Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 2 Table of Contents
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February-March 2003 


dossier Dossier: Wafic Said
Syrian-born multi-millionaire

Gary C. Gambill

Wafic Said
British Prime Minister Tony Blair's bid to improve relations with Syria, culminating in Syrian President Bashar Assad's four-day visit to London in December (the first ever by a Syrian head of state), may be driven by geopolitical calculations, but it has been facilitated by a powerful intermediary with close ties to governing elites in London, Damascus and Riyadh.

Although virtually unknown in the United States, Syrian-born multi-millionaire Wafic Said is well-known in London political circles for allegedly receiving kickbacks from British-Saudi arms deals and for his reported connection to an Arab businessman's bribery of a government official. While he claims never to have met Blair personally, there appears to be more of a connection than meets the eye.

Background

Said was born in Damascus to a prominent aristocratic family in 1939. His father, Rida Said, a distinguished eye surgeon who served as minister of education during the French mandate, died when he was a child. Like many other upper-class Syrians, he attended a Jesuit school in neighboring Lebanon. In 1960, he moved to Britain to continue his education and completed a degree in accounting. During his stay there, he became friends with two sons of Saudi Prince Sultan, Khalid (who later commanded Saudi forces during the 1991 Gulf War) and Bandar (now the Saudi ambassador in Washington). In the mid-1960s he took a job at a bank in Geneva and fell in love with a Scottish secretary, Rosemary Buchanan. In 1967, the two moved back to London, where Said purchased several restaurants, and were married two years later.

In 1969, Said moved to Saudi Arabia and established a design and construction consulting firm. Through his contacts with Prince Sultan's family and another Syrian-born businessman, Akram Ojjeh, Said was awarded numerous construction and land development contracts, many of them defense-related, during the oil boom years of the 1970s. Said earned a reputation as a shrewd negotiator and was soon brokering arms purchases for the Saudis, most notably a $200 million deal in 1979 to purchase an American command and control system. In 1981, he received Saudi citizenship. Shortly thereafter, Said's son, Karim Rida, died in a swimming pool accident at the home of Sultan. The Saudi prince felt personally responsible for the tragedy (one of his servants reportedly switched on the automatic pool cover while Karim was still in the water). His desire to make amends would figure decisively in the future of his Syrian friend, who moved to Britain later that year.

The Al-Yamamah Arms Deal

In his capacity as Saudi defense minister, Sultan oversaw the kingdom's annual multi-billion dollar weapons imports. As with most other Saudi government contracts, the negotiation of arms deals was driven less by the quality of (or need for) competing weapons systems, than by the size of the "commission" earned by the royal family. Part of this commission is typically shared with intermediaries on the other side of the negotiating table in order to ensure that they do not later reveal the magnitude of bribe-taking by Saudi princes. US congressional reluctance to authorize sales of certain weapons systems to the Saudis in the 1980s opened the doors to Britain's ailing defense industry.

In 1986, Saudi Arabia and Britain signed the so-called Al-Yamamah arms deal, providing for $31 billion in Saudi purchases of military equipment and services from British Aerospace and other UK defense firms over the next decade. Since the Saudis paid for much of the deal in the form of oil shipments delivered outside of their official OPEC quota, there are no reliable records of how much the Saudis actually paid.

While British and Saudi officials have long maintained that no commissions were paid out for any of the Al-Yamamah contracts, there is considerable evidence to the contrary. In 1999, for example, a former executive of the arms company BMARC, David Trigger, testified in court that his company paid a 15% commission to Fahd al-Athel, an associate of Saudi Prince Muhammad bin Fahd, to persuade the regime to buy $650 million worth of helicopter weapons.[1] The chairman of Thorn EMI, Sir Colin Southgate, admitted to paying a 25% commission on a $40 million contract for bomb fuses sold under Al-Yamamah. Some illicit funds went to British intermediaries. There have been credible allegations in the British media that the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Mark, received 12 million pounds as commission.[2] In 1991, the National Audit Office carried out an inquiry into the Al-Yamamah deal, but the report was suppressed by Bob Sheldon, the Labour chairman of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, and his Tory deputy.

Said's precise role in the Al-Yamamah scandal has been the subject of much dispute, but others involved in the arms deal say he was a central player. Alex Sanson, a former British Aerospace marketing director, told a British paper in 1998, "You could not do a thing in Saudi unless you went through the Said channel."[3] Said himself acknowledges helping to broker the deal, but adamantly insists that he took no commission from it. However, reports in the British media allege that Said received an indirect commission from British Aerospace as part of the deal's offset arrangements, whereby British firms agreed to invest a percentage of their profits in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Said himself admitted that he "advised British Aerospace in relation to the offset program" and later acknowledged, "I benefited because the project led to construction in Saudi Arabia that involved my companies."[4] A British Aerospace spokesman confirmed that Said was paid for "helping this company fulfill its obligations in the Middle East, and Saudi in particular." According to a "source close to Said" cited by The Observer, this payment consisted of 15 million pounds funneled to a Panamanian-registered company owned by Said, Rawda Investments.[5]

British investigative journalists have uncovered evidence that Said may have been involved in distributing Saudi payoffs in one form or another to participants on the British side of the Al-Yamamah deal. In 1994, British reporters ran a land registry search on the posh Eaton Terrace residence in which Mark Thatcher had been living and found that it was owned by a Panamanian company, Formigol, which was registered at the 5th floor of 49 Park Lane - Said's office.[6] In 1998, it was reported that the luxurious Mayfair penthouse of Sir Richard Evans, chief executive of British Aerospace, was registered in the name of a Panamanian company called Knightsbridge Enterprises, which happened to be run from Said's offices at 49 Park Lane.[7] Sir Charles Powell, a long-time foreign policy advisor of Thatcher who was present during the negotiations for this deal, was later hired as chairman of Sagitta Asset Management Limited, of which Said is the primary shareholder.

In 1993, when British Minister of Defense Procurement Jonathan Aitken stayed at the Ritz Hotel in Paris at the expense of a top aide to Prince Muhammad, Said Muhammad Ayas, Said's presence at the hotel instigated a series of investigative reports in the British press (which dubbed Aitken "Jonathan of Arabia") that eventually led to his resignation in 1995. Said owned a 30% share in Aitken Hume, a merchant bank founded by Aitken in the early 1980s.[8]

Student protest
In any event, Said firmly established himself in British political circles after the Al-Yamamah deal. He was photographed with Margaret Thatcher at a major film premiere and was one of eight guests to sit at her table during a 1987 banquet in Dallas.[9] Said's extravagant lifestyle has helped bring him into contact with other well-connected British elites. Politicians and businessmen have been frequently invited to shooting parties at his 3,000-acre country estate in Oxfordshire (which he bought the year after the Al-Yamamah deal). Said acquired a luxurious penthouse apartment in Mayfair; homes in Paris, Monte Carlo, Marbella, and Saudi Arabia; a yacht, a private jet, a stable of prize race horses, and a handsome art collection, including paintings by Matisse and Picasso. He became known as a generous philanthropist.

In July 1996, Said offered Oxford University 20 million pounds ($32 million) to build a new business school. Two years later, after the university had raised its share of the money and approved the building site, a planning application was submitted to build the new complex wh the city's Victorian-erarailway station. Approval of planning applications for this type of construction is normally a slow process because the government usually conducts a lengthy inquiry, but the application for the Said Business School was approved quickly by the new Labour government. The British press later obtained a leaked memo suggesting that the office of Prime Minister Tony Blair intervened to speed its approval. In the October 1998 memo, southeast regional planning official Avis Gerry wrote to Planning Minister Nick Raynsford, "we were under pressure from the Prime Minister's office not to delay the decision."[10] The Council for British Archeology (CBA) later said it was "astonished" that the government refused to conduct an inquiry. "The defense case was not lost," said Richard Morris, director of the CBA in 1998, "it was simply not heard."[11] Said, it appeared, had managed to make friends on the other side of the political aisle, possibly through Powell, whose brother Jonathan became Tony Blair's chief of staff.

Around the same time, a government-funded charitable foundation that protects historic buildings, English Heritage, suddenly dropped its objections to the building site. In June 1998, the foundation's building inspector, Dr. Diane Kay, had stated that "the proposal to demolish the station cannot be justified at this stage, if at all." Weeks later, Said donated $40,000 to English Heritage (his first and only such contribution) and the foundation agreed to a plan to transport the station to an alternative site.[12]

In the fall of 2001, as developers prepared to turn over the new building to the university, student demonstrators held protests, carrying signs with slogans such as "built with blood money."

Blair's Syria Initiative

Wafic Said and friends
Just days after Syrian President Bashar Assad's "election" as president in July 2000, one of Said's companies, the First Saudi Investment Company, joined a new consortium, the Arab Investment Holding Company (AIHC), committed to investing $100 million in Syria's mobile telephone, Internet and hotel sectors. The AIHC was apparently established for political reasons - the other three members of the consortium were Saudi Oger, owned by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri; the Bin Laden Group; and the Dallah Al Baraka Group, the parent company of Al Baraka Investment and Development (ABID), which US intelligence officials say was involved with Al-Qaeda.[13] Said helped build support in Britain for the new Syrian president by arranging visits to Damascus by prominent public figures, such as Vivienne Duffield, the daughter of the late Jewish multimillionaire Charles Clore.

In early 2001, British Minister for Northern Ireland Peter Mandelson, a close associate of Powell, flew to Damascus and met with Assad, reportedly for three and a half hours. During the visit, he also attended a party held by Said in the Syrian capital. Mandelson, who resigned three weeks later due to an unrelated scandal, claimed that the trip was a private vacation to view the country's "ancient ruins." However, according to the London-based Independent, Mandelson "sought and received the approval of Downing Street, the Foreign Office and Buckingham Palace" for the meeting.[14] Later in the year, Said reportedly helped fund the visit to Syria of a parliamentary delegation headed by Labour MP John Austin.[15] In July, Said and Powell joined Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara in addressing a conference at London's Dorchester Hotel, entitled "Syria: A New Dawn for Business, Trade and Investment" (Shara spent more time accusing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of massacring Palestinians than he did discussing investment opportunities in Syria).

In September 2001, Powell was summoned to an urgent meeting with Blair, who asked if he could fly to Syria and persuade Assad to agree to meet with him. He flew to Damascus the next day, remarking later, "I take the view that, in conditions like these, if one is asked to do this sort of thing, one should certainly do it."[16] A little over a month later, Blair became the first British prime minister ever to step foot in Damascus.

Blair's use of Mandelson and Powell to forge this opening to the Syrian president, sidestepping the Foreign Office (which opposed the initiative), was condemned by some critics. "Lord Powell is the chairman of a company controlled by a man who does conduct business in Syria and the Middle East," complained Stephen Glover, a columnist for The Spectator, "This surely made him a bad choice as an envoy to visit President Assad on behalf of the British prime minister."[17] Rumors that Powell's wife, Carla, told guests at a lunch that she could not stand Jews further inflamed the controversy.[18]

Although Said was present at several functions during Assad's trip to London in December, he kept a low profile and the media barely took note of him. It is unlikely, though, that he will be far removed from Blair's continuing efforts to court the Syrian dictator.

Notes

  [1] The Observer, 22 June 1997.
  [2] See The Sunday Times, 9 October 1994. The paper cites unnamed British Aerospace executives involved in the deal as confirming the allegations and also claimed to have received Saudi intelligence documents which confirmed the allegation from the Saudi first secretary to the United Nations, Muhammad Khiweli, who defected in May 1994.
  [3] The Observer, 1 February 1998.
  [4] The Independent (London), 21 July 1996, The Sunday Telegraph, 18 March 2001.
  [5] The Observer, 1 February 1998.
  [6] The Independent (London), 10 October 1994.
  [7] The Observer, 1 February 1998.
  [8] The Telegraph (London), 21 June 1997.
  [9] The Independent (London), 10 October 1994.
  [10] The Observer, 11 March 2001.
  [11] The Sunday Times, 11 March 2001.
  [12] Sunday Express, 18 March 2001.
  [13] On ABID's suspected ties to Al-Qaida, see The Wall Street Journal, 2 November 2001.
  [14] The Independent (London), 2 March 2001. See also The Independent (London), 16 February 2001.
  [15] The Evening Standard (London), 23 December 2002.
  [16] The Daily Telegraph, 3 November 2001.
  [17] The Spectator, 24 November 2001.
  [18] A December 17, 2001 article by Barbara Amiel in The Daily Telegraph attributed the remark to a "hostess" described as "the doyenne of London's political salon scene." Four days later, Carla Powell wrote to the paper, complaining that she had been "generally identified" as the hostess and insisted that she had "never said anything remotely like" the words attributed to her.


2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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