In the list of the world’s great companies, Unaoil is nowhere to be seen. But for the best part of the past two decades, the family business from Monaco has systematically corrupted the global oil industry, distributing many millions of dollars worth of bribes on behalf of corporate behemoths including Samsung, Rolls-Royce, Halliburton and Australian company Leighton Holdings.
Now a vast cache of leaked emails and documents has confirmed what many suspected about the oil industry, and has laid bare the activities of the world’s super-bagman as it has bought off officials and rigged contracts around the world.
A massive leak of confidential documents has for the first time exposed the true extent of corruption within the oil industry, implicating dozens of leading companies, bureaucrats and politicians in a sophisticated global web of bribery and graft.
After a six-month investigation across two continents, Fairfax Media (publisher of the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and Stuff) and The Huffington Post can reveal that billions of dollars of government contracts were awarded as the direct result of bribes paid on behalf of firms including British icon Rolls-Royce, US giant Halliburton, Australia’s Leighton Holdings and Korean heavyweights Samsung and Hyundai.
The investigation centres on a Monaco company called Unaoil, run by the jet-setting Ahsani clan. Following a coded ad in a French newspaper, a series of clandestine meetings and midnight phone calls led to our reporters obtaining hundreds of thousands of the Ahsanis’ leaked emails and documents.
The trove reveals how they rub shoulders with royalty, party in style, mock anti-corruption agencies and operate a secret network of fixers and middlemen throughout the world’s oil producing nations.
Corruption in oil production – one of the world’s richest industries and one that touches us all through our reliance on petrol – fuels inequality, robs people of their basic needs and causes social unrest in some of the world’s poorest countries. It was among the factors that prompted the Arab Spring.
It can now be revealed how Unaoil carved up portions of the Middle East oil industry for the benefit of western companies between 2002 and 2012.
In part two we will turn to the impoverished former Russian states to reveal the extent of misbehaviour by multinational companies including Halliburton. We will conclude the three-part investigation by showing how corrupt practices have extended deep into Asia and Africa.
The leaked files expose as corrupt two Iraqi oil ministers, a fixer linked to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, senior officials from Libya’s Gaddafi regime, Iranian oil figures, powerful officials in the United Arab Emirates and a Kuwaiti operator known as “the big cheese”.
Western firms involved in Unaoil’s Middle East operation include some of the world’s wealthiest and most respected companies: Rolls-Royce and Petrofac from Britain; US companies FMC Technologies, Cameron and Weatherford; Italian giants Eni and Saipem; German companies MAN Turbo (now know as MAN Diesal & Turbo) and Siemens; Dutch firm SBM Offshore; and Indian giant Larsen & Toubro. They also show the offshore arm of Australian company Leighton Holdings was involved in serious, calculated corruption.
The leaked files reveal that some people in these firms believed they were hiring a genuine lobbyist, and others who knew or suspected they were funding bribery simply turned a blind eye.
But some knew much more. A handful of senior insiders at firms such as Spanish company Tecnicas Reunidas, French firm Technip and drilling giant MI-SWACO, not only actively supported bribery but pocketed their own kickbacks; US defence giant Honeywell and Australia’s Leighton Offshore agreed to hide bribes inside fraudulent contracts in Iraq; a Rolls-Royce manager negotiated a monthly kickback for leaking information from inside the British firm.
Many of those revealed to have been culpable, including the wealthy Ahsani family itself, which runs Unaoil, continue to operate with impunity.
The files expose the betrayal of ordinary people in the Middle East. After Saddam Hussein was toppled, the US declared Iraq’s oil would be managed to benefit the Iraqi people. Today, in part one of the ‘Global Bribe Factory’ expose, that claim is demolished.
THE BRIBE FACTORY
It is the Monaco company that almost perfected the art of corruption.
It is called Unaoil and it is run by members of the Ahsani family – Monaco millionaires who rub shoulders with princes, sheikhs and Europe’s and America’s elite business crowd. At the head are family patriarch Ata Ahsani and his two dashing sons, Cyrus and Saman. Their charities support the arts and children, and Ahsani family members sit on the boards of NGOs with ex-politicians and billionaires. Ten years ago, a spreadsheet showed they had cash, shares and property worth €190 million (NZ$310 million). They are members of the global elite.
How they make their money is simple. Oil-rich countries often suffer poor governance and high levels of corruption. Unaoil’s business plan is to play on the fears of large Western companies that they cannot win contracts without its help.
Its operatives then bribe officials in oil-producing nations to help these clients win government-funded projects. The corrupt officials might rig a tender committee. Or leak inside information. Or ensure a contract is awarded without a competitive tender.
If you believe Ata Ahsani, it’s all above board: “We are not in the business of fixing jobs for people. Our work is basically very basic. What we do is integrate Western technology with local capability,” he said.
Did Unaoil bribe public officials? “The answer is absolutely no”.
But the leaked evidence of their own internal email cache clearly demonstrates that the multimillion-dollar fees Unaoil takes from its clients are funnelled into an industrial scale bribery operation which further entrenches corruption among the powerful few.
Bankers in New York and London have facilitated Unaoil’s money laundering, while the Ahsanis have built a major property investment business in central London. Since 2007, Unaoil has been certified by anti-corruption agency Trace International. This in itself raises serious questions about the worth of such international accreditation.
But for the western companies confronted with questions under anti foreign bribery laws in their own jurisdictions, Unaoil appears to be a reputable and discrete middle-man, giving listed businesses what is known as “plausible deniability”.
Companies approached about their contracts with Unaoil have emphasised they have strong anti-corruption policies, and are committed to investigating their dealings with Unaoil.
After the US-led coalition won the second gulf war, it went to guard the oil ministry – leaving the Baghdad museum undefended to be looted of its treasures.
But they did not save the oil industry from thieves. The Unaoil files reveal that Western companies, in concert with Iraq’s new elite, themselves began a sustained campaign of looting.
Unaoil paid at least US$25 million in bribes via middlemen to secure the support of powerful officials – while complaining internally that they were “assholes, and greedy”.
Between 2004 and 2012, Unaoil corruptly influenced a Who’s Who of the country’s oil industry: the Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq turned education minister Hussain al-Shahristani; Oil Minister Abdul Kareem Luaibi (who was replaced in 2014); the Director General of the South Oil Company, Dhia Jaffar al-Mousawi, who in 2015 became a deputy minister; and top oil official Oday al-Quraishi.
The most senior politicians received multi-million dollar lump sums, while those lower down the food chain were paid lesser amounts. Quraishi, who oversaw Iraq’s most important oil industry expansion project, pocketed a monthly kickback of $US6000 – “$5K for him, and $1k he needs for presents to people within” – along with additional large pay-offs.
The minister, Dr Shahristani, who is now Iraq’s education minister, denied he had been involved in any wrongdoing. Other Iraqi officials did not respond to requests to comment.
Unaoil also bribed senior insiders working for the international oil companies which were contracted by Iraq to manage its oil fields. The leaked files reveal rampant corruption inside Italian oil giant Eni, which ran the tender processes for contractors working on the giant Zubair oil field.
Unaoil’s clients in Iraq included British giant Rolls-Royce, US firms FMC Technologies and Cameron, Italy’s Saipem, German company MAN Turbo, the US listed Weatherford, Dutch company SBM Offshore and Australia’s Leighton Offshore.
“Everything works and progresses on connections, relations with special talent”. So wrote an Iranian fixer, part of Unaoil’s remarkable network of insiders dedicated to paying and pocketing bribes. After the recent relaxing of United Nations, US and European sanctions, this network has become even more valuable.
In 2006, this Unaoil operative complained in emails that one of the company’s clients, UK firm Weir Pumps (now owned by US firm SPX), owed him hundreds of thousands of dollars which he had promised to use in part to sling to others in Iran.
“[It] is the end of Iranian new year here, expectations high, I am short in cash, and about five million pounds of business with Weir [is] in danger… Because I can not fulfill my obligations to my team of Supporters.”
If the money was not forthcoming, he warned, Weir Pumps risked “melting like a piece of ice, day by day.”
“…over half a million dollars of my consultancy fee… I have already spend it for the promotion of their businesses in Iran.”
A separate set of leaked memos from 2006 said Unaoil would pay “10 k/month” to secure the support of the managing director of a firm chaired by a high ranking Iranian official, part owned by an Iranian government entity and overseen by a board with “political influence.”
“MD [managing director]… wants $10k/month. AA [Ata Ahsani of Unaoil] agree to this given his excellent connections.”
Unaoil’s Iranian network – which was also used to assist firms such as ABB, Elliott and Japan’s Yokogawa – extends beyond the oil industry. In 2011, Unaoil helped solve a dispute involving one of its Australian clients by reaching out to “several influential contacts… including the head of the Iranian Police”.
Prior to the recent easing of sanctions, Unaoil used strategies including front companies to avoid the scrutiny of Western officials. It advised its corrupt fixers to not wire funds using US dollars and to use companies “not having the name Iran in it”.
In 2004, when the West began removing sanctions against Libya, and the regime of Colonel Gaddafi started dealing with foreign companies, Unaoil stood ready.
By 2011, its network of corrupt insiders included officials and front men able to influence the dealings of many of Libya’s most important oil and gas agencies.
In late 2008, a Canadian drilling firm, Canuck Completions, told Unaoil it was “curious about … what type of Baksheesh is needed to present to these men in order to get work” in Libya.
Among Unaoil’s corrupt insiders was the powerful Libyan official, Mustafa Zarti, a confidant for the Gaddafi regime. Unaoil’s files describe Zarti as “good friends of President Ghadafi’s [sic] son of Libya and have lot of influence in lobbying the jobs in Libya”. Unaoil agreed to secretly pay Zarti millions of dollars. In return he would use his influence to advantage Unaoil’s clients.
“MZ [Zarti] sits on the board of LFIC [Libyan Foreign Investment Committee] …which controls… Oil fund ($6bn) … He sees his role as us executing and him fixing issues we come across. MZ has agreed to bring all his oil & gas work to us,” a September 2006 Unaoil memo said.
Unaoil’s multinational clients in Libya included Malaysian giant Ranhill, Korean conglomerate ISU and Spanish company Tecnicas Reunidas.
SYRIA AND YEMEN
In Syria, Unaoil turned to a middleman close to the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
In 2008 and 2009, Unaoil promised the man €2.75 million (NZ$4.5 million), who helped its British client Petrofac win contracts from Assad regime petroleum companies. “Strictly confidential” emails from 2008 show this middleman promised to pay others to win these contracts.
But when he was not paid on time, he complained the delays were causing problems with “friends” in Syria.
“It is becoming very unpleasant [sic] for me not delivering as expected,” he wrote to Unaoil in December 2009.
Petrofac is understood to be unaware of Unaoil’s involvement in its Syrian dealings and in response to questions said it “aspires to the highest standards of ethical behaviour”.
In Yemen, Unaoil paid millions to a Swiss account belonging to fixer and businessman Haitham Alaini, the son of the former Yemeni prime minister. In return, Alaini used his contacts in the Yemen to help Unaoil.
KUWAIT AND THE UAE
In Kuwait, Unaoil had on its payroll a powerful official, who they called “the big cheese.”
To direct a contract to Unaoil’s long term client in the Middle East, US firm FMC Technologies, Unaoil wanted a payment of US$2.5 million. It then planned to assign a middleman to handle “the big cheese in Kuwait and to decide what portion… should go to that man”.
In the UAE, Unaoil’s network included a public official with links to the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. The leaked Unaoil files reveal this official had commercial dealings with the Ahsanis who, in return, were seeking the official’s backing in the region. This included an entree to a project funded by the office of “His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed”.
Unaoil corrupted a senior official in a subsidiary of Abu Dhabi’s National Oil company. This insider rigged a tender panel for a Unaoil client, Indian conglomerate Larsen & Toubro.
By Sydney Morning Herald & Huffington Post