Diplomatic Passports and Tax Exemptions to Lebanese Businessmen in UNESCO

Hala Nasreddine
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 25.09.2023
Reading time: 11 minutes

There are only five permanent delegates to UNESCO, out of 186 member states, who are not citizens of the countries they represent. Can you guess the nationalities of these delegates?

Four of them are Lebanese, and the fifth is a Saudi Syrian businessman. These names include Taha Mikati, Nader Hariri, Gilbert Shagoury, and Bassam Freiha (who happens to hold the nationality of the country he represents) on the Lebanese side, and Hamza Al-Khouli, a Saudi-Syrian businessman. What are the criteria for appointing ambassadors to an organization focused on education and culture? Are there hidden agendas behind these appointments?

When one looks at the list of permanent delegates to UNESCO, they may be surprised to find the presence of certain individuals with connections to political controversies or corruption allegations. 

These names raise fundamental questions about how permanent delegates are appointed to UNESCO, what purposes they serve, what privileges they enjoy, and to what extent they are transparent in their roles, given that their names are associated with political affiliations and corruption suspicions.

According to the organization’s website, there are 186 member states with permanent delegations at UNESCO. The permanent delegations are usually headed by individuals with diplomatic positions, typically ambassadors. UNESCO aims to promote international cooperation in the fields of education, science, and culture to ultimately achieve peace.

Permanent delegates to UNESCO hold a prominent position in the diplomatic arena as they represent their countries and work on enhancing international cooperation in matters related to education, science, and cultural exchange. Do the Lebanese individuals mentioned play a role in this, especially since they represent countries on the other side of the globe? This report sheds light on the prominent Lebanese figures on this list and raises questions about their relationship with the countries they are supposed to represent.

Privileges of permanent delegates

The M1 Group, which is owned by Taha Mikati, has stated that “Taha A. Mikati’s role at UNESCO is unpaid, and he does not hold a diplomatic passport. He covers the expenses of the Palau delegation from his personal funds.” 

In a conversation with Daraj, Nader Hariri confirmed that the permanent delegate enjoys tax exemptions in France, and according to the laws of the state, he receives a financial return for representing the country at UNESCO. However, he confirmed that he personally does not receive any money in exchange for his position as a permanent delegate.

On the topic of permanent delegates, the UNESCO Constitution, particularly Article 2 on Members, states that each member state has the right to appoint a permanent delegate to the organization (Rule 7), and the state’s delegate must present credentials to the General Director of the organization (Rule 8). Article 18 outlines the privileges, immunities, and diplomatic facilities, whereby accredited permanent delegates to the organization have the right to reside in France to carry out their duties and enjoy the same privileges, immunities, and facilities granted to their counterparts of the same rank among diplomats accredited to the French Republic.

Regarding credentials, Article 4 stipulates that the credentials of delegates must be issued by the head of state they represent, the head of government, or the Minister of Foreign Affairs (Rule 23).

Members of the investigative team reached out to UNESCO and the foreign ministries of the five mentioned countries in the investigation to inquire about the criteria for appointing the mentioned individuals, but no response was received by the time of publication.

What is Taha Mikati’s relation to Palau?

Taha Mikati’s association with Palau dates back to his role as the Permanent Delegate and Ambassador of Palau to UNESCO since July 3, 2013. Palau is a small island nation located in Oceania in the western Pacific Ocean, comprising approximately 340 coral and volcanic islands with a population of around 22,000 and an area of 459 square kilometers. This raises questions about Taha Mikati’s ability to represent this country at one of the world’s most important cultural platforms, given its unique history and culture.

In an exchange with Daraj, the M1 Group’s media office stated that “Taha A. Mikati supports Palau in its efforts to play a leading role in combating climate change, given the vulnerability of the island to rising sea levels.” 

In his capacity as permanent delegate, Taha Mikati leads a team that attends meetings and provides advisory reports related to climate, education, and culture, as well as promoting Palau. The delegation he leads has also registered a site in Palau on the UNESCO World Heritage List. According to his team’s response, “Taha Mikati strictly follows all diplomatic agreements and relevant laws in his role on behalf of Palau at UNESCO.”

“Taha Mikati’s role is unpaid, and he does not receive a diplomatic passport. He covers all the costs of Palau’s delegation from his personal funds. Taha Mikati has also never paid off anyone in Palau to be appointed to this job… any allegations of the sort are fake and slander,” said the M1 Group’s media office. 

Taha Mikati is the wealthiest individual in Lebanon, along with his brother Najib Mikati, ranking seventh among the richest individuals in the Arab world for 2023 with a fortune worth $2.8 billion USD, according to Forbes magazine.

The Mikati brothers are the founders of M1 Group, which began its operations in the telecommunications sector and later expanded geographically, operating in Lebanon, Monaco, and Dubai, diversifying its business into various sectors.

Taha Mikati’s investments include stakes in the South African telecommunications company MTN, the fashion retailer Pepe Jeans, and luxury real estate in New York, London, and Monaco. The Mikati brothers established Investcom in 1982, selling satellite phones during the peak of the Lebanese civil war. They expanded their business to Africa, where their company built mobile phone towers in countries such as Ghana, Liberia, and Benin, among others.

Previous investigations by Daraj revealed that on July 8, 2021, the Norwegian telecommunications company Telenor announced the sale of its operations in Myanmar to the M1 Group for $105 million USD, which is considered a modest amount compared to the actual assets, estimated to be around $600 million USD. The deal faced scrutiny, especially due to concerns from Myanmar authorities related to suspicions associated with the M1 Group. 

In response to Daraj’s questions, Maher Najib Mikati said that “ the Myanmar opportunity corresponds to the type of investments we usually look into… it is a sector we are quite familiar with… in a region we know to a certain extent…” 

Following several back-and-forths on the deal, the Myanmar authorities approved the completion of the deal in March 2022, with the condition that M1 ensures the presence of a local majority owner. M1 informed Telenor that its local partner, Shwe Pyi Tain View, had acquired 49% of Investcom, the company established by M1 to purchase Telenor Myanmar, according to Telenor.

In response, the media office of the M1 Group stated that the group and its partner, Investcom PTE Ltd, enabled “the people of Myanmar to communicate with each other, access basic communication services, and conduct their business in the way they see fit,” emphasizing that the acquisition of Telenor Myanmar by the M1 Group and the deal’s value were negotiated and agreed upon amicably with the seller, the Norwegian telecommunications giant, without the involvement of any third party whatsoever.

Finally, after three years of investigation in Monaco, the investigation into Najib Mikati, his brother Taha Mikati, and his son Maher regarding money laundering charges has been closed, according to the prosecutor who informed The National newspaper that “the money laundering charges related to the proceeds of a crime have not been sufficiently proven.”

Investigations into the Paradise Papers had revealed that Taha Mikati, his brother Najib, and their sons had a company called Corporate Jet, which was established in Bermuda in 2004.

Nader Hariri’s entanglement in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines

Nader Hariri is most commonly known in Lebanon’s political sphere as having been the head of former prime minister Saad Hariri’s office. Nader Hariri has been serving as the Permanent Representative (Ambassador) of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to UNESCO since June 2019.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines is an island nation located in the eastern part of the Caribbean Sea. It is around 389 square kilometers with a population of approximately 100,804 people as of 2023.

In his response to Daraj, Hariri claims that under his leadership as the Permanent Representative, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has been successful in implementing various projects, including launching a national literacy initiative, collaborating with UNESCO on education and vocational training programs, information technology, climate change mitigation efforts, and more. He represents Saint Vincent and the Grenadines in a variety of UNESCO activities.

Hariri added that, like all countries, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has established laws related to compensations and salaries for its employees and representatives. In this context, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines has determined compensations for its ambassadors and diplomatic delegations, which apply to all its delegations in accordance with national laws. However, he emphasized that he does not receive any compensation from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines for his role as a representative and as part of the delegation.

Furthermore, diplomatic missions and delegations are generally exempt from taxes in the host country according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961. Hariri clarified that, as a Permanent Representative for Saint Vincent and the Grenadines to UNESCO in Paris, he, like other diplomats, benefits from the tax exemptions outlined in the convention, specifically in Articles 23, 34, 36, and 37. He stated his commitment to complying with all relevant laws, including tax laws, as a citizen or permanent resident in any country.

Nader Hariri is involved in various businesses, including being a founding partner and board member of Benchmark. He is also a founding partner of Millenium Development and a key investor in telecommunications, technology, and real estate sectors. He has been a member of the board of Solidere since July 2018, a company involved in the reconstruction of downtown Beirut after the Lebanese Civil War. This company seized many Lebanese’s homes and stores, who eventually lost everything they owned and were forced to sell their properties under major pressure with very little compensation. Today, downtown Beirut is a ghost town. 

Nader Hariri is also active in offshore companies, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). One of these companies is Eurogift Limited in Cyprus, established in 1999 and still in existence today. Hariri serves as a director in this company, alongside former Minister of Telecommunications Mohamed Choucair and businessman Basheer Malaeb, Hariri’s brother in law, among others.

Hariri stated that this information is outdated and that all his business and investment activities are publicly registered in relevant commercial records.

Who is Gilbert Chaghoury, Santa Lucia’s permanent delegate?

Gilbert Chagoury is a Lebanese Nigerian businessman and philanthropist who currently resides in Paris. His name has been associated with various business endeavors, including real estate, construction, and finance. Chagoury has been serving as the Permanent Representative of Saint Lucia since September 29, 1995.

Saint Lucia is an island located in the eastern Caribbean Sea, situated between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean. It gained full independence from British colonial rule in 1979 and has an estimated population of approximately 167,591 people as of 2023. The island’s total area is 616 square kilometers.

Chagoury, who is 75 years old, paid a settlement of $1.8 million to resolve allegations that he, with the assistance of others, funneled around $180,000 in illegal contributions through a middleman to four different federal political candidates in the United States. He admitted to making these illegal contributions and violating federal campaign finance laws between June 2012 and March 2016. Chagoury entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with U.S. authorities on October 19, 2019, and paid the fine in December 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

In Lebanon, Chagoury is known for his strong and close relationships with figures such as Nabih Berri, the Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, and Sleiman Frangieh, the leader of the Marada Party and a presidential candidate. He also has strong international ties with people like French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi Arabia.

Chagoury, who hails from Zgharta in Lebanon, was known for playing a role in facilitating discussions and understanding between former President Michel Aoun and Nabih Berri. However, his relationship with Aoun has deteriorated over time.

Gilbert Chagoury did not respond to our requests for responses.

Belize’s permanent delegate

Bassam Freiha has served as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary as well as the Permanent Representative of Belize since January 24, 1992. He happens to be a Belizean citizen and serves as the President and CEO of Dar Al Sayad in Lebanon. He is the son of Sa’id Freiha, the founder of Dar Al Sayad and a prominent journalist. In December 2022, Bassam was awarded the National Order of the Cedar with the rank of Knight.

A recent investigation by the Daraj, based on inquiries by the French judiciary into former minister and chairman of Al Mawarid Bank Marwan Kheireddine, revealed that suspicious and unlawful funds were transferred to individuals and journalists closely associated with the former Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon, Riad Salameh, through Al Mawarid. Kheireddine personally managed some of these accounts, including the account of Bassam Freiha. Despite multiple attempts, Freiha could not be reached for comments.

As for Belize, it is located on the northeastern coast of Central America, bordered by the Caribbean Sea, situated between Guatemala and Mexico. Belize has a total area of 22,966 square kilometers and an estimated population of 419,137 as of 2023.

Grenada’s ambassador and permanent delegate

Dr. Hamza El Kholi is the founder and chairman of the El Kholi Group companies. He was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honour with the rank of Knight by French President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2006, and he was promoted to the rank of Officer four years later. He was also appointed as the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Government of Grenada and the Permanent Delegate to UNESCO in 2011.

Grenada is located in the Caribbean region, situated between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. It has a total area of 344 square kilometers, and as of 2023, the estimated population is 114,299.

Dr. El Kholi is a businessman known for his business activities in Egypt and around the world. He is a contributor and/or director of several companies in the Cayman Islands, including DOLPHIN V, H.K. Renewable Energy, H.K. Aviation, H.K. Hotel Holdings, H.K. Petroleum Services, as revealed in Paradise Papers documents. Additionally, Panama Papers documents revealed that he is a contributor to BERVA SERVICES CORP.

Dr. El Kholi did not respond to questions for comment.

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Hala Nasreddine
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 25.09.2023
Reading time: 11 minutes

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