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Treasure of the tyrants: amid the avalanche of anger that is starting to sweep away the old order in the Arab world, the hunt is on to recover the billions of dollars dictators and their cronies have plundered from their people.


IT'S NOT CLEAR, EVEN NOW, HOW MUCH TREASURE BEN ALI, but in particular his wife and her avaricious, Mafia-like family, the Trabelsis, catapulted into riches beyond their wildest dreams when Leila married the president in 1992, had amassed by the time they were driven out. By most estimates it ran into at least hundreds of millions of dollars.

That may be relatively modest compared to the billions allegedly plundered by other Arab dictators. But increasingly, a key target of the regime-wrecking avalanche of anger sweeping the Arab world is recovering the fortunes amassed by dictators, their families and business cronies who looted billions of dollars from state assets during their decades in power.

Ben All was feared and disliked for ruling with an iron grip for 23 years, ruthlessly crushing his opponents, throwing Islamists and other dissidents into the regime's dungeons. But the rapacious greed of the extended Trabelsi clan - Leila was one of 11 children - made him, and them, their countrymen's principal hate figures.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak had barely stepped down on ix February after 18 days of street riots than the Swiss government froze all the assets held in the country's banks by him, his wife Suzanne, their two sons and their wives, and their key political allies.

At that time, the new leadership in Cairo had not even got around to asking the Swiss to act. Bern's actions probably had a lot of do with the Swiss seeking to shed their reputation as the favourite repository of dictators' ill-gotten gains.

The days when notorious tyrants like Sese Seko Mobuto of the Congo, General Suharto of Indonesia, 'Papa Doc' Duvalier of Haiti, Idi Amin of Uganda, and Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic could rob their people blind then flee with their loot stashed away in secret Swiss bank accounts, seem to be coming to an end.

Even so, Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based corruption watchdog, estimates that billions in illicit assets were squirrelled out of the Egypt by senior government officials between 2000 and 2008.

Estimates of the Mubarak family's wealth vary wildly, but most of it is held in British and Swiss banks or tied up in real estate in London, New York, Los Angeles and around the Egyptian Red Sea coast resort of Sharm El Sheikh.

Amaney Jamal, a political science professor at Princeton University, observed: "There was a lot of corruption in this regime and a stifling of public resources for personal gain. This is the pattern of other Middle Eastern dictators so their wealth will not be taken during a transition. These leaders plan on this."

However, US officials are more conservative about the fortune amassed by Washington's one time ally. "The corruption in the Mubarak family was not stealing from the budget, it was transforming political capital into private capital," explained Samer Soliman, a professor of political economy at the University of Cairo.

Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Ala'a, were both millionaires and key figures in the business elite that grew around Mubarak's presidency after he succeeded the assassinated Anwar Sadat on 7 October 1981.


Gamal, the youngest at 47, is widely reviled because he was being groomed to take over the presidency. Much of his wealth stemmed from his connections with EFG-Hermes, Egypt's largest private investment bank.

Tracing assets

"The amount of corruption under the Mubarak regime was staggering," observed Ahmed Sakr Ashour, professor of business administration at Alexandria University. "What's been uncovered so far is just the tip of the iceberg."

He said that Egypt's anti-corruption agencies, largely cosmetic anyway, were rendered useless by legislation that made them accountable to the president.

Only cases involving people who had fallen out of favour, or were thrown to the wolves as sacrifical lambs to appease public outrage, were ever given the green light, Ashour said.

But in large part, the inner workings of the rampant corruption in high places remains hidden. It will likely take investigators many months to unravel how Egypt's elite, probably a few dozen families, amassed immense wealth while the vast majority of their countrymen were finally driven by poverty, unemployment and a life of despair to defy the regime's guns to demand an accounting.

Two days after Mubarak's downfall, Egypt's state prosecutors launched corruption investigations against three former government ministers and a business tycoon.

Other ruling families in the Arab world, such as Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and his sons; Queen Rania, wife of King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are also now being accused of corruption and plundering state assets.

As Gaddafi's 42-year regime was crumbling around him in the bloodiest of the waves of uprising in the region so far, Washington froze the US assets of the Great Leader and four of his children sons Self Al Islam, Khamis and Muatassim, and daughter Aisha--on 25 February. The administration of President Barack Obama said it took the action because of a "serious risk" the assets could be "misappropriated by Gaddafi, members of his government, members of his family or his close associates" to shore up the collapsing regime.

Libya's finances

On 2 March, British authorities stopped a cargo ship, the Sloman Provider, carrying $162 million in Libyan currency destined for Gaddafi's regime, escorted it into the English east coast port of Harwich and seized the money.

The cash was part of a Libyan operation to move $1.46 billion in Libyan dinars, produced by a specialist currency printer in northern England, to Tripoli to top up Gaddafi's war chest, as revenue from oil and gas exports was cut off.

No one has yet figured what plunder the Gaddafi family and its cronies may have salted away, but as one of Africa's top oil producers, it is no doubt considerable. It is stashed in safe havens around the globe, much of it in Britain and Italy, the country's former colonial master and a major buyer of Libyan oil and gas.

The British Treasury has set up a special unit to track Gaddafi's assets in Britain, which reportedly include several prestigious office blocks in the city and West End of London.

US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in late February show Libya's sovereign wealth fund, one of the most opaque sovereign wealth funds in the world, has $32 billion in cash held in several American banks, each managing $300-$500 million.

One cable revealed details of a 20 January meeting between the head of the Libyan Investment Authority (LIA), Mohamed Layas, and the US ambassador in Tripoli.

Layas said LIA managed assets of around $70 billion and held stakes in European bluechips such as Italy's UniCredit bank and the UK publishing group Pearson.

Libya's net foreign assets at the central bank and the SWF totalled $152 billion at the end of 2010, according to the cables.

The global drive to throttle Libya's finances, and thus hasten Gaddafi's downfall, was stepped up in early March after the Americans froze Libyan assets, including Tripoli's SWF.

Several European governments followed suit, but some, including Italy, argued that UN and EU orders to freeze the assets of people close to Gaddafi's regime did not apply to the LIA.

Family fortunes

The Gaddafi family, despite the regime's clashes with the British and Italians over the years, such as when Tripoli helped arm the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1970s, became amazingly well connected with the business and political elites in both countries, who were not averse to getting their hands on Libya's plundered petrodollars.

'Gaddafi Inc', as sections of the media refer to the Gaddafi crowd, has big stakes in Italy's ENI oil corporation, Fiat and Finmeccanica, the Italian defence and aerospace giant. It even has a 7.5% holding in the famous Juventus soccer team.

According to various sources, the Gaddafis have salted away large investments in Zimbabwe, Chad, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Although the mercurial Gaddafi, the desert mystic, pursued an ostensibly modest lifestyle, his sons were inclined towards the glitzy and ostentatious, such as forking out $1 million a pop to have rock stars such as Mariah Carey and Beyonce perform at their birthday parties.

Gaddafi's sons carved out financial empires of their own over the years, treating the country like their own personal fiefdom.

Muhammed, the eldest, controlled telecommunications. Hannibal had maritime shipping in his pocket. Saadi ran the Export Free Trade Zone in western Libya. However, British-educated Seif Al Islam, seen by many as Gaddafi's heir apparent, was the one with the foreign connections.


Jordan's queen becomes a target

Queen Rania of Jordan is being targeted amid an attack of unprecedented intensity on the country's once-sacrosanct royal family, with the ultimate aim of bringing down the Hashemite monarchy established by the British after World War I.

In an unprecedented move on 5 February, 36 leaders of the main Bedouin tribes, long the bedrock of support for the Hashemite throne, published an open letter addressed to Abdullah accusing his wife of corruption.

The Hashemites, who were the driving force behind the British-backed Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in World War I, have largely escaped direct challenges to their legitimacy from the Bedouin, the bedrock of their support, or even the Islamist-led opposition because of Jordanians' instinctive loyalty to the throne.

But now the Bedouin have joined the growing clamour for political reform, which at the very least means reducing the power of the monarchy, the stakes have become infinitely greater.

Queen Rania makes a good target because she's from a Palestinian family, the Yasins. The Bedouin, who had lived on the land for centuries before the Hashemites were foisted upon them, fear the Palestinians, denied a state in the West Bank, plan to take over Jordan as a homeland.

An estimated 70% of Jordan's 6.5 million population are Palestinians, many of them refugees, and are resented by the native 'East Bankers'.

The tribal chiefs said in their letter that the queen, who is widely portrayed in gossip magazines as having a gilttering, fairy-tale lifestyle, had created centres of power to serve her own interests and those of her family.

"We call on the king to return to the treasury land and farms given to the Yasin family," the letter demanded. "The land belongs to the Jordanian people." Jordan, the chiefs warned, "will sooner or later face the flood of Tunisia and Egypt due to the suppression of freedoms and looting of public funds."


The Terrible Trabelsis

A family portrait

Leila Trabelsi, second wife of President Zine El Abidine Ben All, and her corrupt family, were probably as much responsible for his downfall as he was through his abuse of power during his 23-year rule.

After Leila married Ben All in 1992, five years after he came to power in a bloodless coup, the Trabelsis embarked on an orgy of corruption during which they accumulated millions of dollars.

Leila and her 10 brothers and sisters presided over a wholesale pillage of Tunisia's economy in which they used their influence to demand stakes in businesses, extort money and grab lucrative concessions in banking, transportation, hotels and tourism, insurance, telephone and real estate sectors.

"Our Tunisian friends tell us the Ben All and Trabelsi families controlled 30% of the Tunisian economy," said Daniel Lebegue, head of Transparency International's French branch.

Leila, the matriarch of the Trabelsi empire, masked her plundering behind a gallery of good works, such as raising funds to fight cancer. But all the while she was also using her influential connections in business and politics to feather the family nest.

According to Catherine Graciet, author of a book on Leila, La Regente de Carthage, Leila's oldest brother, Belhassan, known as the clan chieftain, ruled over the family's Mafia-style rackets.

"They bled the country systematically," observed Graciet's co-author, Nicolas Beau. "There was a climate of fear, so when people from the clan required Tunisians to give up their homes and land, they usually obeyed."

Belhassan presided over a business empire that included Mosaique FM, Tunisia's first private radio station, Karthago Airlines, an air transport company, as well as hotels, media and car dealerships plus a big stake in the Banque de Tunisie. He is married to Zohra Djilani, daughter of Hedi Djilani, president of the Tunisian employers' federation. Belhassan fled.

Leila's family favourite, playboy nephew Imed Trabelsi, said by some unsubstantiated rumours to be her illegitimate son, was arrested.

Leila herself fled with her husband and son to Saudi Arabia after Ben Ali's regime crumbled, as Tunisian authorities sought to freeze family assets before they vanished.
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Author:Blanche, Ed
Publication:The Middle East
Article Type:Cover story
Geographic Code:6LIBY
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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