The government was again caught on the back foot on Monday over its citizenship-by-investment scheme amid reports that a Saudi sheikh, whose company owns a Boeing jet permanently stationed at Larnaca airport, and whose late father had been alleged to have had ties to terrorist financing, was granted a Cypriot passport in 2016.
Main opposition Akel demanded explanations from the administration of President Nicos Anastasiades who, only a day earlier, had vowed to step down should he or his law firm be implicated in any wrongdoing in the controversial investment programme.
Akel cited a report by daily Politis published over the weekend, which among other things stated that Anastasiades flew on a jet – owned by the Saudi businessman – for a private trip to the Seychelles in August 2018.
In a statement, the party said the stream of reports – suggesting an apparent quid pro quo between Anastasiades and beneficiaries of the citizenship scheme – show that the political responsibilities of the Anastasiades government are “self-evident”.
“Whereas the personal involvement in the ‘golden passports’ of Mr Anastasiades and the law firm bearing his name may not point to unlawful acts, it does raise a serious matter of ethics.”
The government spokesman could not be reached for comment on Monday.
In the Saudi case, Politis reported that Saudi billionaire Abdulrahman bin Khalid bin Mahfouz, his brother Sultan bin Mahfouz, and four others, received Cypriot citizenship in 2016.
The paper published a screenshot of what it claimed to be an official document showing six persons applying or being approved for Cypriot citizenship. Abdulrahman Mahfouz’s name is at the top, with the other five as co-applicants.
It is believed that Mahfouz’s company owns the Boeing 737-800 which for some time now has been permanently parked at Larnaca airport.
It’s understood to be the same aircraft which was recently revealed to have been chartered by Anastasiades and his entourage for their trip to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. The auditor-general is currently looking into whether proper procedures were followed in relation to the plane’s chartering and the billing.
But the Politis expose went further. It recalled that Abdulrahman Mahfouz first visited Cyprus back in 2014 to explore possible investments here by the Al Murjan group of companies, one of the leading family businesses in Saudi Arabia, active in the areas of investment, industry and development.
The Al Murjan group was founded by the sheikh’s father, the late Khalid bin Mahfouz.
During his stay in Cyprus, Abdulrahman Mahfouz had met with the Archbishop and state officials.
Shortly later, in January 2015, a company by the name of Murjan Aviation was registered in Cyprus by a Nicosia law firm acting as proxy.
Politis went on to cite a story in The Irish Times, dated September 8, 2009, published just after the death of Mahfouz’s father, the billionaire Saudi banker Khalid.
The report said that in 1990, eleven Irish passports were granted to Khalid bin Mahfouz, his family and friends in exchange for a promised investment of £20 million.
“Then minister for justice Ray Burke personally authorised the naturalisation certificates at his Co Dublin home instead of delegating the matter to a senior official as was standard practice.
“An inquiry found that statutory procedures were breached in several instances, including the fact the passports were handed over before the necessary naturalisation procedures were completed; and the requirement that applicants swear an oath of fidelity to the State was waived.”
In the same report, The Irish Times also said that a month after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, Khalid bin Mahfouz’s name came up in the Dáil (the Irish legislature’s lower house) with members of parliament referring to media allegations relating to the financing of al Qaeda.
“Then minister for foreign affairs Brian Cowen confirmed the Mahfouz family passports had expired in 2000, and that the question of revoking them had not arisen.”
Following the attacks of 9/11, several individuals and organisations, particularly charities, in Saudi Arabia came under scrutiny as investigators attempted to track al Qaeda’s funding streams.
At the time Khalid bin Mahfouz, who made significant donations to Islamic charities, found his name popping up in reports and books dealing with the subject.
In October 2001, the US Treasury Department named Muwafaq Foundation – a charity devoted to famine relief – a front organization. Neither Khalid nor Abdulrahman were accused by the United States of funding terrorism.
Khalid had helped set up the Muwafaq Foundation, funding it with $30 million, and put his eldest son, Abdulrahman, on the board of directors.
Khalid had also served as non-executive director for Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), a financial conglomerate later convicted of money laundering, bribery, support of terrorism, arms trafficking, and other crimes.
Khalid personally owned a 20 per cent stake in BCCI. He was indicted by a New York state grand jury for fraud but denied any culpability. The fraud charges were settled for $225 million in lieu of fines.
On Sunday Anastasiades said he would resign “the next day” if he or his law firm is implicated in any wrongdoing in the citizenship for investment scheme.
In an interview with Simerini, part of which was published on Sigmalive, Anastasiades said: “”Let’s look at the citizenship application by my former law firm. If there is any instance, and I repeat, I would like to underline, which would show that either my former law firm or myself for any purpose, have given any illicit favour to anyone, I will resign the next day.”
The issue has been highlighted in recent weeks after a Reuters investigation showed how relatives and friends of Cambodia’s authoritarian prime minister had been granted Cypriot passports in 2016 and 2017.