In his four decades as Palestinian president, Yasser Arafat has run a murky financial empire that includes far-flung PLO investments in airlines, banana plantations and high-tech companies, and money hidden in bank accounts across the globe.
Jaweed al-Ghussein, a former PLO finance minister, told reporters it was worth US$3 billion to US$5 billion when he quit in 1996. No one will say how much it's worth now -- some estimates say as little as a few million. But as 75-year-old Arafat fights for life in a hospital near Paris, Palestinians fear that what's left will disappear or be pocketed by Arafat cronies.
"It's the money of the Palestinian people," said Palestinian legislator Hassan Khreishe, adding that he would urge a parliamentary investigation.
That could prove difficult. Arafat has long resisted proper accounting for the funds, which include Arab payments to the PLO in the 1970s and 1980s, and Western aid to his self-rule government, the Palestinian Authority, after interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s.
Arafat lived frugally, but needed large sums to maintain loyalties. He would register investments and bank accounts in the names of loyalists, both to buy their support and protect the holdings from scrutiny and seizure, al-Ghussein said.
Only Arafat had the full picture, he said, and it's not clear whether he left a will or financial records.
Arafat never divulged his finances. Pressed at a February meeting with leaders of his Fatah movement, he cut them short, saying "there are no assets," according to one participant.
Mohammed Rashid, Arafat's financial adviser, denied his boss was rich.
"Arafat has no personal property in any part in the world," he told al-Arabiya television on Sunday. "He doesn't even have a tent, a house, an orchard or any account that we can call personal in the name of Yasser Arafat."
However, Forbes magazine ranked him No. 6 on last year's list of the richest "kings, queens and despots," estimating he was worth at least US$300 million. Shalom Harari, a former top Israeli intelligence official, said Arafat may have stashed away up to US$700 million, part of it for an emergency such as a new exile, especially with Israel threatening to expel him.
Two names frequently come up in connection with Arafat's money -- Rashid and Arafat's wife, Suha.
In the past 10 years, Rashid has handled hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian Authority revenue Arafat diverted from the treasury -- though a reformist finance minister, Salam Fayyad, said the money was invested on behalf of the Palestinian Authority and has since been restored to public control.
Suha Arafat, Arafat's wife of 13 years and mother of his daughter, lives in Paris and has received monthly payments of US$100,000 from the Palestinian coffers, according to a senior official in Arafat's office. This year, French prosecutors launched a money-laundering probe into transfers of US$11.4 million into her accounts. She has refused to talk to reporters about Palestinian finances.
Al-Ghussein, speaking by telephone from London, said the big money from the Arab world started flowing in 1979. For a decade, the PLO received about US$200 million a year, US$85 million of it from Saudi Arabia, he said.
Al-Ghussein, who headed the Palestinian National Fund, the PLO treasury, said during that period, he would hand Arafat a check for US$10.25 million (on) every month from the PLO budget, ostensibly for payments to PLO fighters and families of those killed in battle. He said Arafat refused to account for his spending, citing national security.