November 12, 2004
Like many aspects of Yasser Arafat’s life – including his supposed wealth – his marriage in July 1990 to Suha Tawil was at first kept a secret. It was only 18 months later that the man who claimed he was wedded to the cause made the surprise announcement that he had taken a 28-year-old Palestinian Catholic wife 34 years his junior.
The Westernized daughter of a wealthy banker, Suha was a controversial choice. Her extravagant lifestyle in Paris – where she has mainly lived since 1995 – merely added to the perennial allegations of corruption in the Palestine Liberation Organization, with the main culprits being the “old guard” cronies who stuck with Arafat during his years in Tunisian exile.
In the days before his death, Suha’s antagonism to visits at the hospital from leading Palestinians led to accusations that she wanted to control the secrets of his money. Reportedly paid $100,000 a month to maintain herself and their daughter, Zahwa, 9, Suha became the subject of a French money-laundering investigation last year. Prosecutors said it concerned transfers of $11.4 million from Switzerland into two of her accounts between July 2002 and July 2003.
The revenues of the PLO and whatever personal wealth Arafat possessed have always been opaque. The U.S. magazine Forbes suggested a couple of years ago that he had a fortune of more than $550 million. “We are afraid if something happens to Arafat, we will not know where all the money is,” Azmi Shuaibi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, told the magazine.
“He may not have a cent,” Mona Bauwens, a London-based Palestinian writer, told the Guardian this week. “He used his money as a tool for power; he was not personally indulgent.” But her father, Jaweed al-Ghussein, the PLO’s treasurer for 12 years until 1996, has different ideas. “There is probably up to $1 billion which he controlled and has not been accounted for,” he said.
As chairman of the Palestine National Fund, al-Ghussein would sign a note every month authorizing the Arab Bank in Zurich, Switzerland, to release $10.25 million into accounts controlled by Arafat. According to al-Ghussein, the money came largely from donations from Arab states. Although shifting Arab rivalries meant that pledges were never entirely met, he says that this income amounted to $250 million a year from 1979 until Arafat’s ill-judged support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. But for that gesture, al-Ghussein claims, Saddam gave Arafat $150 million. Al-Ghussein says a lot of the PLO’s money was wasted in high-risk investments, many in Africa.
In the past two years, however, the reformers in the Palestinian Authority – led by the finance minister, Salam Fayyad – have shed some light on Arafat’s income and that of the P.A. since the 1993 Oslo accords.
The 2003 budget revealed that $74 million was appropriated for the president’s office, of which $34 million was dedicated to “transfers.” An International Monetary Fund report into P.A. finances last year said that some of this went to needy individuals and organizations. But it added: “Other claimants and organizations are part of politically favored networks who should not be getting such grants under any criterion.” The IMF also revealed that between 1995 and 2002, up to $900 million from tax revenues and profits from the Palestinian Authority’s dozens of commercial enterprises had been diverted from the budget into accounts controlled by Arafat.
His personal financial advisor, Mohammed Rashid, an Iraqi Kurd, now manages the Palestine Investment Fund, set up in October 2002 to hold all of the P.A.’s assets and investments. An apparently transparent audit of these assets in January last year valued them at $633 million, including 67 commercial enterprises.