the United States.
"I don't see why our relationship with Libya should impact on some other countries we have diplomatic ties with," demurred Foreign Affairs Minister Abednego Ntshangase to the Times of Swaziland.
But palace sources told IRIN that the leadership of the last Southern African nation to be ruled by an unelected government is growing weary of United States insistence on democratic reform as a condition to developmental assistance and trade benefits.
"We are not fools in that we do not fail to see that at the end of the day they want our king as a figurehead for a government run by political parties," said a senior prince who serves on the Swaziland National Council Standing Committee, Mswati's hand-picked advisors.
"The palace is in a bind," said a Western diplomat stationed in Mbabane. "Investment is wanted to create jobs and improve the economy, thereby relieving pressure for democratic change, but US assistance comes with a directive toward just such democratic change."
Libyan aid promised by Muammar Gaddafi at the conclusion of his four-day state visit this week also has strings attached. But Gaddafi, who has not permitted an election in his country for 30 years, will not affect Mswati's hold on power.
At a state banquet held in his honour, Gaddafi repeatedly referred to Mswati, beaming at his side, as his son. He spoke of a single African political entity, headed by one president, and united by a common foreign policy to be enforced by a communal army.
A few days before, at the launch of the African Union in Durban, South Africa, Swaziland supported Libya's bid to make Tripoli the union's headquarters.
Officials with Gaddafi's 400-person entourage said that upon the signing of bilateral agreements Libya would send developmental aid. However, the amount of aid was unspecified. Gaddafi also said Libyan business people would begin setting up operations in the kingdom.
One cautionary voice was raised by Times of Swaziland's Sunday editor Vusie Ginindza. "If the king wishes to have a friendship with Gaddafi, that is fine, but what business do we have with Libya, apart from the obvious fact that we are opening ourselves to callous patronage and manipulation by a self-styled, self-aggrandising showman whose paramount obsession is to conquer and rule Africa by pick-pocketing emotional votes and support from nations that, like us, are considered less significant on the continent."
But Ginindza's is the only Swazi voice to publicly criticise Gaddafi. Most Swazis are well aware that when King Mswati disappeared from view for over a month last year, and rumours were rife about a poisoning plot, it was Gaddafi who flew in a delegation of medical experts to treat Mswati - for what would later be disclosed was a bout of gastritis.
Minister Ntshangase's assurances aside, Swaziland's attempt to curry favour with two powerful and implacable enemies is risky.
Or as the Western diplomat put it: "Swazi leadership likes to believe these are still the Cold War days of the Non-Aligned Movement. That 'movement' allowed Third World countries to claim neutrality between the democratic West and the communist East, sometimes playing one off the other. Swaziland wants to believe that because it considers itself 'neutral', it can be allied with anyone. But the United States demands that its allies align themselves in the War on Terrorism against terrorist states."
Libya is listed by the US State Department as a nation that sponsors terrorism.
"The cornerstone of Swaziland's foreign policy is non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations," former foreign minister Albert Shabangu told IRIN. By observing this policy, Swazi leadership expects non-interference to be reciprocated.
Palace sources said calls for political reform from the United States were seen as unwarranted interference.
In the run up to the release of a palace-authored constitution, that will perpetuate a ban on opposition politics and ensure that no competition will challenge royal rule, U.S. Ambassador James McGee this month said that "the aspirations and basic rights of all Swazi citizens must be guaranteed".
Responding to palace assertions that Swazis live by their traditions, and an absolute monarchy is the foundation of Swazi tradition, McGee, said: "While the maintenance of a people's customs and traditions is often admirable, they should be modified or changed when they impeded the natural aspirations of the people for liberty and freedom."
No diplomat had ever been so forthright in reminding Swazi officials of a need to conform to international norms of representational government. This week the American Federation of Labour-Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO), said it would challenge Swaziland's participation in the African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) on the basis of human and workers' rights violations.
The palace is livid, because the AFL-CIO is aligned with the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), whose Secretary-General, Jan Sithole, is considered the leader of the pro-democracy movement in the kingdom.
"We demand a real constitution. King Mswati should remain as an honoured national symbol within a democratic government," Sithole told IRIN.
Last year, the AFL-CIO threatened economic sanctions against Swaziland over a royal decree aimed at limiting the operations of labour unions. Mswati later nullified the decree.
The year before, the United States temporarily dropped Swaziland from its list of nations enjoying trade benefits because of an anti-labour Industrial Relations Act. Benefits were restored once the act was revised, but tens of millions of dollars in foreign direct investment were lost.
AGOA has brought investment into the kingdom that has lowered unemployment from 45 percent to 40 percent in six months. Foreign direct investment from companies seeking duty-free access to American markets through AGOA is at an all-time high. Swaziland road, rail and industrial park infrastructure has been rehabilitated to accommodate this investment.
But the palace weighs these benefits against U.S. demands for democratic reform that leadership finds "unSwazi". Libya may therefore be preferred as an economic substitute for the United States.