Tony Blair and the Wataniya scandal
Yesterday the Daily Mail put out a whopper of a story, alleging that Tony Blair used his position as Middle East envoy for the benefit of one his employers:
Tony Blair mounted an intense political lobbying campaign to rescue a struggling mobile-phone business owned by a client of the bank that pays him a £2 million annual salary.
The firm, Wataniya, had already built a brand-new network in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian West Bank.
But it almost collapsed before launching its service, jeopardising a £450 million investment, because Israel’s government was refusing to let it use the frequencies it needed to operate.
Acting in his capacity as the international Middle East peace envoy, Mr Blair helped to save the company by spending months putting pressure on Israel’s prime minister and his colleagues in a bid to change their minds.
An investigation by The Mail on Sunday has revealed:
- Mr Blair spoke of the need to get Wataniya up and running in order to boost the Palestinian economy. However JP Morgan, the American investment bank that employs him as a consultant, has a financial stake in Wataniya through Wataniya’s owner, the Qatari firm Qtel, which is an important client of JP Morgan.
- Financial documents show that back in 2007, JP Morgan had been one of four ‘mandated lead arrangers’ of a $2 billion loan with which Qtel bought Wataniya from its original Kuwaiti owners. Last year, the bank joined a syndicate that lent Qtel a further $500 million, and became a ‘lead arranger’ for a Qtel bond issue which raised yet another $1.5 billion.
In these deals, JP Morgan would have been paid many millions of pounds in fees, and if the loans had gone bad, could have been exposed to substantial losses. ‘Its original exposure was probably around $200 million,’ one Wall Street expert said yesterday.
The article also has plenty about the longstanding issue around Wataniya, one of the biggest examples of corruption in the Palestinian Authority. The amazing thing is that Wataniya has been a priority not only for Blair and the Palestinian leadership, but also for the US. Reuters reported last year that US aid had been redirected towards the company:
RAMALLAH, West Bank, April 24 (Reuters) - U.S. aid in the form of loan guarantees meant for Palestinian farmers and other small to mid-sized businesses has been given to a mobile phone firm backed by President Mahmoud Abbas and Gulf investors.
The shift in U.S. taxpayer support to Wataniya Palestine, a joint venture between a Kuwaiti and Qatari telecoms group and a holding company for public assets, the Palestine Investment Fund (PIF), has dismayed sponsors of small private enterprise.
Its supporters counter that help for Wataniya Palestine is good for jobs and free markets at a time when Washington is throwing its weight, and money, behind Abbas as a bulwark against Hamas Islamists in Gaza and as a partner in efforts to relaunch peace negotiations with Israel.
Among the firm's advocates is Middle East envoy Tony Blair, who pressed Israel to grant Wataniya Palestine radio frequencies so the company can challenge a monopoly long held by PalTel.
Mohammad Mustafa, Abbas's chief economic adviser and chairman of both the PIF and Wataniya Palestine, said the $16 million in loan guarantees for Wataniya were justified by the global credit crunch and the company's potential to bolster the Palestinian economy. He said plenty of guarantees remained to boost smaller businesses, as intended by programme sponsors.
But former PIF board members and advisers, speaking on condition of anonymity, challenged the justification for granting U.S. loan guarantees when Wataniya Palestine's financial backers were highly profitable.
"They don't need to provide them a guarantee. They are not the targeted beneficiary," said Samir Barghouthi, general manager of the Arab Centre for Agricultural Development, which helps small businesses. "This is not acceptable."
In Gaza, people have been imprisoned for several years and prevented from reconstructing after being used as target practice, with no possibility to defend themselves, by the IDF. In the West Bank Palestinians continue to have their lives micro-managed by Israelis and to be bullied and stolen from by settlers. In the meantime, we have a Quartet envoy who uses his position to do business and a US agenda driven by corporate welfare and filling the pockets of Mahmoud Abbas, his family and his friends. And people wonder why there is no confidence in the peace process or the PA?
Update: An alert reader points out that Blair also consults for the Kuwaiti government, which used to own about 24% of Wataniya:
Tony Blair Associates has as a client Kuwait, and by implication its royal family, while Blair has met with the finance minister of Kuwait while representing JPMorgan Chase. Wataniya Palestine is substantially (57%) owned by investors from Qatar and... Kuwait. For the former, it's Qatar Telecom. But for the later, it's the Kuwait Investment Authority, which operates on behalf of the State of Kuwait -- Tony Blair Associates' client. So when Blair lobbies for Wataniya, who is he representing?
Maybe Tony Blair should just give up either the Quartet envoy position or his consultancy. Or is it that the unpaid Quartet gig is just too lucrative for his consultancy?