Sat, Nov 13, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Arafat's billions are still missing

SPECULATION It remains unclear how much personal wealth Arafat amassed during his years as the Palestinian leader, but some estimates place the figure as high as US$1 billion

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Like many aspects of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat's life, including his supposed wealth, his marriage in July 1990 to Suha Tawil was at first kept a secret. It was only 18 months later that the man who claimed he was wedded to the cause made the surprise announcement that he had taken a 28-year-old Palestinian Catholic wife 34 years his junior.

The Westernized daughter of a wealthy banker, Suha was a controversial choice.

Her extravagant lifestyle in Paris -- where she has mainly lived since 1995 -- merely added to the perennial allegations of corruption in the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), with the main culprits being the "old guard" cronies who stuck with Arafat during his years in Tunisian exile.

In the days before his death, Suha's antagonism to visits at the hospital from leading Palestinians led to accusations that she wanted to control the secrets of his money.

Reportedly paid US$100,000 a month to maintain herself and their 10-year-old daughter, Zahwa, Suha became the subject of a French money-laundering investigation last year.

Prosecutors said it concerned transfers of US$11.4 million from Switzerland into two of her accounts between July 2002 and July 2003.

The revenues of the PLO and whatever personal wealth Arafat possessed have always been opaque. The US magazine Forbes suggested a couple of years ago that he was the sixth richest in their list of kings, queens and despots, with a fortune of ?300 million.

"We are afraid if something happens to Arafat, we will not know where all the money is," Azmi Shuaibi, a member of the Palestinian legislative council, told the magazine.

"He may not have a cent," Mona Bauwens, the London-based Palestinian writer said this week. "He used his money as a tool for power; he was not personally indulgent."

But her father, Jaweed al-Ghussein, the PLO's treasurer for 12 years until 1996 has different ideas.

"There is probably up to US$1 billion which he controlled and has not been accounted for," he said.

As chairman of the Palestine National Fund, al-Ghussein would sign a note every month authorizing the Arab Bank in Zurich to release US$10.25 million into accounts controlled by Arafat.

According to al-Ghussein, the money came largely from donations from the Arab states. Although shifting Arab rivalries meant that pledges were never entirely met, he says that this income amounted to US$250 million a year from 1979 until Arafat's ill-judged support for former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But for that gesture, al-Ghussein claims, Saddam gave Arafat US$150 million.

Al-Ghussein says a lot of the PLO's money was wasted in high- risk investments, many in Africa.

In the past two years, however, the reformers in the Palestinian Authority -- led by Finance Minister Salam Fayyad -- have shed some light on Arafat's income and that of the authority since the 1993 Oslo accords.

The 2003 budget revealed that US$74 million was appropriated for the president's office of which US$34 million was dedicated to "transfers."

An IMF report into the authority's finances last year said that some of this went to needy individuals and organizations. But it added: "Other claimants and organizations are part of politically favored networks who should not be getting such grants under any criterion."

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