At the centre of a high-profile criminal investigation into corporate bribery lies Monaco-based energy consultancy Unaoil and the executives involved in running it.

A cache of leaked emails and documents investigated by Australian media outlets The Age and The Huffington Post in 2016 led to allegations of widespread corruption perpetrated by senior employees, prompting criminal inquiries by prosecutors in the US and UK.

The multi-layered probe into individuals from within Unaoil’s leadership team has already resulted in a handful of guilty pleas – most notably by the brothers Cyrus and Saman Ahsani, the former chief executive and chief operating officer respectively.


What is the Unaoil bribery investigation?

Unaoil and a number of its operatives stand accused of delivering bribes on behalf of their corporate clients to government officials in the Middle East and Africa in return for the award of multi-million dollar industrial contracts.

Several companies, including a number of household names, have been implicated in the inquiry, with energy giants Halliburton, Petrofac and Eni among those mentioned as having gained favourable treatment – whether wittingly or unwittingly – as a result of Unaoil’s influence.

Criminal probes into a number of individuals are ongoing, with the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) due to follow up a 2019 trial that resulted in a conviction with a new case to be heard in London, starting this week.

Here we take a look at the Unaoil investigation story to date and profile some of the key players in the sprawling criminal inquiry.


A brief history of Unaoil

Unaoil was founded in 1990 by Iranian-born Ata Ahsani,who moved to the UK following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and built a career working for various oil and engineering companies.

He moved his business, which was established as a “market consultancy company specialising in the energy sector in the Middle East and North Africa”, to Monaco, incorporating it in the British Virgin Islands – a region notoriously designated a tax haven for offshore companies and their opaque financial records.

The stated role of Unaoil was to function as a middle man between industrial companies and the governments of unstable regions in which they wished to operate – providing local expertise and contacts.

Unaoil became a family affair, with Ahsani’s two sons Cyrus and Saman appointed CEO and COO respectively to oversee its day-to-day operations.

It is these two figureheads – both UK residents – who were last year targeted by a US Department of Justice probe into violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by offering bribes to secure contracts for companies in foreign countries between 1999 and 2016.


Where has Unaoil operated and which companies has it worked with?

Leveraging the elder Ahsani’s extensive network of contacts in the Middle East, Unaoil soon established itself as an intermediary between western firms looking to do business in the region and the governments responsible for awarding industrial contracts.

Its client list includes the likes of Halliburton, Honeywell, FMC Technologies, Samsung, Hyundai, Rolls-Royce and Man Turbo – each of which engaged Unaoil’s services as a go-between for themselves and foreign governments in a bid to secure work in countries known to be politically unstable.

Among other regions, Unaoil is known to have operated in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo – all affected by unstable government and ranked high on Germany-based NGO Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Large corporations looking to do business in these resource-rich countries, where social volatility and political uncertainty make the usual methods less viable, were willing to pay for the local contacts and expertise offered by Unaoil.


Unaoil investigation convictions

Since 2016, governments from around the world have co-operated on wide-ranging criminal investigations into the allegations of corruption and bribery laid out by the leaked emails and subsequent reporting in Australia.

Both the US Department of Justice and UK’s SFO have launched their own inquiries – resulting in four separate guilty pleas being made to date by high-profile Unaoil associates.

Prosecutors in the US secured guilty pleas from both Cyrus and Saman Ahsani in March 2019 on charges of conspiracy to violate FCPA rules by facilitating bribes on behalf of firms in to secure oil and gas contracts in foreign countries.

Alongside them, former Unaoil director Steven Hunter – also a UK resident – pleaded guilty to his involvement in a conspiracy to violate the FCPA.

All three men are due to be sentenced in spring 2020.

In the UK, the SFO is pursuing its own charges against multiple individuals it says were involved in corrupt practices related to Unaoil’s dealings in Iraq over a period spanning almost two decades.

In July 2019, Unaoil’s former partner in Iraq Basil Al Jarah pleaded guilty to five counts of conspiracy to give corrupt payments, contrary to the Criminal Law Act 1977 and the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. He has yet to be sentenced.


Future of the Unaoil investigation

The UK anti-fraud organisation’s criminal inquiries remain ongoing, with a number of convictions still being pursued.

In January 2020, three individuals associated with the company’s dealings in Iraq will begin trial for conspiracy to make corrupt payments, as part of a three-year investigation into oil field contracts awarded between 2005 and 2011.

Ziad Akle, Paul Bond and Stephen Whiteley will face a jury together as part of the SFO’s scrutiny of deals struck with state-owned South Oil to supply and install single point moorings and oil pipelines in southern Iraq.

Bond and Whiteley – each facing two charges – were senior employees at SBM Offshore, a Dutch company specialising in floating production and mooring systems (FPMS) involved in bidding for Iraqi government contracts to supply industrial infrastructure.

Akle, who was formerly Unaoil’s territory manager in the country, faces three charges of conspiracy to make corrupt payments.

All three defendants deny the charges.