COLLABORATION

Pandora Papers reporting from the Middle East and North Africa

ICIJ’s partners in the region investigated the offshore dealings of government officials, contracts, royals, business tycoons and more.

Since October, journalists across the Middle East and North Africa have published stories based on a trove of nearly 12 million leaked documents exposing the shadowy offshore financial system that allows the wealthy and powerful to enrich themselves, often at the public’s expense.

Those documents, which come from a group of 14 offshore services providers with offices all over the world, from Samoa to South Dakota, are the foundation of the Pandora Papers, an investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a global network of reporting partners.

The investigation highlights the rise of the United Arab Emirates as a major offshore center in the financial world. Five of the firms at the heart of the Pandora Papers have offices in Dubai.

The Pandora Papers is ICIJ’s biggest collaboration ever, with more than 600 journalists from 117 countries participating. It is also one of the largest-ever collaborations of Middle Eastern journalists, with over 25 reporters from around the region contributing to the project.

Here are some Pandora Papers highlights from ICIJ’s partners in the Middle East and North Africa.

Algeria

Algerian news organization Twala reported on Farid Bedjaoui, the nephew of a former government minister, who has held millions of dollars in assets out of reach of authorities in Algeria and Italy, in trusts based in New Zealand and shell companies registered in his brother’s name.

Bedjaoui was previously named in the Panama Papers investigation, which uncovered that he had used a cluster of offshore shell companies, many created by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, to facilitate some $275 million in bribes between the Algerian government and an Italian energy company to win lucrative pipeline contracts.

Bedjaoui, who earned the nickname “Mr. 3 Percent” for the cut he allegedly took for himself, was acquitted of criminal charges in Italy in 2020, but the Italian energy company — which was also acquitted of criminal charges — settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission for $24.5 million.

Egypt

In Egypt, the reporting network Arabic Reporters for Investigative Journalism found that oil tycoon Magdy Rasikh’s company, Fleet Energy, received approval to import natural gas into the country and supply it to homes and businesses — despite the fact that Rasikh had been convicted in absentia on charges that he and a former government minister had colluded to misuse public funds.

Israel

Israeli media center Shomrim reported on billionaire film producer Arnon Milchan’s holdings in the British Virgin Islands. Milchan, who was connected to fraud charges filed against former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is the beneficial owner of offshore companies that purchased luxury real estate in New York and Malibu and hold hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of art and antiquities.

Shomrim also uncovered documents indicating that embattled mining tycoon Beny Steinmetz’s family sought to move more than $1 billion from funds in Liechtenstein to the Cook Islands and reported on three brothers who used companies registered in the British Virgin Islands to win government contracts in Ghana.

Kuwait

ARIJ also reported on the sons of a late Kuwaiti Emir, who own “one of the largest economic empires in Kuwait, the Gulf, and perhaps even the Middle East,” despite a longstanding tradition that the ruling family does not engage in private business.

Lebanon

Daraj Media, another multinational Arabic reporting network, investigated Lebanese banker and former government minister Marwan Kheireddine, who set up companies in the British Virgin Islands at a time when a financial collapse wiped out the savings of many Lebanese citizens like Wafaa bu Hamdan, a 57-year-old widow who told Daraj she lost the equivalent of $60,000.

Daraj also reported on a wealthy Egyptian family with millions of dollars tied up in offshore accounts and Lebanese businessmen named in the Pandora Papers who have been accused of helping to finance Hezbollah.

Morocco

Moroccan news outlet Le Desk found that Lalla Hasnaa, the sister of King Mohammed VI, used a company based in the British Virgin Islands, Oumaila Limited, to own a house in London’s chic Kensington district. She sold the house for over $10 million in late 2020, and it is unknown whether any of that money was repatriated to Morocco

Le Desk also reported on Hugo Yassir Zenagui, a former government minister who used his French passport to set up a company in the Seychelles, and Faïçal Mekouar, the managing partner of international accounting firm Grant Thornton’s Moroccan branch. Mekouar created a company whose shares were owned by a Panamanian foundation, and that foundation paid dividends to Mekouar’s personal account in Spain

Qatar

BBC News Arabic reported on the ruling Al-Thani family of Qatar, who used offshore companies to buy two of the most expensive houses in the U.K. in a deal that allowed them to avoid over $25 million in “stamp duty,” a tax charged by the government on documents that legally record certain transactions.

Saudi Arabia

ARIJ uncovered that officers from the Saudi Ministry of Defense used an offshore company to buy weapons, including white phosphorus mortar shells, from a Serbian organization. Photo and video evidence confirms that some of that weaponry found its way into the hands of ISIS in Yemen.

Tunisia

In Tunisia, the independent media and design collective Inkyfada investigated nine of the key Tunisians named in the Pandora Papers — including Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Inkyfada found that Trabelsi, who has been in exile since a revolution in 2011, was the sole shareholder of three companies established in Panama in 2016. Trabelsi was previously named in ICIJ’s Swiss Leaks investigation.

Yemen

In Yemen, ARIJ found documents showing that a key economic adviser to President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi co-owns a company that conducted oil business in territory controlled by the Houthi rebel group.

See more Pandora Papers reporting from the Middle East and stories from your country here.

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