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December 22 (Bloomberg) — In 35 years as Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat raised billions of dollars. He spent the fortune to wield power, to pay militants who attacked Israel and to invest in the U.S. and the Middle East.
Arafat used a holding company to buy stakes that ranged from $285 million in Egyptian mobile-phone company Orascom Telecom Holding SAE and its affiliates to some $30 million in private equity, mostly in the U.S. These included $3.2 million in Herndon, Virginia-based Simplexity Inc., which makes electronic-commerce software, $2.1 million in New York- and Boston-based Vaultus Inc., which makes software for wireless computers, and $1.3 million in New York-based Strike Holdings LLC, which owns the Bowlmor Lanes bowling alley in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Arafat, who died on November 11 at age 75, disclosed $799 million of investments in documents the Palestinian Authority has released over the past two years that show he didn’t just invest in building basic services in the West Bank and Gaza.
At a time when the authority was starved for funds, Arafat’s money managers placed bets from Tel Aviv to Silicon Valley on venture capital funds, software startups and telecommunications companies.
“Arafat was notoriously secretive, and he spread the money all over,” says Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of the New York-based American Center for Democracy and author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It” (Bonus Books, 2003). “He didn’t give the public a view of the investments until the donor community protested about corruption.”
Arafat and his money managers invested abroad through Palestine Commercial Services Co., a Ramallah-based holding company owned by the Palestinian Authority and known by its initials, PCSC. Arafat controlled PCSC through his financial adviser, Mohamed Rachid, according to Palestinian legislators Hanan Ashrawi and Azmi Shuaibi. Arafat appointed Rachid as PCSC’s chairman, a June 2004 World Bank report shows.
One PCSC subsidiary started investing $25 million in venture capital funds and Internet startups on April 4, 2000 — three weeks after the Nasdaq Composite Index peaked. The funds have since lost about two-thirds of their value.
Arafat made the investments abroad with tax money that he “diverted” from the Palestinian finance ministry, according to a September 2003 International Monetary Fund report on the Palestinian economy. Israel collected import taxes for goods destined for the territories and then passed the funds to the authority.
Israel halted the payments after violence erupted in the West Bank and Gaza in September 2000. By the end of 2002, the Palestinian Authority owed its ministries and suppliers as much as $531 million, or 10 percent of gross domestic product, the IMF report says.
“A political crisis occurred in May 2002,” the IMF report says. “Intense discussion within the cabinet, political factions and the Palestinian legislative branch, coupled with external pressures, prompted President Arafat to take immediate action toward a broad-based effort at institutional reform.”
In 2002, Arafat handed control of PCSC to a new Palestine Investment Fund, which then hired New York-based Standard & Poor’s, a McGraw-Hill Cos. unit, to value the investments.
In May 2004, the fund released its first annual report, which covered 2003 and was audited by the Amman, Jordan, office of Ernst & Young, a member of New York-based Ernst & Young International, which provides accounting and auditing services in 140 countries. The report showed the Gaza City-based Palestine Investment Fund had net income of $40.1 million in 2003 on revenue of $85.1 million.
The report also revealed that PCSC held a $6.8 million account of venture capital investments at New York-based Citigroup Inc., the world’s biggest bank. “Citigroup does not have any accounts for Yasser Arafat, and we never have,” company spokeswoman Shannon Bell said in a November 19 statement.
Citigroup Chief Executive Officer Charles Prince, 55, declined to answer questions about the account. There is no indication that Citigroup was aware that Arafat controlled PCSC.
Arafat was both hailed as a peacemaker and hated as a terrorist. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres after the three negotiated the 1993 Oslo accord, which created the framework for Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which Israel occupied during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel blamed Arafat for attacks on civilians, including the raid on the athletes’ village at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich that killed 11 Israelis.
Second Set of Money
As chairman since 1969 of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the diplomatically recognized representative of the Palestinians, Arafat controlled another set of investments and bank accounts, valued in 2002 at $500 million by Israeli army intelligence.
The number today is probably lower because the Palestinian Authority today gets much of the money that once went to the PLO in the form of donations from Arab governments, says Mohammad Shtayyeh, managing director of the West Bank-based Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, which administers aid money the Palestinian Authority spends.
The $799 million that’s now in the Palestine Investment Fund is the bulk of the assets that were under Arafat’s control, Shtayyeh says. “All the Palestinian money has been consolidated in the Palestine Investment Fund,” says Shtayyeh, who is also an economics professor at Birzeit University in the West Bank.
Arafat’s main source of cash for PCSC’s investments was Palestinian Authority tax money that he and Rachid collected yet never deposited into the authority’s budget, according to the IMF report.
Getting Arafat to hand over the holdings was like pulling teeth, says Ashrawi, 58, a former member of his cabinet. Arafat gave in to pressure from aid donors such as the European Union and from his finance minister, Salam Fayyad, the IMF’s former representative in the territories, she says. They demanded that Arafat turn over the investments as a condition of further aid, she says.
Until then, there had been little transparency, says Joel Toujas-Bernate, Washington-based IMF mission chief for the West Bank and Gaza. “Since then, many reforms have been implemented,” he says.
Most of the bigger investments held by the Palestine Investment Fund are in the West Bank and Gaza, such as the wholly owned Cement Co., valued at $54 million, which Arafat ran as a local monopoly until 1996; a $71 million stake in the Palestinian Authority’s joint venture with Reading, England-based BG Group Plc, the U.K.’s third-largest natural gas producer, to explore for gas off the Gaza Strip’s Mediterranean shore; and a 35 percent stake in Palestine Cellular Communications Co., the only mobile- phone service based in the territories, valued at $36.9 million.
Arafat also invested around the world through PCSC. The fund owns 25 percent of Algiers-based Orascom Telecom Algeria SpA, valued at $185 million, and 22 percent of Tunis-based Orascom Telecom Tunisie SA, worth $75 million, according to the annual report and asset valuations.
The companies run networks in Algeria and Tunisia for Cairo- based Orascom Telecom Holding, the Middle East’s biggest mobile phone company. The company’s stock has risen 32-fold in two years to 250 Egyptian pounds yesterday from 7.70 pounds on December 19, 2002, on the Cairo & Alexandria Stock Exchanges. Orascom Telecom’s global depositary receipts, equal to half of a share, have risen to $20.08 from 78 cents on the London Stock Exchange over the two- year period.
The Palestine Investment Fund owns 10 percent of the Egyptian company’s stock outstanding, according to the number of shares shown as held by the fund in S&P’s valuation and the total issued and paid-up share capital listed in Orascom Telecom’s earnings report for the first half of 2004.
The stake was worth about $25 million according to S&P’s January 1, 2003, valuation and currently may be valued at $394 million based on the stock’s market price and the 10 million Egyptian shares and 2 million London-traded shares held at the time of S&P’s report.
Arafat adviser Rachid holds one of seven seats on Orascom Telecom’s board of directors, according to Orascom’s Web site. The chairman and CEO is Naguib Sawiris, a member of the family that founded and controls the company.
In the U.S., Arafat’s money managers set up Delaware holding companies for the sole purpose of making investments for PCSC, says Zeid Masri, 38, an American of Palestinian heritage who handled some of the investments and is managing partner of SilverHaze Partners LLC.
McLean, Virginia-based SilverHaze manages an undisclosed amount of money for wealthy families, says Masri, who’s distantly related to two of the seven directors on the Palestine Investment Fund’s board: Maher Masri, the Palestinian minister of national economy, and Sabih Masri, chairman of Palestinian Telecommunications Co. and the Nablus-based Palestine Securities Exchange and a director of Amman-based Arab Bank Plc.
To invest in Strike Holdings, which owns Bowlmor Lanes in Greenwich Village and bowling alleys in Miami; Bethesda, Maryland; and New Hyde Park on New York’s Long Island, Masri says he created a holding company called Onyx Funds LLC. Onyx, which is 100 percent owned by PCSC, was incorporated on June 1, 2002, in Delaware. Its only holding is the $1.3 million of Strike Holding shares, S&P’s valuation of Onyx states.
“It was a separate investment they wanted to do, so we created a partnership that they owned,” Zeid Masri says. “We wanted to separate it from other investments” held by PCSC.
Masri says the investment came about because he was a classmate of Strike Holdings founder Thomas Shannon at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, where Masri earned an MBA in 1992.
SilverHaze Partners has also invested in Strike Holdings, Masri says. Shannon didn’t return phone calls to his New York office requesting comment.
Masri worked at New York-based Bessemer Trust Co. in the alternative asset management group and at Baltimore-based Alex. Brown & Sons, now part of Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG, as a principal in the principal investing group, according to SilverHaze’s Web site.
He also managed Chalcedony LLC for PCSC, which set aside $25 million for Chalcedony to make investments starting on April 4, 2000, when the Internet bubble was popping, according to the valuation reports released by the Palestine Investment Fund. Chalcedony invested just $9.9 million — which had shrunk in value to $3.9 million by January 1, 2003, the reports say.
For example, Chalcedony bought a $140,000 stake in a fund run by Bethesda, Maryland-based Novak Biddle Venture Partners that had dropped to $36,824 in that time. It purchased a $3.2 million stake in Simplexity, the e-commerce software maker, that had plunged to $408,799, the S&P valuation shows. Its $2.1 million investment in Vaultus, the maker of software for hand-held computers, had dropped to $1 million, the valuation shows.
PCSC came to Masri to invest around 2000, based on word of mouth, he says. “This came through somebody that was recommended to us, and that’s how that relationship began,” he says. “We manage money for families, ourselves and small institutions.”
Masri says his main contacts in the territories were administrators of PCSC who consulted with him on investments. He says he met Arafat’s adviser, Rachid, the PCSC chairman, only occasionally.
As the Palestine Investment Fund has taken over management, Masri’s role has dwindled, he says. Companies that PCSC invested in knew whose capital it was, Masri says. “When we invest, people want to know where the money is coming from,” he says. “We’re 100 percent comfortable about where the money came from.”
Camp David Talks
When Masri began making the investments in 2000 and 2001, Arafat’s reputation in the U.S. was good, Masri says. President Bill Clinton hosted Arafat as a peacemaker at the Camp David presidential retreat in Maryland in July 2000. Those talks collapsed after Arafat rejected a proposed settlement with Israel that included shared sovereignty over Jerusalem.
Two months later, in September 2000, violence broke out in Israel and the Palestinian territories after Ariel Sharon, head of the conservative Likud party, visited Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary. U.S. President George W. Bush took office in January 2001, and the following month Israeli voters, disillusioned with the peace process, elected Sharon prime minister.
After Sharon took office on March 7, 2001, both he and Bush refused to restart talks with Arafat, blaming him for the violence that has since claimed at least 990 Israeli and 3,440 Palestinian lives.
Even as Bush refused to talk with Arafat, there was no prohibition against Arafat or the Palestinian Authority investing in the U.S. The financial sanctions relating to Palestinian organizations are against groups the U.S. designates as terrorist, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. They include Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which says it’s an offshoot of Arafat’s Fatah guerrilla movement.
Arafat’s government had one of its first contacts with the world of private equity in 1998, when Tel Aviv-based Evergreen Partners, a venture capital firm that manages $610 million, organized a fund to invest in the Palestinian territories.
Peres led the effort to raise $65 million for a Peace Technology Fund, says Tel Aviv-based Tirza Florentin, 40, who was general manager of the fund. “It was money that was raised from international investors, Israelis and Palestinians, to invest in the Palestinian territories,” she says of the fund, run by Evergreen, that made investments from 1998 to 2000, when violence broke out in the West Bank and Gaza.
Peace Technology Fund
The Peace Technology Fund invested in the local phone company, Palestine Telecommunications, known as Paltel, and Palestine Development & Investment Ltd., known as Padico, which invests in Palestinian real estate and companies, Florentin says. Investors included the Palestinian Authority; Bank Leumi Le-Israel Ltd., the country’s biggest state-owned bank; and International Finance Corp., a Washington-based member of the World Bank Group that provides money for private-sector projects in the developing world, she says.
“The idea was the private-sector development and growth would promote peace,” Florentin says. For now, “it’s on hold,” she says.
As Evergreen was investing in the Palestinian territories for the peace fund, it was also helping PCSC find places to put its money around the world, according to the Palestine Investment Fund documents.
In November 1999, Evergreen formed Evergreen Partners U.S. Direct Fund III LP, incorporated in the Cayman Islands, to which PCSC committed $8 million for investments in Israel, the U.S. and the U.K. That partnership is one of three that together form the Evergreen Partners Direct Fund III, which had total committed capital of $170.5 million at the end of 2002, according to S&P’s valuation of the PCSC investment.
PCSC’s share constitutes 4.7 percent of the total fund and has a market value of $2.3 million because of the illiquidity of some of the holdings, according to S&P.
Evergreen Partners Direct Fund III’s holdings have included a stake in Los Gatos, California-based Actona Technologies Inc., a file management software maker that San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems Inc., the world’s largest maker of equipment to link computer networks, bought in August for $82 million.
The Evergreen Partners Direct Fund III made 3.7 times its money on the sale, being paid $22 million for what was originally a $6 million investment in Actona, according to Evergreen’s Web site.
The Palestine Investment Fund now holds PCSC’s share of the Evergreen fund. As its managers had planned, the Evergreen fund is in the process of selling holdings as the companies mature, through initial public offerings or private sales, according to Evergreen’s Web site, which doesn’t show overall returns paid to investors.
Other investors in the Evergreen Partners Direct Fund III and the two earlier Evergreen funds include Charlotte, North Carolina- based Bank of America Corp., the third-largest U.S. bank, and the Teachers Retirement System of the State of Illinois, according to Evergreen’s Web site.
Since the Palestine Investment Fund began operating on January 1, 2003, it has hired six investment managers locally to monitor its assets, according to the annual report. Profits go to the Palestinian Authority budget, and access to the fund’s two bank accounts requires the approval of two directors and the general manager.
“We decided that all the assets must be controlled, must be under this investment fund,” says Azmi Shuaibi, 55, chairman of the Palestinian legislature’s economy committee. Shuaibi resides in Ramallah, has been a member of the legislature since 1996 and heads the Palestinian chapter of Transparency International, a Berlin-based anticorruption group. “We don’t want to give to any one person the power to invest and where to invest.”
The Palestine Investment Fund has a seven-member board, and Fayyad, the finance minister, is chairman. Rachid, Arafat’s economic adviser, is the fund’s CEO and general manager, according to the annual report. Rachid didn’t respond to phone messages left at his office in Cairo or e-mails sent to two addresses. Fayyad didn’t return phone messages left with his staff.
Over the past two years, Fayyad, Rachid and their staff have been weighing which assets should be sold in order to keep the Palestine Investment Fund in line with the primary aim of its charter: developing the Palestinian economy within a democratic process.
One investment that might not meet that goal is the bowling alley. Bowlmor Lanes does brisk business with Wall Street, boasting a client list on its Web site that includes Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Credit Suisse First Boston, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bear Stearns Cos. and Citigroup’s Salomon Smith Barney unit. Bowlmor also promotes bar mitzvah parties and offers a kosher caterer.
To Masri, such investments don’t seem incongruous. “At the end of the day, we all do business together,” he says. “It’s just business.” As records of Arafat’s investments show, such business didn’t always yield profits. The Palestinian leader had the same mixed record as an investor that he had as a peacemaker.
This article ran on the Bloomberg Wire Service on December 23rd, 2004