A London court holding the Unaoil corruption trial has heard how alleged bribery payments were in fact believed to be for security measures
A state of lawlessness and civil unrest in Iraq in the years after the 2003 US invasion made rebuilding the country’s failing oil and gas infrastructure a matter of great urgency, jurors in the Unaoil bribery trial heard today (21 February).
Employees and associates of the Monaco-based energy consultancy at the heart of a global corruption investigation were acting against a backdrop of violence and social instability, where the country’s critical energy infrastructure was at imminent risk of failure.
And the payments alleged to have been made to bribe public officials to win industrial tenders were in fact believed to be for personal security in this dangerous and volatile environment.
That is according to Jim Sturman QC, who is representing Ziad Akle – one of three defendants accused by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) of conspiracy to make corrupt payments in Iraq on behalf of Unaoil and its agents.
“Oil infrastructure was failing, and with it came the danger of even greater trouble in Iraq,” he said.
It was the job of Akle, and his colleagues on the ground in southern Iraq, to persuade key local decision-makers that Unaoil’s equipment-manufacturing clients could accelerate the pace of these reconstruction efforts.
“The sell was expertise”, said the defendant, adding that Iraqi energy operators faced numerous challenges including terrorist attacks on key infrastructure and problems procuring the right equipment and know-how for “engineering and maintenance” activities.
Emails central to Unaoil bribery trial paint an ‘incomplete’ picture, defence argues
Akle, 45, of dual Lebanese and British citizenship and Unaoil’s former territory manager for Iraq, took to the witness stand in London’s Southwark Crown Court for questioning about his role in securing contracts during a massive overhaul of Iraq’s oil and gas infrastructure in the post-Saddam years.
The Iraq Crude Oil Export Expansion Project was conceived as a way to more than double the war-torn country’s crude oil export capacity from 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) to 4.5 million bpd following US occupation.
SFO prosecutors have argued that Unaoil used its influence and connections in within Iraq’s state-owned South Oil Company (SOC) to manipulate the outcome of tender processes in this scheme, including pipeline upgrades and the installation of single point mooring (SPM) systems.
But Mr Sturman has said the case – which is based largely on a cache of emails detailing correspondence between the Unaoil executive team and its associates – paints an “incomplete” picture of the situation, and presents a perspective not available to Akle at the time of his alleged crimes.
“The emails you have read are a sample, of a sample, of tens of thousands of documents, and the prosecution’s selection paints a picture that is incomplete,” he said.
“That is not a criticism, but it’s a picture that’s very difficult to draw together fairly due to the security position that existed in Iraq.”
Three men charged with conspiracy to make corrupt payments
According to the prosecution, Akle was involved in “almost all the key events” relevant to the SFO investigations, holding a “very senior” position within the company.
This seniority is something he disputes, detailing a chain of command headed by Unaoil founder Ata Ahsani, whose two sons Cyrus and Saman – both currently subject of related criminal investigations in the US – were next in line, along with another company executive Peter Willimont.
Akle faces criminal charges for conspiracy to make corrupt payments alongside Steven Whiteley, 65, who was Unaoil’s general territories manager for Iraq, and formerly a vice-president of SBM Offshore; and Paul Bond, 68, who was a senior sales manager for SBM Offshore.
Netherlands-based SBM Offshore is one of the companies in whose favour Unaoil is accused of rigging an SOC tender process.
All three men deny the charges against them.
A place like no other
Mr Sturman argued that in the post-invasion years, Western companies seeking to work in the region were “viewed with suspicion” by Iraqi government and energy interests, which needed “persuading” to work with these foreign partners.
This was the job of Akle and his colleagues on the ground in Iraq.
They were Basil Al Jarah – who has already pleaded guilty to SFO corruption charges – and Oday Al Quoraishi, a man nicknamed “Ivan”.
Unaoil is alleged to have paid Al Quoraishi a retainer ultimately totalling $608,000 to exert influence at the highest levels of SOC in favour of its clients.
“They had a chance to be on the ground floor of rebuilding one of the world’s biggest oil reserves,” said Mr Sturman.
“Akle knew that a retainer was being paid to Al Quoraishi, but we submit that he believed those payments were to ensure that, against the backdrop of life in Iraq, Al Quoraishi was safe.
“Iraq was a place like no other. Law and order had completely broken down. People couldn’t depend on the state like we can.
“There were tribal rivalries and militias – even the banks were being bombed. That’s what life was like in Iraq.”
Akle never visited Iraq, the jury heard, and instead worked from Unaoil’s base of operations in Monaco.
The trial continues.