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Thu 17 Feb 2011 10:57 AM

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Have money, will travel

Hosni Mubarak has gone to ground while reports of his wealth escalate by the day. But even if he can pay the rent, where can the man Egypt decided it could abide no longer now call home?

Have money, will travel
Have money, will travel
Foreign secretary William Hague has stated the British government will cooperate fully with Egypt if impropriety by Mubarak can be proved

When it comes to Hosni Mubarak, separating fact from fiction will be a massive task. As investigations begin into the finances and whereabouts of the former dictator, who abdicated the Egyptian presidency less than two weeks ago, the rumour mill has been in overdrive.

Estimates of Mubarak's fortune have varied wildly from $2bn to $70bn, and his whereabouts have changed by the hour, from Sharm Al Sheikh to Sharjah. Even the state of his health, according to some reports, is in serious doubt.

But for now, the international spotlight is turning onto his wealth - how much there really is, how he got it, and where it is.

“There will probably be an investigation into whether they’re stolen assets and how much corruption occurred,” says Theodore Karasik, analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.

According to Christopher Davidson, professor of Middle East politics in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in the UK, it’s “most likely” the bulk of the family’s wealth comes from military deals.

“The emerging Egyptian state will likely try to recover stolen assets, bring them back to Egypt and put them in the economy,” Karasik says. “I have seen these figures, they are wild.”

The National Association for Change has called for an audit of Mubarak’s funds.

“Now we open all the files,” its head, George Ishak, has said. “We will research everything, all of them — the families of the ministers, the family of the president, everyone.”

That’s easier said than done.

With offshore money recovery, identifying all accounts, securing the money in liquid form and bringing it back to its country of origin has, historically, had very low success rates. On the day of his resignation, Swiss officials said they had blocked funds belonging to Mubarak and his entourage to avoid “possible misappropriation” of Egyptian state property. But that’s only a small piece of a massive fortune.

“The figures that have been going around the media are purely speculation,” Davidson adds. “There is no doubt that he is worth a few billion at least. It would be naive to assume that he is worth anything less than that. But these figures of $40, 50, 70 billion, to be honest, I am not sure where these have originated from. One should not be naïve. It is an extremely wealthy family.”

Egypt, which was the head of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, was buying weapons from both the former Soviet Union and the West and has continued to do so for many years. Investigators will now look at those deals very closely.

Also under fire are the sponsorships fronted by Gamal Mubarak, many of which were related to youth empowerment and meant to present the former London investment banker as a man of the people fit to take over for his father.

“It is far from wholesome, seeing as the president’s son was the head of many of these companies [that were providing the money],” Davidson says. Much of the investigation, he adds, will centre on “military kickbacks and also the business of selling off sovereign land to foreign real estate developers and hotels by the Mubaraks.”

The Mubarak billions are widely believed to be stored in various accounts in the West, with a large chunk in real estate in the UK and US. There is even speculation that a portion is tied up in gold in the Gulf, and that assets have already been moved to safe havens in the UAE and Saudi.

“Even those properties we think are owned by him, it’s difficult because of these layers of shell companies,” Karasik says. “They tracked one property in London that has been inhabited by Mubarak’s son to a shell company in Panama [then] to a shell company in Cyprus.  It is a very complex arrangement, which shouldn’t be surprising.”

In the wake of Switzerland’s freeze, there is now pressure on the rest of Europe to do likewise to the Mubarak family’s accounts.

Speculation that the Eurozone will follow suit reached fever pitch last week when Euro Group president Jean-Claude Juncker was asked and gave a categorical “yes.”

But the European Union said the next move would have to be Cairo’s.

“We are in contact with the Egyptian authorities. We will take appropriate measures if this issue comes up, when necessary,” says Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for its foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton.

Freezing of ex-Tunisian leader Ben Ali’s EU assets, she added, was “in consultation with the Tunisian authorities… this is a process, we would need an assessment and a decision by the 27 member states.”

Britain — where Mubarak, whose wife is half-Welsh, owns extensive property — has come under similar pressure, though a spokesman for the Foreign Office said last week it would not “speculate on the freezing of assets.” Foreign secretary William Hague has stated the British government will cooperate fully with Egypt if impropriety by Mubarak can be proved.

Once auditors locate the assets, they have to locate the man.

Speculation has pegged his likely whereabouts to the UAE or Saudi. Some of the more far-out rumors have placed him in Europe, specifically Germany.

The Germans have categorically denied that he is seeking asylum.

“He’s not in Germany, and he’s not on his way,” Steffen Seibert, the chief spokesman for German chancellor Angela Merkel, has said.

“This is a new round of rumours. There is absolutely no information that we have about this, and it would require him to have a visa to come here. So presumably we would know.”

Despite Egyptian prime minister Mohamed Shafik’s claims to the contrary, what most experts agree upon is that he is not in Egypt — specifically Sharm El Sheikh, where he has a compound.

There are also rumours of a move to Saudi, which gained a reputation as a haven for toppled Arab leaders by opening  its doors to ex-Tunisian ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

There is also speculation he’s in the UAE.

“There is a 50 percent chance he would come here [the UAE],” Karasik says. “It has been, in the past, where exiles or leaders who are exiled from the countries come because it is known as place where politics do not occur. It maintains security and stability.”

Mubarak could well need safe keeping. Unless he is granted immunity, there could well be music to face at home.

Davidson says: “Those who were in the leading families or close to the regime, who profited from the regime… I think there will be investigations in particular in anyone involved in minister of interior activities, torture, human rights, things like that.

“I expect there to be some thorough investigations as, after all, many of these new states that are forming will want to prove to the region and the world that transparency and anti-corruption is their main thing.”

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