“The aura surrounding me is a lie,” Saleh Assi mumbled, while shaking his head.
He was referring to his image being a wealthy Lebanese businessman with suspicious ties between, among other countries, Lebanon, Congo and France, and his alleged laundering of large sums of money on behalf of Hezbollah. According to him, he is “politically targeted.”
Assi is sitting in his luxurious apartment in the Platinum Tower, Lebanon’s most expensive building overlooking the Beirut waterfront, where Prime Minister Najib Mikati also resides. Assi and his family spend most of their time there, as US sanctions hamper most of his cross-border business.
In 2019, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Assi and several other Lebanese businessmen. They stand accused of raising funds and laundering money on behalf of Hezbollah, which the US classifies as a terrorist organization.
Assi’s name also features in the Pandora Papers, which have revealed a wealth of information about the offshore secrets of numerous world leaders and public figures. Assi’s name appears as the sole beneficiary of Veriolia Holdings Ltd. The leaked documents from Trident Trust, one of 14 external service providers that were the source of the Pandora Papers, contain an email exchange between Trident Trust and someone at the British bank Barclays, who in 2013 asked Trident to close the company owned by Assi. The company was dissolved a year later.
It is not clear why the company was opened, and closed. However, it is in itself not a strange procedure in order to avoid the tax authorities. It is a legal procedure too, although it raises questions about the aims of establishing such companies, whether their aim was to disguise specific activities or names.
In his interview with Daraj, Assi denied the company belonged to him, and he denied any link with the leaked documents. However, he did not deny establishing offshore companies “to evade taxes.”
Number One Clients Assi was one of the many Lebanese names mentioned in the Pandora Papers. In fact, the Lebanese were Trident Trust’s number one clients, a selective group who chose tax havens to either hide and protect their wealth from fees and taxes or from oversight regarding the names they are associated with.
Another name mentioned in the Papers was that of Lebanese businessman Kassem Hojeij, who also features on the US sanctions list.
It is remarkable that so many Lebanese personalities went into a frenzy to invest their wealth away from the public eye, while millions of Lebanese are struggling to collect their life savings, which are held in banks following the great financial collapse in 2019. This collapse was caused by the corruption of the ruling elite, which put over half of the Lebanese population under the poverty line. Indeed, the same corruption caused the huge explosion that destroyed the city’s waterfront in August 2020.
Yet, the sectarian political structure hindered all accountability mechanisms. Here the fact emerges that a large number of influential politicians and businessmen benefit greatly from tax havens, while in a bankrupt and devastated country most citizens struggle to obtain the basics of life, such as electricity, fuel and medicine.
Who is Saleh Assi?
The biography of Saleh Assi, who is in his fifties, contains many paradoxes. He grew up in a poor and leftist Shiite family in southern Lebanon. Several family members were affiliated with the Communist Party. His father was a policeman.
Poverty was widespread among Lebanon’s Shiites, who generally lived on the margin of the wave of prosperity Lebanon witnessed in the 1960s and 70s. The wealth in the time was mainly concentrated in the hands of the Christians and, to a lesser extent, Sunnis.
After the Civil War, however, as Hezbollah grew in strength with Iranian support and Lebanese Shiites expanded abroad, the status quo gradually changed, and today there is a strong Shiite financial elite present in the country.
Assi recalled his poverty and the poverty of his direct environment. “The Shiites used to work efficiently, now look what they’ve become,” referring to the irony of the fact that he lives in Lebanon’s most expensive building, which offers a home to many wealthy Shiites.
In the mid-1980s, Assi traveled to Italy to complete his engineering studies. There he started working as a translator for merchants, before entering the trade sector himself and seeing his business grow to reach Congo and Angola.
People familiar with Assi’s career path link him with suspicious trade activities between Italy and Africa and claim he benefited from forging ties with ruling African elites, which contributed to his flourishing business. Many Lebanese in Africa did.
But Assi ridicules such stories and emphasizes his work is legal and transparent. The sanctions targeting him, he claims, are either politically motivated or stem from his competitors. Assi sees himself as a success story: a young man from a poor family who managed to rise above and be someone.
Assi is a prominent name in the food business in Congo, where media reports indicate that he sets the price of bread. He is even known as the “King of Bread,” as he owns a huge industrial bakery in the capital Kinshasa. “I was poor and I thought wealthy people were dirty,” he told Daraj.
“I did not eat meat in Lebanon in those days. I did eat it in Italy, a country I love and consider ‘my’ country. Now I work in bread. I work with flour and fish. A kilo, for example, costs a dollar, but I sell it for $2. In Marxism this is unacceptable, but ultimately, this is work.”
Assi categorically denies all accusations regarding money laundering for Hezbollah and is trying to lift the sanctions levelled against him, which is an extremely complicated procedure in the US. He complains that the sanctions have caused numerous obstacles for him and his family.
“This is slander,” he said. “I want to prove my innocence. If my son wanted to open a bank account he couldn’t, due to sanctions.”
In the past few years, several media reports have linked Assi to other key figures who have been placed under sanctions, including Adham Tabaja, regarding whom the US have issued a $10 million reward for information.
Sanctions were imposed on Assi based on allegations he worked for Tabaja and thus Hezbollah. Yet, Assi claims his financial dealings through Lebanese banks are fully transparent. Turkish media reports in early 2020 linked him to businessman Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, with whom Assi allegedly partnered to avoid sanctions. Korkmaz was arrested in Austria on charges of money laundering and wire fraud. He was extradited to Turkey last August.
Korkmaz is wanted in the US for the same reasons.
In his interview with Daraj, Assi admitted his friendship and acquaintance with Korkmaz, but denied trying to use Turkey as an alternative arena to do business. Several Turkish media, however, published documents proving Assi’s partnerships in Turkey.
Assi claimed Korkmaz’s problems are solely due to US restrictions.
Kassem Hojeij is a well-known and wealthy Lebanese businessman. In 2015, he too was targeted by US sanctions for allegedly supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iraq. Videos on YouTube and other platforms show many of him and his family on social occasions with political figures and songs of his “generosity” and “patriotism.”
Hojeij is considered a pillar of the Lebanese expatriate community. He was head of the Lebanese community in Gabon and consul of Gabon in Lebanon. He is also mayor of Deir Antar in the district of Bint Jbeil in south Lebanon.
The Hojeij family owns several investments in Lebanon, most notably the Coral Beach Hotel and MEAB Bank.
According to the US Treasury statement accompanying the sanctions: “Hojeij helped open bank accounts for Hezbollah in Lebanon and invested in the infrastructure used by Hezbollah in both Lebanon and Iraq.”
The Pandora Papers show that Hojeij is the sole director and owner of a private airline called Comet Jet S.A. The company was registered in the British Virgin Islands in 2009, using MEAB bank statements in the correspondence.
Comet Jet is a member of Phoenix XXVI Aviation alongside Lebanon’s Imperial Jet, which recently lost an international arbitration case against the Lebanese state. The Lebanese authorities alleged Imperial Jet was operating unsafely, while the company argued its license was revoked for political reasons.
This raises the question if Comet Jet and Imperial Jet are related. The question seems logical, especially since there is no public trace of Comet Jet.
We did not find a website for it, and it is unclear what happened to it.
Daraj tried contacting Hojeij but did not receive an answer.
A Collar of Diamonds
The presence of Lebanese businessmen allegedly linked to Hezbollah in the Pandora Papers raises that most complex and ambiguous of questions: the one related to Hezbollah’s finances and its influence standing within the Shiite community, which, under Iranian patronage, has undoubtedly grown since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1991
The question regarding Hezbollah’s network of funding only gains importance in the context of the financial collapse Lebanon is witnessing under an authority almost completely sponsored by Hezbollah. The latter stood as an impenetrable dam protecting the reign of President Michel Aoun during the 2019 wave of protests, and prevented many of the ruling political elite from being held accountable on corruption charges, especially those responsible for the Beirut Port explosion.
During the ongoing and worsening crisis, Hezbollah launched and supported several charitable initiatives for low-income families, thus turning an institution as Qard al-Hassan into the largest microfinance organization in the country. In September 2021, Hezbollah imported Iranian fuel via Syria in an attempt to deal with the escalating fuel crisis in Lebanon.
In an interview with Daraj, Joseph Daher, who teaches at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and wrote the book The Political Economy of Lebanon’s Party of God, said that the party presented such social services as part of “a jihad against the blockade imposed by the US” and “a political victory”
The party has strengthened such networks to respond to the socio-economic needs of the environment it operates in. However, such measures have contributed to the consolidation of its role as a statelet within the state. Yet, strengthening its influence within the Shiite community is not complete without the Shiites of the diaspora. The rise of the party in the last two decades, and its expansion across the borders, made it easier to include the social and financial network of Shiites in Africa and Latin America.
There are no clear or official figures on Hezbollah’s finances. Estimates speak of a budget of up to a billion dollars annually, which to a large extent goes to covering the salaries of the organization’s some 100,000 employees, making Hezbollah Lebanon’s second largest employer after the state.
Hezbollah’s financial transactions are mostly done in cash, as the banking system is monitored or subject to sanctions. It is therefore hard to estimate the exact size of such transactions, but those we met in the context of this investigation confirm that the routes of Hezbollah’s cash bags pass by Lebanon.
There is no doubt that the largest support for Hezbollah stems from Iran. But with the ongoing sanctions restricting its movement, the party continues to search for other sources of funding. Hence, it appears that Hezbollah has strengthened its influence in and ties with the Shiite diaspora, especially in West and Central Africa, where it has established an important network among businessmen.
Researcher Daher pointed at the intertwined relationship between Hezbollah and Lebanese Shiite businessmen.
“With the growth of Hezbollah in the country over the past decade, it was seen by the Shiite bourgeoisie in Lebanon and the diaspora as the best option to best serve the country’s interests,” he said. “The sanctions imposed on the party and some businessmen, for obvious reasons, prompted many to hide any such links. At the same time, due to Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon, others rushed to deal with the party to take advantage of contracts and other benefits.”
Some well-known names were sanctioned by the US, including the Tajeddine family, who own real estate, dealt in diamonds, and established supermarkets and food processing companies in Angola, Gambia, Sierra Leone and Congo. Companies in West Africa owned by businessmen close to or affiliated with Hezbollah play a role in financially supporting the party through formal and informal schemes. Activities include import, export, used cars trade and real estate.
In 2020 the US released one of the most prominent punished Shiite businessmen, Kassem Tajeddine who had been detained on charges of money laundering for Hezbollah. He was released in unclear circumstances. He suffered from poor health and paid a high fine. Media have reported that Tajeddine’s release was part of a swap, which saw former Lebanese-American national Amer Fakhoury released in Lebanon. Fakhoury stands accused of being a torturer in the notorious Khiam Detention Center during the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon.
Tajeddine seems to have a prominent position within Hezbollah, which would explain the party’s acceptance of Fakhoury’s release, while ignoring the widespread anger that erupted among Lebanon’s Shiites as a result. Upon his release, Tajeddine received a huge reception in Beirut. He is still in Lebanon, but remains out of the public eye.
Joseph Daher believes that talk about Hezbollah’s dependence on a network of Shiite businessmen for funding is exaggerated.
“The main financial support comes from Iran, in particular the Wilayat al-Faqih, the Ayatollah Khamenei Foundation, which is funded separate from the general Iranian budget,” he said. “Iranian funding is a necessity for Hezbollah, especially with the escalating sanctions and the growing activities of the party in Lebanon and elsewhere. The networks of Shiite businessmen affiliated with the party serve the same purpose.”
The general impression of Hezbollah, among many of its supporters and opponents, is that the party is not corrupt. Nothing is known about its leaders’ wealth and they do not prominently display it, which over the years has attracted a lot of support. Unlike the Shiite Amal movement, it moved the party closer to the left. In recent years, however, resentment has grown over Hezbollah’s perceived role as a pillar in consolidating Lebanon’s corrupt system.
However, Mohanad Hage Ali, a resident fellow at the Malcolm Kerr-Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, does not believe the overstated “leftism” of the party has any actual foundations. On the contrary, according to him, the organization has adopted a neoliberal economic policy and has allied with merchants and corrupt politicians. The Hezbollah-allied merchants who built their fortune in Africa, often lack the education and required know-how to integrate or compete globally, so they present little value to their communities and private sectors.
The Framework of Hezbollah’s Power
Perhaps this partially explains why the Shiite community continues to have limited influence in most sectors, from industry and tourism to finance. Hage Ali believes that both dominant Shiite parties, Amal and Hezbollah, remain hostile to traditional Shiite bourgeoisie and elite.
“The wealthy are roughly divided into two groups, those who descended from traditional elites (landowners and merchants) and the newly rich, the nouveau riche, mostly migrants to Africa,” Hage Ali explained.
“The former group is far removed from the whole equation, from the economy and politics, locally and nationally, as the Shia duo has completely seized the public space. Under the pretext of confronting America and Israel, and amidst a narrative of endless conspiracies, repression prevails, and is relatively higher than in other sectarian communities. To maintain control, the guiding concept for Hezbollah is ‘popular security,’ with the organization’s supporters acting as informants against any form of dissent.”
“Such a state of affairs confines all forms of progress in the Shia community to Hezbollah, its military power and political influence,” he added. “This is why it represents a very blunt, and unsustainable social force, with little impact on people’s livelihoods and welfare.”
Diamonds, Art and … Resistance
The feeling of social and political rise due to Hezbollah military prowess in confronting Israel during the 2006 war, and the party’s growing influence, is quite common among the wealthy Shiites who have emerged in the past two decades, and who are trying to balance their political relations within Lebanon with their activities outside of it.
“I am proud I am from south Lebanon, where 70 years ago few had clothes on them” said Nazim Saeed Ahmed in an interview with Daraj in his luxurious apartment in downtown Beirut, which he turned into a kind of museum that is filled with so many valuable paintings and antiques that hardly a wall remains empty.
Ahmed dwells on the struggle of his family, and how his grandfather immigrated from his hometown of Haris in southern Lebanon to Africa, due to poverty at the beginning of the last century. He remembers how much his father suffered there before he started the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, which became the family’s trade between Africa and Belgium, also a major headquarters in the diamond trade.
Ahmed’s father suffered a lot before he started working in the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, which became the family’s main trade with Belgium, a major center in the global diamond trade. For his work in the diamond trade Ahmed moved a lot between Africa and Belgium, where he obtained citizenship, and where he started collecting and selling art works.
However, according to the US Treasury the latter is just a front to launder millions of dollars for Hezbollah, which was the reason to impose sanctions on Ahmed. In a statement, the US Treasury even accused Ahmed of “personally” providing funds to Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.
Nazim smiled when asked about these charges and did not comment about his relationship with Nasrallah or any other leaders of Hezbollah. He reduced the charges to being part of a war against the Shiites.
Ahmed’s story as a “major Hezbollah donor” began when his business started to boom. He blamed the campaign against him on “Belgian intelligence reports” of “pro-Israel figures.” “The success tax started after the year 2020. At the time, we were selling about $450 million a year. This upset a lot of people and the battles against us started.”
“They investigated me, and I was disavowed in Belgium. They accused me of financing Hezbollah and inciting sectarian strife. Whoever did this is a Belgian Jewish intelligence officer who is loyal to Israel. I have Jewish friends who are not with Israel and some of them are against Israel. This is the work of Mossad. The report was published in Belgian newspapers, after which a fact-finding committee was held on the Congo and a report was issued by the United Nations that we fund Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. This is nonsense, because the two organizations are against each other. It took years before the file finally closed.”
The file’s closure in Belgium did not stop accusations being levelled against him, especially following his increased activities in the world of art.
The art market is particularly vulnerable to dodging sanctions, as it offers buyers and sellers a high degree of anonymity with little transparency, according to the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Often brokers and shell companies are used to buy or sell precious works and to make and receive payments, which allows the people behind the scenes to remain anonymous.
“Ahmad stores some of his personal funds in high-value art in a pre-emptive attempt to mitigate the effects of US sanctions, and he opened an art gallery in Beirut, Lebanon, as a front to launder money,” thus OFAC justified the sanctions.
Ahmed does not hide his passion for collecting art. He continuously uploads photos of his “treasures” on his Instagram page, which has some 190,000 followers. Through it he conducts interviews with his followers and artists in many countries.
Ahmed is proud of his collection that is spread around his house, and he likes receiving visitors.
He draws attention to several pieces by Spanish artist Javier Calinga. “I bought 8 of his paintings for 7000 euro each. Today, his paintings cost around one and a half million euros,” he said.
Despite Ahmed’s passion, the American accusations claim he merely chose art as a cover.
The issue of art and money laundering has been widely discussed for a while, especially as commercial art transactions cannot be controlled, often the identities of sellers and buyers, not even their whereabouts, are not revealed, while the value of art is relative in nature and therefore easy to inflate. Consequently, this could easily allow for speculation, the transfer of large sums of money, and the spread of fraudulent business.
Ahmed is aware of the suspicions. “They punished me with art. A law was made afterwards because of me about art,” he said referring to sanctions and restrictions imposed on him by the US.
In Ahmad’s house art, and talking about art, seems a family affair, as his eldest daughter Hind owns an art gallery in downtown Beirut, “I made my children love art,” he said. “God gave me an eye to see art.”
Rima, Ahmed’s wife and the mother of his six children, said that ever since they lived in Belgium she has been taking her children to museums. “My husband has a passion for art,” she said. “From early morning to late at night, whenever he has time, my husband looks at art. In Belgium, we used to go to museums all the time. We satisfied the eyes of our children with art.”
Apart from having a connection with art, Ahmed has connections with many of the Hezbollah financiers classified as such on the US sanctions lists, including Kassem Tajeddin and Mohamed Bazzi. Sanctions even link him to Saleh Assi, Adham Tabaja and Qassem Hojeij in the case of buying a $240 million land, which Washington considers a front for Hezbollah. It was one of the reasons to issue sanctions against him.
“I know everyone in the country,” said Ahmed. “I reside here and I have relations with everyone.”
“I bought lands which made Walid Joumblatt and Saad Hariri crazy angry, and accused Hezbollah of purchasing. But I mean isn’t it ridiculous for Hezbollah to need to buy land in order to send missiles to Palestine? I bought the land. Kassem Hojeij and I did. I had $150 million, and I asked Hojeij to pay the rest.”
“Shiites are being targeted,” he added. “I am known in the country and I do not work with anyone. I don’t work with gasoline, nor with oil.”
Politics and Money
The relationship with Shiite businessmen took on a more complex dimension ever since the power sharing between the sect’s two main political poles came into play: the Amal Movement and Hezbollah. It is true that Hezbollah has the strongest presence, but it left a key margin for its ally, Parliament Speaker and Amal leader Nabih Berri, whose name, and those of his family members, are associated with illegal enrichment.
Perhaps the case of Saleh Assi and the Lebanese judiciary is an example of the intertwined relationship between politics and money in Lebanon and the distribution of roles between the two Shiite poles. In 2018, Assi was accused of assaulting a Lebanese person and threatening him in Congo. The case was registered in Beirut, a false address of Assi was included in the case papers. The general security issued a sign at the airport to arrest him upon entering Beirut, a measure that prompted Assi not to return to Lebanon for about a year and a half, until the Court of Cassation annulled his case in 2020.
The story has a basic background, but it is not talked about publicly. It is an example of how the Shiite duo Amal and Hezbollah hold the keys to wealthy Shiites by providing facilities on the one hand and taking on the cost on the other hand.
A prominent businessman familiar with the Assi case spoke to Daraj, asking not to be named. He put the case of his prosecution in Lebanon down to tension in the relationship between Assi and Ahmed Baalbaki, Berri’s security advisor. In a country rife with corruption and sectarianism, it was not difficult to file charges against Assi .
“If Assi truly was affiliated with Hezbollah, would anyone dare threaten him?” said the businessman. “Here you have Wafiq Safa [a senior Hezbollah official [ threatening Judge Bitar [investigating the Beirut Port explosion]). If Assi was funding the party, he would not have to be absent from Lebanon for more than a year. And he would not be living out of sight, avoiding public appearances.”
This brings us back to a parallel fact, which is that the sanctions are more complex than the relationship of Shiite businessmen with Hezbollah, even if they do not deny them, and even if the US administration itself is not far from what these riches represent in terms of corruption and bartering. And resorting to “offshore” companies is nothing but an acceptance of the current financial system, led by America in ways of circumventing sanctions, but also in accepting to hide the sources of wealth.
Saleh Assi’s Response to the Pandora Papers
We received businessman Saleh Assi’s statement regarding the investigation that was published.
Here it is below without any edits in its language or content, alongside Daraj’s comment on what was stated in his response.
Mr. Assi’s Statement:
“If you wanted to kill someone, spread a rumor about him.”
This is exactly what happened to me by some media sources, behind the guise of press investigations about what was reported about me in the Pandora Papers, which are not considered credible in the first place.
A correspondent came to me from Daraj, through one of my acquaintances, under the pretext that I should respond to documents and information related to what Pandora Papers published about me and others (I was surprised when she arrived that she did not carry any of those documents with her).
At first, I explained to her all about my industrial activity as founder and owner of the largest mills and bakeries in Africa, the most modern with highest quality of production, comparable to the best mills and bakeries in Europe. I explained that all my industrial and commercial activities are characterized by absolute transparency and respect for the law, as well as honesty in business, and that thanks to this I succeeded as a Lebanese immigrant on the African continent.
In her report, the reporter mentioned incorrect things about me, and the tone adopted by her was one aimed at discrediting me.
What she added from her imagination, which I did not say, requires the following clarifications:
1. She mentioned many things that are not true and even strange, and it will suffice here to give one example, which was her claim that I confessed to her frankly that I evaded taxes.
Is it conceivable that a person with his full mental powers utters words of this kind in which he incriminates himself while he is innocent?!… Is this reasonable?…
2. The reporter fully revealed her real role. Presenting rumors as facts, starting with the title of the report in which she claimed that I was affiliated with Hezbollah. It is also clear here that she intends to offend me exclusively, knowing that I have previously denied this and that everyone knows that I have nothing to do with Hezbollah or any political party, and that I grew up secular and am still secular.
3. The correspondent was not satisfied with that, but also tried to link me with the crimes of corruption that destroyed Lebanon at all levels, that were committed by the corrupt political class, which I was never a part of nor a partner to any of its symbols. I used to visit my beloved country Lebanon only a little, spending most of my time following up with my work as an industrialist in the mills and bakeries sector.Within my institutions hundreds of Lebanese work alongside thousands of their African brothers, and the truth is that what I achieved, thanks to my Lord and prayers from my parents, is a career path of success in every sense of the word: For a self-made Lebanese immigrant, to become the object of fierce competition to large and powerful mills and bakeries, at a time when corruption was eating away at the Lebanese state and preventing it from taking any actual interest in the Lebanese expatriate.
4. It is unfortunate today that organizations and institutions claiming to be media are participating in a campaign to destroy the successful Lebanese expatriate society, in parallel with the destruction of the resident Lebanese society.
5. It suffices for me to be honored that everything I do is done with complete transparency, and this is what my African brothers, their love for me and my devotion to them, testify to.
6. In view of what the reporter, the author of the aforementioned article, did with an intentional distortion of our reputation, we reserve the right to review the competent judiciary to ward off any slander against us.
Finally, we thank God that most Lebanese media professionals are honest and do not slander nor participate in the destruction of the resident and expatriate Lebanese society…
In the investigation, we used the phrase “affiliated with Hezbollah” and not the phrase ‘a member of Hezbollah’ or ‘close to Hezbollah’. The term ‘Mahsoub’ (affiliated) means that someone considers him connected to Hezbollah, and here we mean specifically the US administration, which imposed sanctions on him for this reason.
Daraj will not participate in a debate regarding Mr. Assi’s responses, but we stand by the accuracy of what has been published.