By Lubna Hamdan
Making his first appearance since his dramatic escape from Japan, Arabian Business was front and centre for Carlos Ghosn's invite-only appearance in Beirut and one thing is clear: it's hard not to fall for the charms of the world's most famous fugitive.
He’s witty, “I am used to what you call mission impossible”; he’s sarcastic, “I prefer this prison [Lebanon] to the one I was in before”; and he’s a hopeless romantic, “When I couldn’t see my wife Carole, I couldn’t see a horizon”.
Hard to believe this is the same man accused of funnelling millions in Nissan money for his own private investments. Then again, anyone who allegedly gets away with escaping house arrest in Japan in a music box to Beirut will entice admiration.
In just over 12 months, the former chairman and CEO of Japanese and French car giants Nissan and Renault went from automotive legend to the world’s most wanted fugitive. Carlos Ghosn was arrested in November 2018 on criminal charges including aggravated breach of trust and understating his income - counts he strongly denies. In a lengthy legal saga, he had been detained in solitary confinement for months, before being released on bail, re-arrested, bailed out again and placed under house arrest in Tokyo.
“I have looked forward to this day every single day for more than 400 days since I was brutally taken from my world as I knew it, ripped from my family, my friends”
On New Year’s Day, with the help of former Green Beret commando Michael Taylor, the 65-year-old tycoon fled the country in an epic escape for which details remain shrouded in mystery. The businessman is thought to have been smuggled out of Japan in a large case for audio equipment that was used by a music band hired to play at his dinner. He was then loaded onto a private jet from Osaka to Istanbul and another to his hometown Beirut. According to The Wall Street Journal, the container had holes drilled into its bottom to allow 5.5 foot Ghosn to breathe.
Almost immediately, international police cooperation body Interpol issued a red notice for Ghosn’s arrest - which he said his legal team will fight - while Nissan vowed to take “appropriate legal action” against the automaker’s former chief executive. In a statement, it said: “The internal investigation found incontrovertible evidence of various acts of misconduct by Ghosn, including misstatement of his compensation and misappropriation of the company’s assets for his personal benefit. Nissan will continue to do the right thing by cooperating with judicial and regulatory authorities wherever necessary.”
But as Ghosn addresses a room of invite-only international journalists in his much awaited press conference in Beirut – his first public appearance since his arrest – it is clear that he has not lost his appeal.
The crowd loves him and he loves them back, answering questions in four languages - Arabic, English, French and Portuguese - and getting the most stern of journalists to crack a smile. He even manages to stun a crowd of belligerent photographers into silence as he takes a break from his speech to share an intimate kiss with his wife Carole, who is herself now wanted for arrest in Japan for making “false statements” during an April testimony.
It is no wonder Ghosn’s life was made into a Japanese comic, and that was before his dramatic escape. But don’t hold your breath for a Netflix original. To the disappointment of the crowd, he confirms “there’s no contract” for a biography with the streaming platform. Yet if anyone wanted to, they could easily find enough for a hit film.
“I’m not afraid of what’s coming because what’s coming will be in my advantage… I can do a lot and I want to clear my name and find ways to make sure the truth will come out... For the short term, I’m here”
“I have looked forward to this day every single day for more than 400 days since I was brutally taken from my world as I knew it, ripped from my family, my friends, my communities, from Renault, Nissan and Mitsubishi and the 450,000 women and men who comprise those companies… I did not escape justice. I fled injustice and political persecution,” Ghosn says.
“Having endured more than 400 days of inhuman treatment in a system designed to break me and unwilling to provide me even minimal justice, I was left with no other choice but to protect myself and my family. It was a difficult decision and a risk one only takes resigned to the impossibility of a fair trade. With the strings being pulled and manipulated by those that set on securing a confession or conviction, whose only goal is to save face.”
The French, Brazilian and Lebanese national claims the charges against him are part of a coup by Nissan executives who frowned upon his plans for a merger between the Japanese automaker and its alliance partner Renault.
He was so unsuspecting of the scheme that he likens it to the 1941 surprise military attack by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service on the United States’ naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii, which led to America’s formal entry into World War II the next day.
“What happened in Pearl Harbor? Did you foresee Pearl Harbor happen? Did you notice what happened in Pearl Harbor? So you are telling me how I didn’t notice - and I wasn’t even in my country - that something like this was being cooked against me? I didn’t notice it because it’s true that when it’s planned and confidential and secret, it happens. You’d be surprised and I was surprised,” he says of the alleged coup.
Ghosn clarifies that he did not propose a merger between Nissan and Renault, but rather a holding company for which the two car brands would have separate headquarters, brands, executive committee, but one board and chairman.
“But you can expect me in the next weeks to take some initiative to tell you how I’m going to clear my name, what kind of form I’m going to use to make sure all the evidence comes to the table”
“It was not a full merger… I was trying as much as possible to overcome resistance coming from the Japanese who wanted to be very autonomous and at the same time, from the other side, the willingness of the French to go for a whole merger.
“So I thought a holding company was a very good balance between the wish of a full merger from outside and the desire for autonomy. But, as you know, at the end of the day, one side said why do we need all of this? Let’s get rid of him. Now there’s nothing. There isn’t even an alliance. We went backwards, we didn’t go forward,” he says.
With plunging stocks and decade low profits, Nissan is certainly struggling. Crippled by internal divisions over the loss of its former leader, employee turnover and an aging model lineup, its current CEO Makoto Uchida must find a way to save the automaker that was so famously revived by Ghosn in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, Ghosn must now work on saving himself, as Japanese prosecutors said they will take “whatever measure we have in our power to bring defendant Ghosn to justice” and that his statements during the press conference “failed to justify his acts”.
It doesn’t help his case that only a handful of Japanese reporters are allowed into the room to take part in the two and a half hour long conference, with at least 50 others stranded outside in heavy rains and denied entry. His defence is protecting himself against what he considers to be state-backed propaganda.
“I’m not segregating against Japanese media. I know a lot of [Japanese journalists] are outside but frankly if you’ve been selected, in my opinion, it’s because you’re the only people who are trying to be objective towards this situation while the other people are being sourced at the hand of the prosecutors [which] has no advantage to me.
“I want to speak to people who can analyse the facts. That doesn’t mean I’m running from [Japanese media]. When we finish I’m going to go see them and say hello, I have nothing against you. But I wanted here in the room the BBC, the CNN, the CBS because they are big media who will be objective and factual…” Ghosn says.
The high profile former executive is not wasting any time in attempting to clear his name, despite being in safe territory in Lebanon, which does not share an extradition agreement with Japan that requires him to be sent back.
“I’m not afraid of what’s coming because what’s coming will be in my advantage… I can do a lot and I want to clear my name and find ways to make sure the truth will come out. So yes now for the short term I’m here and I’m proud to be here because I’m surrounded by friends and people who respect me and are proud of me which I really needed after the ordeal I went through.
“But you can expect me in the next weeks to take some initiative to tell you how I’m going to clear my name, what kind of form I’m going to use to make sure all the evidence comes to the table and that everything else is restored… not be put into a propaganda system [where I seem] an old greedy dictator, but as someone I have been, which is very active in the car industry with everything I have done,” he says.
His 17-year career in Japan may have come to a bitter end, but Ghosn may well find opportunity in Lebanon, which is facing its own economic and political crisis. He insists that he is “not a political man” and has “no political ambitions,” yet states that if asked to “serve my country then yes I am ready”.
It is at that moment that the Lebanese crowd in the room erupts into applause. Perhaps Ghosn is the man Lebanon’s been waiting for.