Saudi Statement ‘Clearing’ Malaysian PM a Red Herring

Although a statement by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir last week was spun as confirmation that US$681 million transferred into the personal account of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in March of 2013 was a donation from the Saudi royal family, that statement raises more questions than it answers.

Voluminous records in the hands of investigators contradict the assertion. The money almost certainly didn’t come from the Saudis. It appears to be the latest in a long series of twists and turns that Najib has engineered to deflect questions over where the money came from, and where it went after US$620 million was transferred out later in 2013.

Najib has been under enormous pressure to answer questions for months, but has fended off all charges, remaining invulnerable with the backing of United Malays National Organization district chiefs, firing investigators and using sedition laws against critics. Since the Saudi minister’s announcement, however, Najib and his deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamadi have used it as a triumphant cudgel to defend themselves against former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who has led the charge against Najib, both behind the scenes and in front, since the 2013 general election.

The statement, which has generated questions over its ambiguity and lack of definity, raises the distinct possibility that at some point it is going to come back to bite the Saudis, especially if, as seems likely, investigations into money-laundering in the United States, Singapore, Switzerland, Luxembourg and other countries prove the source of the money was actually the scandal-plagued 1Malaysia Development Bhd. fund, which is backed by the Malaysian Ministry of Finance.

1MDB is said to have more than US$12 billion in unfunded liabilities and could threaten Malaysia’s entire financial system. The fund has been the subject of a long series of spectacular investigations including one by the US Justice Department into the funding of the box office blockbuster Wolf of Wall Street as well as purchases of luxury properties in California and New York by people believed to be proxies of the Najib family.

Najib has made at least two trips to Saudi Arabia in the past year amid speculation that he was attempting to seek cover for what has since increased to a total of US$1 billion that flowed into his personal accounts.

Al-Jubeir called the money a “genuine donation” on April 14 in comments to reporters from the Malaysian state-owned media who just happened to be in Istanbul after a meeting with Najib. The next day, according to wire services, Malaysia’s foreign ministry provided a video clip of al-Jubeir’s comments, which Najib’s office immediately said prove the prime minister’s innocence.

The purported confirmation is in fact a change from a previous statement by el-Jubeir, who said in February that he had been told the funds were not a “donation,” and that the money was from a private transaction by interests in Saudi Arabia as an investment. His statement last week changed that, saying it was a donation by the royal family.

According to Sarawak Report’s editor Clare Rewcastle Brown, records show that the money – US$681,999,976 (RM2.6 billion) by actual count was transferred by wire into Najib’s Ambank account from the Singapore branch of the Switzerland-based Falcon private bank, which is owned by the Abu Dhabi fund Aabar Investments PJS – not from Saudi Arabia. Both the Swiss and Singaporean governments have announced they are investigating Falcon and have frozen funds.

So the Saudis have to come up with a reason for why the money wasn’t transferred by the Saudis but by Aabar. Aabar in fact has nothing to do with the Saudi government or royal family, as nearly as can be determined, but in was 1MDB’s main business partner in the proposed development of the Tun Razak Exchange real estate project in Kuala Lumpur, which has failed to get off the ground.

Aabar Investments was registered and incorporated in Abu Dhabi. Its parent is the International Petroleum Investment Co. (IPIC), wholly owned by the government of Abu Dhabi, whose holding in Aabar was 95.52 percent in 2012 and which appears to be in a huge dispute with Malaysia over billions in missing funds. Last week, IPIC told the London Stock Exchange that neither it nor its subsidiary Aabar Investments PJS has any links to the British Virgin Islands-domiciled Aabar Investments PJS Ltd., which received at least US$3.5 billion from 1MDB. 1MDB insists it made the payments.

Mohamed al Husseiny, Aabar’s chief executive, abruptly stepped aside last year, as did Mohammad Khadem Al Qubaisi. Khadem was formerly the chairman of Aabar Properties, IPIC and Arabtec Holding.

According to investigators, the money that went into Najib’s account from Falcon Bank originated with a British Virgin Islands company called Tanore Finance Corporation, which, like Falcon Bank, was established by Aabar as well, raising questions over which Aabar is which. According to Sarawak Report, The transfers into Najib’s Ambank Private Banking account took place just days after the signing of a so-called “strategic partnership” between Malaysia and Abu Dhabi on March 12, 2013. That resulted in the issuance of a US$3 billion bond guaranteed by the Malaysian government as part of a 50-50 joint venture between 1MDB and Aabar to develop the stalled Tun Razak Exchange project.

All of this information has been in the hands of Malaysian authorities for months and may well have been at the root of the decision by Najib to fire Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail last year and replace him with an UMNO lawyer, Mohamed Apandi Ali as well as firing or neutralizing a long series of other critics. One of them, Kevin Morais, a lawyer with the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, was kidnapped and ended up in a cement filled oil drum that was rolled into a river near Kuala Lumpur. His alleged assailants are currently on trial.

Over subsequent years 1MDB’s political critics have pressed the government to discover where the money went, and have repeatedly complained at the lack of information provided by the company’s statements and accounts. 1MDB dismissed its auditor twice after they refused to qualify the fund’s accounts.