Speak Out And I Am Dead! – The Drama Continues In The Swiss PetroSaudi Trial

It would appear that the alleged Saudi fraudster and money launderer, Tarek Obaid, was in fact some sort of Gulf version of 007: a secret agent acting on the direct instructions of the former King of Saudi Arabia.

He cannot, of course, prove such a sensitive matter, not only because a King ““does not write his instructions on a piece of paper” but also because he would be killed were he to open his lips.

This seems to be the line of argument that Mr Obaid has embarked on in order to persuade the federal judges presiding over the 1MDB-related fraud trial in Bellinzona that they should relent over his demands for a secret trial and, moreover, give him latitude over his refusal to answer questions about his role in the theft and disappearance of $1.83 billion from the fund, much of which went into funding his business, lavish lifestyle and property portfolios.

There is an element of deduction required in the reporting of this matter as Mr Obaid’s lawyers today, once again, succeeded in clearing the court to discuss his secrecy pleas – save for a few accredited journalists who were bafflingly instructed not to report what they heard.

However, it was evident the in camera session was being held to go over similar arguments to those which had already been rejected by an earlier ruling, namely that Mr Obaid believes that secrecy is vital because his life is in danger owing to his patriotic work for the ex-Saudi King.

To flesh out the narrative to which the judges were likely treated, one probably need go no further than an extensive article written by the Swiss journalist Sylvain Besson in 2018, shortly after a “tormented” Tarek Obaid had learnt that his “close” contact Najib Razak had lost the Malaysian election and was facing his own prosecution and punishment.

Tarek Obaid has told the same secret story since 2018

Tarek Obaid has told the same secret story since 2018

Besson had long since obtained the leading edge on stories emanating from PetroSaudi, not least because of his friendship with Obaid’s PR man Marc Comina.

(This was discovered by Sarawak Report after several articles had appeared written by Besson attacking our now vindicated reporting on 1MDB and the jailed whistleblower, Xavier Justo).

This rendition of Tarek Obaid’s chosen explanation for his role in the affair – as shared with Besson by “numerous sources close to PetroSaudi over the course of some twenty meetings organised in palaces around Geneva or in chauffeur-driven limousines” – is therefore likely to be authentic.

The excuses outlined in 2018 also reflect what has been alluded to in court indicating it forms the narrative Obaid is sticking to, i.e. he was an agent of the deceased King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and was carrying royal instructions while working to assist Najib.

However, to disclose further detail e.g. proof would endanger his life.

Cut-throat origins

Obaid’s sense of fear is perhaps not so surprising, given the circles he has moved in.

For example, as Sarawak Report has previously revealed, Obaid and his brother Nawaf (a Saudi government functionary at the time) had hired the newsman Jamal Khashoggi in late 2009 to fly to KL to interview Najib for a lucrative $100,000 (from 1MDB money) and then place the article prominently in his Saudi paper.

The brothers referred to this family contact as ‘Uncle Jamal’, so they would have been doubly traumatised when the later exiled journalist was abducted overseas and murdered by the new Saudi regime in October 2018.

By that time, many of the relatives and entourage of the late King Abdullah had fallen out of favour and were in deep trouble with the new “Boss”, MBS.

They included Tarek’s business partner in several shell companies which had been seeking to make money for access, such as PetroSaudi, Prince Turki  bin Abdullah. The seventh son of the departed monarch has been detained on separate corruption charges in Saudi Arabia since 2017.

There are major concerns about Prince Turki’s health and well being, following no news for several months.

This may well be sufficient to spook Obaid who has lain low in Switzerland since being briefly detained in China a few years back.

However, it will be a tougher job to explain to Swiss judges how his alleged but unproven role as emissary for the ex-Saudi King could have plunged him into corrupt dealings over 1MDB.

Besson’s 2018 explanation involves several twists and turns and lots of bad luck that somehow made Tarek extremely rich. Like Najib he relies on a tale of good intentions betrayed by Jho Low.

‘Stroke of Genius’ or A Likely Tale?

In short, according to the narrative penned by Besson, Tarek and Prince Turki had met Najib on a yacht hired off the South of France in 2009 on the instruction of the King of Saudi Arabia to see what could be done to help the new Malaysian prime minister, who was looking for cash to protect his country from radical extremism by winning the next election.

They came up with a plan that held a “stroke of genius” to “generate $700 million virtually out of nothing”, explained the article of 2018 which went on to detail the ruse by which $700 million was extracted from the 1 billion dollars invested by 1MDB in a so-called Joint Venture with the shell company PetroSaudi.

This involved the paying back of a non-existent loan by 1MDB on the basis that PetroSaudi had donated oil assets to the venture that it did not own:

“PetroSaudi brings its oil concessions to South America and Turkmenistan; the Malaysian fund is investing a billion dollars in cash to develop these assets. But of this sum, 700 million is returned to PetroSaudi, on the grounds that the value of its oil fields – 2.2 billion, according to the expert hired for the evaluation – is greater than the 1.5 billion that the oil company must invest in the joint venture. “We take money because the value of the assets exceeds that of the cash,” summarizes a person who participated in the transaction.
This simple equation (2.2 billion – 1.5 billion = 700 million) creates a mountain of liquidity available to PetroSaudi and Malaysians.
The London firm White & Case – PetroSaudi’s usual lawyers – prepared the arrangement. Tarek Obaid signs the agreement which creates the joint venture” [Tarek Obaid: la tragédie du Suisse au cœur du scandale 1MDB – translated]

Readers of Sarawak Report will know that PetroSaudi did not own the asset – they had merely purchased a short-term option to buy it and the moment the billion had been paid they cancelled it.

However, Besson relayed a different tale from ‘those around Obaid’, namely that it was the Turkmenistan government which had suddenly cancelled the concession rendering PetroSaudi’s injected assets “worth much less than expected”.

You can say that again!

At this point, Obaid tells Besson that, heartbroken, he had offered to pay back the $700 million that had gone into Good Star Ltd as a vehicle where the money ‘generated from nothing’ had been placed apparently with the blessing of Obaid’s “Boss” the Saudi King, in order to help Najib win the up-coming election.

However, Obaid was surprised to have this argument rejected by Najib, says the article. This on the grounds of the costs incurred in making all these transfers.  Understandable if highly inconsistent.

So, the arrangement was changed to a loan to enable Najib to continue to access the cash through Jho Low. As Besson explains it:

“a sort of arrangement is found with the Saudis: the Malaysians can use the money for the re-election of the prime minister, on condition they later repay the amount thus “borrowed””

This was in keeping with Tarek’s instructions at least, according to Besson.

Earlier the Saudi King had responded to Najib’s plea for cash by telling the young emissary “We will not let Malaysia down,” then tasking him to make sure Saudi Arabia fulfilled the Malaysian PM’s endless and growing demands for cash.

The article continues with a series of similar explanations and excuses as to how further funds were raised and shared around and why Obaid was not lying when he claimed that PetroSaudi and not Jho Low owned Good Star.

The reason for that was that Jho had passed Tarek the ‘bearer shares’ for Good Star, meaning Tarek ‘owned’ the company.  However,  since Jho held on to the bank account it was he who, of course, controlled the company and all the spending that went on.

Poor Tarek had assumed Jho would be honest about this. Although of course the whole plan to rip off Malaysians to pay Najib’s election costs was fundamentally dishonest anyway (do not crave consistency as it is not to be found in this narrative).

Instead, as Tarek began to realise that Jho was splashing cash around the globe he started to understand he had been duped and the money was being spent somehow against the command of his King who had said “We will not let Malaysia down.” 

This account glosses over the large amounts of money paid to Tarek Obaid from Good Star itself (some $150 million) and a good more besides, as laid out in the fairly damning prosecution indictment that ascribes an entirely different set of motives to the young man’s actions.

There is no reference to his wild parties, gross expenditures and gaudy excesses either. Just a tale of a young man on a secret mission to serve his country.

This sensitive explanation (or Cock and Bull Story as you prefer) will likely form the substance of the argument provided by Obaid and his lawyers, in camera or not, over the coming days.

What else can he say beyond admitting the charges?  In which case it is understandable that he fears the fury of the Saudi state.

For this is a narrative that suggests the richest royal on the planet had endorsed a plan to help the Malaysian prime minister win an election campaign by assisting him in concealing the theft of billions of dollars from his own people.

This despite having made a separate generous political donation already, through the Saudi Foreign Affairs Department, of some $90 million for apparently the same purpose of assisting stability by supporting Najib (or, to put it another way, indulging in foreign interference in Malaysia’s election).

There is no doubt that his refusal to plead guilty and decision to rely on a cover story has put Tarek Obaid between a rock and a hard place when it comes to this trial. No wonder he wants everything he says kept secret.

However, we have heard it all before.

The Le Temps article also mentioned in 2018 that Tarek’s entourage had made clear:
“The boss of PetroSaudi also invested considerable sums in his defence. He and his company hired lawyers in Switzerland, the United States and London, but also private detectives, strategy consultants and IT experts….”

Such investments clearly accounted for a good share of the three year long campaign of harassment involving surveillance, stalking, hacking, anonymous online defamation and negative PR campaigns suffered by the editor of Sarawak Report during the unravelling of the 1MDB scandal.

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