The Qantas freighter QF71 that took off from Perth Airport on November 3 last year bound for London would not have attracted any special attention, despite the fact that it was carrying 1.2 tonnes of gold bullion, then worth about US$28 million (Dh102.8m).
Perth, in Western Australia, is home to Australia's Gold Corporation Mint, where bullion is processed and turned into standard 12.5kg bricks. From there, the ingots are shipped daily around the globe to vaults in America, Europe and Asia, evidence of the world's apparently insatiable appetite for the precious metal. But what made this shipment unusual was that it was the first of 15 such cargoes, of varying quantities and values, which over the next seven months were eventually unloaded mainly in London. Smaller amounts were also delivered to Dubai and Zurich.
The total value of the bullion exported in these operations approached $430m at current market prices, and it weighed 10.4 tonnes. The other distinguishing factor was the identity of the recipients, or "consignees" as they are known. According to documentation seen by The National, they were all companies associated with the al Gosaibi family of Saudi Arabia. The al Gosaibis have since fallen out spectacularly with their partner, Maan al Sanea of Saad Group, in the biggest corporate scandal to hit the Middle East, leaving about 120 banks worldwide with debts estimated at up to $22 billion and a decreasing likelihood of getting their money back.
In a global hunt for assets to offset their losses, the banks have looked into every corner of the Al Gosaibi trading empire and the Saad Group controlled by Mr al Sanea. A small army of lawyers, forensic accountants and corporate investigators has been hired to track down assets over which the banks believe they have claim. They have turned up property, financial investments, relatively small amounts of cash and other baubles of the wealthy, such as aircraft leases. There was even a private zoo. But the most curious discovery so far is the Gosaibi gold.
Perhaps the most remarkable fact about the shipments is that although there are detailed and specific records of them having taken place, neither party in the al Gosaibi-al Sanea confrontation seems to lay any claim to their ownership. Each side denies it was responsible for the shipments. Despite being regularly ranked among the world's billionaires, neither the family's controlling partnership, Ahmad Hamad Al Gosaibi and Brothers, nor Mr Al Sanea's Saad Group has any previous known involvement in the bullion business.
The first shipment took place just as the world appeared on the verge of financial meltdown last November. They continued until May, when the crisis in the two Saudi families exploded into the public domain after they failed to make repayments on loans associated with their banking businesses in Bahrain. The shipments reached a peak in late February and early March, just as tensions within the al Gosaibi family intensified after the death of Sulaiman, the family patriarch and chairman, on February 22.
One shipping document shows that, the following day, "a shipment of 21,500 fine ounces of large 12.5kg gold bars, minimum 99.5 per cent purity" was sent from AGR Matthey, a well known Australian bullion dealer, from Perth Airport via Singapore to London's Heathrow. From there, the bullion was moved to the vaults of Standard Bank of South Africa, located in the London offices of JPMorgan Chase at 60 Victoria Embankment, Blackfriars, London.
The shipment was marked "London good delivery", meaning it met the internationally recognised standards for bullion delivery and could be deposited alongside bullion of the same quality. The Standard Bank account in which it was deposited was in the name of Al Gosaibi Trading Services, one of the companies owned by the al Gosaibi family. But financing such a transaction - the gold was worth about $20m - is a complicated process.
The usual procedure is for the consignee to arrange a letter of credit with the supplier, which is then guaranteed by a bank. In this case, the letter of credit bears the reference number "Awal 157". Awal is the Bahraini bank owned by Mr al Sanea, but which is now in the administration of the Bahrain Central Bank. Ten of the 15 shipping documents bear the Awal reference, while the rest have reference to "TIBC", The International Banking Corporation, the al Gosaibis' Bahraini bank which is similarly in administration.
It is common practice in the trade finance business for those letters of credit to be separately financed by a third party, such as an international bank. This is what happened with the Gosaibi gold. The amounts paid for the bullion were drawn down from lending facilities with these global banks but those borrowings have not been repaid, banking sources say. International banks, so far frozen out of the settlement process in Saudi Arabia or offered derisory amounts by the feuding families, are keen to track down the location and ownership of this bullion, to seize and offset against debts owed them. While most of the bullion ended up in London, two shipments went to other locations.
Also on February 23, some 629kg of "London good delivery" were shipped from Perth on Singapore Airlines flight SQ226/SQ490 to Dubai International Airport. The shipment was delivered to the Brinks Global Services facilities at the Dubai Airport Free Zone, marked for the attention of: "Malcolm Clingham, for account of Al Gosaibi Trading Services Ltd." Again, the financing reference was "Awal 158". Attempts to reach Mr Clingham were unsuccessful. An employee of Brinks in Dubai said he left the company about four months ago.
The other non-London shipment took place on April 29, when 689kg of gold left Perth on Singapore Airlines flight SQ226/SQ346 to Zurich in Switzerland. The shipment was marked for delivery to: "UBS AG Zurich, for account Standard Bank PLC." Although no named consignee account was mentioned on the shipping document, the financing reference was "TIBC 438". The final shipment to arrive in London took place on May 6, when 722kg was placed on a Delta Airlines flight DL94 in Salt Lake City, Utah, in the US. This was marked for the Al Gosaibi Trading Services account at Standard Bank at the JPMorgan Chase building in London. The financing reference was "Awal 177".
So while there is plenty of evidence that the gold shipments took place, there is huge uncertainty about who initiated them, who owns the bullion, and even where the gold is now. The company named as the bullion account holder, Al Gosaibi Trading Services (ATS), is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bahrain-based Al Gosaibi Investment Holdings (AIH), based in Bahrain which is in turn owned by three family members. But the management control of ATS and AIH is in dispute.
In a legal filing in New York, John D Potter, a former general manager of Al Gosaibi Investment Holdings, declared that: "Mr al Sanea exercised complete control over the operations and activities of AIH, to the exclusion or virtual exclusion of the other directors and the shareholders." Lawyers for Mr al Sanea, the London firm of Harbottle & Lewis, declined to comment on the gold shipments. But sources close to the Kuwait-born financier have denied he was involved in the transactions.
Creditor banks, which asked to remain anonymous, have told The National that their inquiries to Standard Bank in London have not so far produced any positive indication of ownership of the bullion, or even confirmation that it is still in Standard's vaults. Through its South African head office, a spokesman for Standard Bank said: "Our executives in London are adamant they cannot comment - not even off the record - as this would be a breach of client confidentiality."
Whoever ends up owning the gold from Perth will at least have made some money out of the Saudi confrontation, which has affected the kingdom's economy and stock market, and ravaged the balance sheets of regional and international banks. The gold price has risen by nearly 50 per cent over the past year. The shipment last November, worth some $28m when QF71 took off from Perth, is now valued at $42m - wherever it might be.