HSE University Anti-Corruption Portal
Justice in Quarantine: a Trial Suspended amid Coronavirus Concerns in the UK

The trial of the executives of Unaoil and SBM Offshore accused of participating in wide-ranging corruption scheme was suspended amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic in the United Kingdom.


The judge decided that following the sitting of the court on March 17, the trial of Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley, Unaoil’s ex executives, and Paul Bond, a manager for SBM Offshore, will be adjourned until 31 March (with the possibility of extension).

Akle was Unaoil’s territories manager in Iraq, Whiteley was Unaoil’s general territories manager for the country and formerly a vice-president of SBM Offshore, whilst Bond was a senior sales manager for SBM Offshore, responsible for relations with Unaoil. According to the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO), these individuals allegedly participated in bribing Iraqi government officials to secure public contracts: they paid around $6 million to win the contract to construct single buoy moorings for a total amount of $800 million. They were accused of conspiring to make corrupt payments; all three defendants deny charges against them.

The inquiry into the Unaiol case and its officials was launched in 2016, when Australian media outlet The Age, which had got a cache of emails of the company as a result of massive leak, handed the materials of its six-month investigation over to the SFO. The journalists managed to establish the facts of massive bribery of officials in Middle East countries with Unaoil acting as an intermediary between 2002 and 2012.

Unaoil was founded in 1999 as a “market consultancy company specialising in the energy sector in the Middle East and North Africa”. In practice, however, the small “family” business, established by Ata Ahsani, provided multiple companies with such services as reaching out to contacts and getting access to the markets of the countries like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others. Its “client” list included such big companies as Rolls-Royce and Petrofac (UK), Halliburton, Weatherford and Natco (US), Samsung and Hyundai (South Korea), SBM Offshore (the Netherlands), Eni and Saipem (Italy) and Leighton Holdings (Australia).*

The inquiry started with the investigation of the participation of Unaoil in securing public contracts for multinational companies in Iraq during a massive overhaul of Iraq’s oil infrastructure in the post-Hussein years: oil expansion required the improvement of existing infrastructure and big companies operating within the energy industry wanted to participate in that lucrative project. Unaoil operated as a go-between for those companies and the Iraqi state-owned South Oil Company (SOC). Unaoil maintained connections with SOC through two officials: Dia Jaffar al-Mousawi, codename “Beacon”, the SOC Director General in the years 2009-2015 turned deputy Minister of Oil, and Oday al-Quoraishi, codename “Ivan”, the manager of the cooperation project between the Iraqi Ministry of Oil and the US Gulf Development Project, a US initiative aimed at developing the Persian Gulf countries. They provided insider information about tenders and facilitated the outcome of tender processes in favour of Unaoil’s clients.

Unaoil started to court these individuals well before they got senior positions in SOC. The “Beacon”, for instance, got small bribes through purchases in the shop that belonged to him, an English language course for his son in Dubai, assistance in the attempt to get a residence permit in the UAE and donations to his mayoral election campaign. As for Ivan, they had promised him a job in Unaoil, but after he was offered the post of a SOC project manager they decided that it would be more useful to have him working in the state-owned company with Unaoil paying him a monthly remuneration for every contract they would gain with his assistance.

Multiple intermediary organizations and code language were deployed to make the illicit payments within the scheme. For instance, Unaoil’s employees called a bribe a “leave” in their correspondence: the Executive Director of the company wrote in an email that he “had already offered the Beacon a half-day leave, but they [Dia Jaffar and al-Quoraishi] wanted a full day. We could not agree on 18 hours”. In order to transfer funds they used, in particular, Al Kassim Technical Services FZC, based in the International Free Zone, UAE, which owners were connected to the Unaoil hierarchy through various shareholding arrangements and investment firms: a 40% stake belonged to Muhammed Noor and Rafia Nooral Deen, the brothers of Basil Al Jarah, Unaoil’s country manager for Iraq. The other shareholder in Al Kassim Technical Services was Pinnacle Finance Investment, a company in which the majority owner was Ata Ahsani and CEO and COO were his sons Cyrus and Saman.

The investigation of the US and UK authorities produced the following results:

  • in 2019 Basil Al Jarah pleaded guilty of conspiring to give corrupt payments to public officials to secure commercial contracts in Iraq; he has yet to be sentenced by the UK court;
  • in the same year Cyrus and Saman Ahsani pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate bribe payments to government officials in Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya and Syria, and in 2018 Steven Hunter, a former Unaoil business development director, admitted facilitating bribery payments to Libyan officials. He is also to be sentenced in the US;
  • the companies that were Unaoil’s “clients” in Iraq were also held liable in the US: Technip (paid a penalty of approximately $87 million to the US authorities in 2019), SBM Offshore (paid $238 million to the US authorities in 2017), Rolls-Royce (paid almost $170 million to the US authorities in 2016).

The investigation of the UK authorities into Unaoil is ongoing. However, the SFO has already announced it would not further investigate against the Ahsani family without giving reasons for that decision. Against this backdrop the story of Tom Martin, a former SFO prosecutor suing the employer for unfair dismissal, is rather curious. Martin, who was leading the SFO investigation into Unaoil, was sacked after allegedly swearing at an FBI agent in a pub, where British and American prosecutors working on the investigation went after a meeting. In legal papers, he has alleged that Saman Ahsani and the US Department of Justice agreed to make a joint complaint against him in order to remove him as the case controller of the investigation and to prevent the SFO from extraditing Ahsani. In response to this the SFO applied for an employment tribunal to be held in secret.

* It is noteworthy that despite the main actual objective of Unaoil’s activities, i.e. operate as an intermediary in corruption schemes, in 2007 the company received a certificate testifying its compliance with the highest international anti-corruption standards. The document was issued by TRACE International, a well-known US audit company that claims to be “a globally recognized anti-bribery business association and leading provider of third party risk management solutions”. This kind of situation (and this is not the only case) seems to challenge the real value of the certificates issued by private commercial companies: it is highly likely that at least some of over twenty companies, appearing in the DoJ’s charging documents as Unaoil’s clients, considered that certificate as an integrity assurance of their counterpart and as a result they could be unknowingly involved in corrupt practices.

UPD At the end of July Akle was sentenсed to 5 years in prison, Whiteley - to 3 years.

Foreign bribery
International cooperation
Corruption in public procurement

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