x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Billions missing amid much talk and little action

For all their differences, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi shared a resolve to rule their countries with iron hands.

For all their differences, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi shared a resolve to rule their countries with iron hands.

They and their entourages also had a common desire to accumulate great personal wealth, using plundered state funds to feather their nests at home and, especially, in far-off lands.

Exactly what the three rulers and their inner circles channelled abroad is open to speculation.

Vast sums have been touted. Qaddafi, the former Libyan president driven from office and assassinated after 42 years in power, and his family and close associates have been reported on some estimates to have held assets worth US$80 billion abroad.

The family fortune of the former Egyptian leader, Mr Mubarak, 85 and apparently in serious ill health as he is retried for murder and corruption, was said by the US television network ABC at the time of his 2011 resignation to amount to $70bn. Tunisia's interim president, Moncef Marzouki, has said the Ben Ali regime embezzled $15bn to $20bn during his 23-year rule.

Tracking down the assets is difficult enough but even that has so far proved a simpler matter than returning them to the administrations trying to rebuild the Arab Spring nations.

The UK newspaper The Guardian, reported in March the Mubarak family still owned assets in the British Virgin Islands despite calls by financial authorities in the Caribbean territory for them to be frozen.

The paper said the discovery of funds, including one that had paid the former president's second son, Gamal, $800,000 a year since 2002, cast doubt on British commitment to the assets recovery process.

Six months earlier, the BBC's Arabic service found in an investigation former members of the ousted regime retained luxury homes in the Chelsea and Knightsbridge areas of central London. One member of the Mubarak inner circle was said to have been able to set up a company even though she was the wife of a minister convicted of corruption and was identified in an official UK sanctions list among Egyptians linked to misappropriated assets.

The ABC figure of $70bn was said to include $17bn held by Mr Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for nearly 30 years, $10bn by Gamal and $40bn by other members of the family. Gamal and his elder brother, Alaa, are on trial with their father, accused of complicity in the killing of protesters during the Egyptian uprising and making corrupt gains, including the proceeds of exporting natural gas to Israel at knockdown prices.

Mr Mubarak and his sons reportedly own property in Los Angeles and New York as well as the UK and have huge deposits in a raft of bank accounts and offshore funds.

Egypt asked western governments within days of the president's resignation to freeze suspect funds and property. Swiss authorities, with long experience of dealing with the financial fallout of dramatic regime change, were the quickest to react, freezing assets within half an hour of receiving the request. Britain took a lot longer - 37 days - and another UK newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph, claimed Mr Mubarak had already done his best before leaving power to conceal his overseas fortune. "We think their financial advisers have moved some of the money around. If he had real money in Zurich, it may be gone by now," a western intelligence source was quoted as saying.

The South Africa media disclosed this month Libyan investigators had located gold, diamonds and cash valued at $1bn in four banks and security companies.

Several reports have linked the deposits to the frequent presence in South Africa of Bashir Saleh, who became known as "Gaddafi's banker" for his role in managing the dictator's financial affairs.

Mr Saleh is described on the international police organisation Interpol's website as wanted by the Libyan judicial authorities for embezzlement and abuse of power.

The South African connection adds another piece to a global jigsaw revealing scattered networks of asset management, with offshore companies and proxy registration often used to conceal origin.

Ben Ali, jailed for life in his absence for incitement to murder, took refuge with his family in Saudi Arabia after the so-called Jasmine Revolution ended his 23-year presidency. Interpol confirms it has issued a global alert seeking his arrest and detention, along with six relatives, on charges of "taking money out of the nation illegally and illegally acquiring real estate and other assets abroad".

Ben Ali's wife, Leila, sentenced in absentia to 35 years in jail for theft and unlawful possession of cash and jewellery, is alleged to have taken 1.5 tonnes of gold from the Tunisian central bank before her family fled to Jeddah.

In the eyes of Ana Gomes, a Portuguese politician prominent in the EU's campaign to restore "stolen billions" to Arab Spring countries, no one should be surprised at the extent of misappropriation by corrupt heads of state.

"It's the name of the game for all dictators and autocrat rulers - and also for some democratic rulers," she said, defining the phenomenon as "organised crime in power".