As Jho Low was becoming the public face of an embattled Malaysian sovereign wealth fund known as 1MDB, the financier made friends in high places. He dined with Leonardo di Caprio, bought diamonds for supermodel Miranda Kerr, and even financed the film production company that made the “Wolf of Wall Street.” He went into business with Gulf royals and real estate moguls from Abu Dhabi. Low’s high-flying ways even brought him into alleged criminal conspiracies with an American rapper and landed him on the receiving end of a Justice Department indictment for laundering billions. Some of the business deals, prosecutors said, were part of an expansive effort to launder misappropriated public funds.
Along the way, Low found an ally in Sheikh Sabah Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah, a well-connected member of Kuwait’s royal family.
Sabah, who is 56 years old, has a business degree from California State University. He manages more than 30 companies worth around $ 200 million, according to Bloomberg. In Kuwait, he keeps a relatively low profile. But on the Comoro Islands, an archipelago nation in the Indian Ocean, Sabah is a big deal. When he visits the capital, Moroni, newspapers put him on the cover. When he promises closer diplomatic ties and greater foreign investment, Comorian officials rejoice. Though he’s not involved in politics back home, he’s received — and acts — like a diplomatic envoy because of his family’s position in Kuwait. On a trip to the islands in December 2017, he met the country’s president and pledged to renew his commitments to supporting the Comorian economy.
Sabah had other reasons to travel to Comoros that winter: The Banque Fédérale de Commerce, a small commercial bank that he chaired and owned in full, had been giving him a headache for almost two years.
According to the bank’s former general manager, a Lebanese man named Amine Halawi, Sabah helped Low and Tan Kim Loong — a frequent associate of Low’s, also known as Eric Tan or “Fat Eric” — open offshore accounts at the Banque Fédérale de Commerce in the summer of 2016. To bypass rules prohibiting business from nonresidents, the sheikh wrote a letter to the Banque Fédérale de Commerce authorizing the transaction as the chair of the bank’s board. Halawi passed on the request to the Comorian Central Bank, but the bank did not issue its denial until August 15 of that year, well after the accounts were established.
Sabah gave these orders after Singapore, Switzerland, and the U.S. began investigating Low’s role in an alleged global corruption scandal that resulted in former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak being charged with three counts of “criminal breach of trust” and one count of “corruption.”
Concerned that something was amiss and worried that he’d be caught up in a mess far above his pay grade, Halawi insisted time and time again that the sheikh take full responsibility for compliance matters related to those accounts. But when news of Low’s activities finally got out, Sabah was not the one answering questions. Instead, it was Halawi who caught the blame: In September 2017, he was arrested, charged with aiding and abetting money laundering, and in October, he was sentenced to three years in prison in the Comoros and fined a million euros, or $ 1.2 million.
Halawi lodged an appeal to his sentence in 2018; the fine was lifted, and his sentence was reduced to time served. Halawi was released from prison, only to be thrown out of the country immediately.
Now a free man back in his native Lebanon, Halawi is telling his side of the story. His account is a window into a small but significant piece of the 1MDB scandal that illustrates the lengths to which the global ultrarich will go to help each other out, and the desperate routes that hot money will take when it has nowhere left to hide.
Comoros, a former colony that gained independence from France in 1974, is not an obvious place for a playboy to park his money. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, where electricity is prone to cutting out unexpectedly. The roads are bumpy and mostly unpaved, and the islands have only a small handful of ATMs.
Still, because of its remote location and small, pliable political class, the archipelago has provided opportunities for enterprising types operating on the fringes of the financial system over the years. During the apartheid era, for instance, Comoros was a hub for gunrunners working for sanctioned South Africans.
A series of coups d’état won Comoros a reputation for danger and instability. The result has been a country that is not a haven for cash, but a destination for ambitious gamblers and financial adventurism.
Doing business on the islands isn’t for the squeamish: For almost two decades, French mercenaries all but ran the Comoros, which makes many Comorians understandably suspicious of foreigners to this day. After their ouster, a series of coups d’état won the islands a reputation for danger and instability. The result has been a country that is not a haven for cash, like the nearby Seychelles, but a destination for ambitious gamblers and financial adventurism.
Sabah’s dealings in the Comoros began in the mid-2000s. By that time, the islands had called free elections and its residents were living in relative stability. The sheikh arrived under the wing of Bashar Kiwan, a French-Syrian businessman with whom he runs Al Waseet International, a publishing and media company. With his business savvy, perfect French, and easy charisma — along with the sheikh’s good name — Kiwan was able to pitch the Comorian government on an ambitious plan to transform the islands into the new Dubai. He and his associates proposed sprucing up an old hotel; building resorts, roads and infrastructure; and marketing the islands to tourists abroad.
With Sabah by his side for credibility — it never hurts to have royalty on board — Kiwan pledged to raise capital on his own, but he also talked lawmakers into selling more than 40,000 Comorian passports to the government of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE used the passports to document stateless residents to whom it has repeatedly denied the right to Emirati citizenship. (Kuwait, which has a large stateless population, entertained such a scheme, but despite public support from high-ranking officials, the plans went nowhere.)
Known as the “economic citizenship” program, the deal was due to net the Comoros $ 200 million, much of it earmarked to give Kiwan and Sabah’s local firm, Comoro Gulf Holdings, contracts to build infrastructure that the islands still desperately needs.
Kiwan also opened a bank. He incorporated the Banque Fédérale de Commerce in 2006 and, by 2009, he’d obtained a banking license and capitalized the institution with just shy of 10 million euros transferred directly from various Kiwan and Al Waseet International-linked accounts, records show. Over the years, a combination of changes in political leadership and personal relationships gone sour all but exiled Kiwan from the Comoros, but he remained on the bank’s board through 2016 and was copied on high-level internal email exchanges well into 2017. An Al Waseet secretary answered queries from the bank on behalf of Kiwan, who in turn acted as an intermediary for Sabah.
Along the way, Kiwan’s role with the bank diminished and he was eventually no longer involved: According to ownership records, by 2010, he was fully divested. Sabah had taken over: The sheikh, who in 2008 owned just 25 percent of the Banque Fédérale de Commerce, became the bank’s sole shareholder.
Amine Halawi landed in the Comoros in 2009, when Kiwan’s dreams for the future just seemed like they might come true. Halawi initially worked on contract for the Lebanese bank Al Mawarid as a technical consultant. “I had some good times in Comoros between 2009 and 2010,” he said in a recent phone call. “The country was calm, there weren’t any politics at the bank, and I went home to Lebanon a few times to visit family.” In 2010, Halawi contracted malaria and returned home to be treated. When he got better and was offered a job at the Banque Fédérale de Commerce, he returned. “It was only when I was a full-time employee that I began to see the difficulties of working in the Comoros.”
Upon his return, Halawi found the biggest hurdle was politics. Moroni, the Comorian capital, feels like a small town, so rumors spread like in a game of telephone. Once Kiwan’s big promises surrounding the passport scheme turned up empty, around 2011, everything he touched — the Banque Fédérale de Commerce included — was viewed as tainted.
“In 2011 to 2012, the leadership was exhausted because everything was politicized,” Halawi recalled, noting that hiring, firing, and lending all got more complicated depending on people’s political loyalties, nationality, and wealth. Halawi said Kiwan’s flopped passport scheme — and allegations around it — left clients and politicians with a negative impression of the bank, and in particular of the Arabs working there.
Still, Halawi forged ahead. In his early 30s, he was ambitious, energetic, and keen to make the most of a valuable, if peculiar, opportunity to run the show. “In the U.K., the U.S, even in Lebanon — I never would have had such a high-ranking position,” he said. His efforts paid off. By 2014, Sabah promoted Halawi to the top role of general manager, overseeing a small staff of locals and Arab expatriates. He also sat on the bank’s board of advisers. Under Halawi’s watch, the bank also started lending to ordinary Comorians. Halawi rented a house and adopted two German shepherd puppies, Arna and Pouji. He brought his brother over from Lebanon to work at the bank. “It was my home and career. I built that bank,” he said. “I had plans for expansion, opening more branches.”
“It wasn’t even my bank, though,” he added after a pause. “What was I thinking?”
In Halawi’s recollection, things started to get weird in January 2016, when the bank’s board of advisers convened for its annual meeting at a swanky Kuwait City hotel, then held meetings in private without him.
On March 9, the secretary at Al Waseet, who handled some bank-related matters, emailed Halawi and other members of the board informing them about an important visit to the islands: A delegation including Jho Low would be arriving the next day in Moroni. Low would be accompanied by a Singaporean man named Seet Li Lin, a former Wharton Business School classmate of Low’s and a vice president at Low’s private equity firm in Hong Kong, along with a Malaysian woman named Jesselynn Chuan Teik Ying whom Wall Street Journal reporters Bradley Hope and Tom Wright identify as Low’s girlfriend in their recent book “Billion Dollar Whale.” Also present would be Majd Suleiman, an erstwhile Kiwan associate whose father is a former Syrian intelligence chief, and Hamad Al Wazzan, a Kuwaiti investment banker who, according to Low, is another friend from Wharton. According to Hope and Wright, Low took a semester off to travel to Kuwait with Al Wazzan, who “arranged meetings with businesspeople and minor royals.”
The group was scheduled to fly out of Kuwait at 3 a.m. on Sabah’s private jet and arrive on the Comoros Islands around 9 a.m., according to scheduling emails. They would visit the Comorian Central Bank before taking off again a few hours later. Kiwan’s secretary noted that they should receive “VIP treatment” on account of the sheikh’s connections. She attached scanned copies of their passports and specified that they would be arriving on flight N689WM.
That flight never took off. But it didn’t matter. By summertime, Sabah instructed Halawi to open accounts for himself, his son, Low, and Tan Kim Loong.
It isn’t clear how Jho Low and his entourage got involved with Kuwaiti royalty, but news reports, personal ties, leaked documents, and business deals plot some way stations along the map of their relationship. In the years leading up to the canceled Comoros visit, Low had become embroiled in a beleaguered New York real estate deal along with Sabah himself. It began in 2013, when Low teamed up with an American developer to buy a New York hotel for over $ 600 million. Soon after submitting his $ 200 million share of the down payment on the property, Low sold part of his stake to an Emirati company called Mubadala for $ 135 million, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Low would go on to make numerous other deals and investments around the world with Kuwaiti and Emirati partners, including Mudabala, over the next two years. But emails between Low and his Emirati partners suggest that, with investigators from three countries on his trail, it was getting harder and harder for him to do business — to the point that Low even kicked around the idea of buying his own bank. Lawyers cautioned him against this. (The emails, which came from the account of Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to the U.S., were made public by a group called Global Leaks and reported on by a number of media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal’s Bradley Hope and Tom Wright, who broke the 1MDB story. It’s not clear how the inbox was accessed, but Global Leaks, which was is in possession of the data, began selectively releasing Otaiba’s emails to several media outlets, including The Intercept, in 2017.)
Low’s reputation affected his ability to make deals — and pay his debts. On April 26, 2016, according to the Global Leaks emails, Low emailed the CEO of Mubadala to inform him that he’d divested from the Manhattan hotel project by selling his shares to a “Kuwaiti Sheikh Sabah, 53 y/o.” Low said this would grant the remaining investors in the property a six-month extension to service their debt. He added that Sabah would then sell part of his newly acquired stake in the hotel to a Chinese company. Sabah did not enter the deal by himself; the Kuwaiti royal family, however, did strike a deal with that Chinese company.
While Sabah was setting up Low’s offshore account in the Comoros, and while Kiwan’s secretary was planning Low’s in-person visit, the emails indicate that the two men were talking shop over New York property too. Low and Sabah’s fates were hardly linked — but they were certainly converging.
Far from the action and several time zones away, Halawi had no idea any of this was happening — let alone that a faraway gamble on a landmarked New York hotel might have any bearing on his livelihood. He’d found the canceled visit in March odd, and he resented having been frozen out of some discussions during the bank board meeting in January. But he said he never thought to look up Jho Low online. In fact, he claimed that he didn’t make much of the situation until Bashar Kiwan started harassing him about opening nonresident bank accounts later that spring.
Kiwan put on the pressure over the phone. During a call that Halawi took in his office, he grew agitated and hung up. “My colleagues saw me yelling and asked me what was wrong,” Halawi recalled. A former colleague of Halawi’s confirmed that during the spring months of 2016, the Lebanese banking executive was distraught and asked for advice about how to handle the situation. “I didn’t know what to say,” said the ex-colleague, who’s still in the Comoros and requested anonymity because he fears for his safety. “I said to him, ‘These are powerful, dangerous people. Let them take responsibility and stand down.’”
One thing was clear: Kiwan would not be the one backing down. Halawi testified to the Comorian police the following year that, at the end of a trip he took to Lebanon, Kiwan arranged for his personal driver to meet him at the Beirut airport. The driver handed him a folder full of personal information — passports, photos, signatures, and a letter from the sheikh — with which to open the bank accounts for Low and Loong, as well as the sheikh and his son. “It wasn’t a game. It was real,” Halawi said. “These people were all with the sheikh.”
Upon his return to Moroni, Halawi gave his staff at Banque Fédérale de Commerce instructions to proceed with the accounts. He did not have formal approval from the central bank, which he needed in order to proceed with the offshore accounts, but he figured the sheikh’s word would be enough. “With the sheikh’s approval, there was nothing illicit,” Halawi said. “And in the beginning, the transactions all looked fine.”
On June 2, the bank registered one account for transactions in euros and another for business in Comorian francs for Low. On June 17, after making the same request by phone, Halawi emailed Kiwan demanding written evidence that the sheikh “will hold full responsibility for any problems or compliance issues” regarding the nonresident accounts. Halawi referenced a letter the sheikh had sent to the central banker in May; a scanned copy of that letter arrived attached to an email from an Al Waseet secretary on June 20.
“Following our last meetings in Kuwait regarding the actions of the Federal Bank of Commerce’s board of directors, I expressed my desire for a group of friends and investors to direct new investments to your precious country,” the letter reads, listing off 12 names, including Low’s. “Please approve the opening of accounts in euros/dollars for the listed companies and individuals with the Federal Bank of Commerce.”
“I’ve personally spoken with many individuals and investment organizations to transfer their deposits and investments to the Comoros Islands and the people listed above are friends and acquaintances who have shown their willingness to support this trend,” the letter goes on. “I hope that you’ll kindly consent to open these bank accounts at the Federal Bank of Commerce according to the rules and regulations.”
Following advice from Imad Kreidieh, a former Al Waseet executive and member of the Banque Fédérale de Commerce’s executive credit committee whom Halawi would consult with, Halawi then asked for a hard copy of the letter, sent by international courier and signed by hand. He said he never received the hard copy.
Low started using his new bank account promptly. His account took in $ 2.01 million worth of deposits, mostly from a wire transfer after the sale of two paintings by Basquiat and Monet at Sotheby’s. Halawi told himself that this must be the “investment” that the sheikh had promised; for the modest bank in a tiny country, it was an astronomical sum.
As quickly as it came in, however, the cash was withdrawn. The month of September shows a payment to a company called Dabelstein and Passehl in Germany for 61,122 euros and another scheduled to go to a charity called COGITO, for 147,000 British pounds — almost $ 200,000. Low transferred 275,000 euros to Loong’s Banque Fédérale de Commerce account, too, claiming that it was a “personal loan” at an “int rate 8% due 31Dec2016.” (Low did not respond to a request for comment.)
A spreadsheet detailing Low’s transactions also shows a large transfer to Loong’s account of 600,000 euros. From the Banque Fédérale de Commerce, Loong ordered cash transfers totaling 95,000 euros to Sabah’s account; Sabah, in turn, used his account to send money to a company account in the Cayman Islands. Loong also received an invoice for 350,000 euros from a law firm over a London real estate transaction, which Halawi forwarded to his colleagues with a compliance notice requesting more information about the account holder.
Kreidieh, the Al Waseet and bank official, told Halawi to provide the information within three days. In July, Low paid $ 72,348 to a U.S. accounting firm called Weltman Bernfield LLC, specifying that the cash was for a “tax payment.”
In mid-July, Low’s accounts were set to swell. According to records detailing an attempted transfer of cash, just over 25 million euros from a Swiss escrow account were slated for delivery to the Banque Fédérale de Commerce. The attempted exchange marked the beginning of the end of Halawi’s run with the bank.
The money never arrived: According to a complaint filed by the U.S Department of Justice the following summer, this was payment for a Monet painting, “Nymphéas,” that Low had sold to a Hong Kong art dealer. The correspondent bank in the transaction declined to process it because the Swiss escrow agent holding the money could not provide satisfactory due diligence. The money was returned to escrow, the Justice Department noted; on June 24, 2016, Halawi’s deputy also emailed the Banque Fédérale de Commerce’s correspondent bank and told them to reject all “single, incoming transfers” made to Low and Loong.
In August, the correspondent bank, the BMCE, asked Halawi to explain Low’s background, the source of his funds, and give proof that he had done his due diligence before accepting him as a client. Halawi forwarded the note to Kiwan and asked for guidance. Halawi also sent it to Kreidieh. “This is very serious!!!!” Kreidieh replied.
By October, two attempts to send money to Europe failed, transfer records show; by June 2017, Low’s European account was empty, with the last 118,000 euros moved to the account denominated in Comorian francs on Halawi’s instruction. At this point, Sabah and Kiwan were in the midst of a falling out over financial matters, according to Halawi. Notes from a December 2016 Banque Fédérale de Commerce board meeting indicate that the bank had begun legal action against Kiwan and another Al Waseet executive to recover assets, namely the 4.3 million euros worth of goods they still owned on the islands. And according to news reports, the Kuwaiti Criminal Court later sentenced Kiwan to five years in prison based on charges brought against him by Sabah. (Kiwan did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Halawi found himself caught in the middle of the conflict. What’s more, Halawi was butting heads with the bank’s aggressive new vice president, who had been appointed by Sabah. Halawi believed that the bank’s days were numbered and that various stakeholders wanted his help to move all their assets out of the country — and fast. He said, “To move all the money out, they made it look like they were making normal expenditures: a lawyer here, large salaries and per diems there.” He told the Comorian court as much too.
Halawi was upset and protective — “The bank was like my baby” — so he informed the Comorian Central Bank about large sums of money leaving the Banque Fédérale de Commerce. Word got back to his colleagues, and, Halawi said, “That’s when they decided to fire me.”
In July 2017, Halawi traveled to Lebanon to visit his father, who was dying. When Halawi got back to Moroni, he said his car was missing and someone else had occupied his office. “I arrived to a ton of problems,” he recalled, adding that bank officials “said I was causing trouble, that I was a bad employee.”
“They asked me to step down and become the sheikh’s adviser instead, but I said no,” Halawi said, adding that in early August, “they fired me.”
Halawi was devastated, but his troubles had only begun. He’d already shown himself unwilling to side with the sheikh; he would soon shoulder the blame for all of the bank’s misguided activity.
In September 2017, the Banque Fédérale de Commerce’s new director, a Comorian named Ismael Msahazi Mgomri, filed a police complaint against Halawi, accusing him of laundering money. The police questioned Halawi and Mgomri, as well as the central bank’s supervisor, Fahar-Eldine Mohamed, who acknowledged that Halawi brought the central bank a letter from the sheikh about the funds — but that it was a French translation, not an original, and that the bank had rejected the request because offshore activity was forbidden. Pointing to another letter sent by the Comorian Central Bank in late August, Halawi contended that they didn’t respond for more than two months.
Before long, Halawi was charged with money laundering and fraud by a Comorian court. On October 14, 2017, he was sent to prison to serve out his three-year sentence, with the possibility of parole after one year.
Hadji Chaabani, a lawyer who defended Halawi, qualified his sentence as inherently political because of the sheikh’s close ties to the government and the ragtag way the process was carried out. “He was judged as if he had stolen in broad daylight,” Chaabani said in a phone call. “There was no real investigation. There wasn’t time for a serious hearing.”
“There had to be a scapegoat. It would have been scandalous for anyone else to take the blame. Halawi was in the weakest position, and so he was charged.”
“There had to be a scapegoat,” Chaabani added. “It would have been scandalous for anyone else to take the blame. Halawi was in the weakest position, and so he was charged.”
Throughout the fall, the Comorian parliament conducted an investigation of the citizenship-for-sale scheme, too, so the Banque Fédérale de Commerce’s accounts were being scrutinized to see if any of the money had been used. (The investigation found that funds at the bank were not used.)
“Halawi is telling the truth,” said an investigator working for the parliamentary inquiry who is not authorized to speak on the record.
“He was a victim of the clash of the titans,” said Kreidieh, noting that Halawi’s biggest mistake was to trust the sheikh’s word before obtaining formal approval from the central bank. “They didn’t want a legal settlement, they got really nasty, and Amine paid the price.”
Overnight, Halawi — who grew up in a well-off Lebanese family — found himself in a dank, dirty jail cell. He suffered skin infections and severe vomiting almost immediately, his medical records show. “I was crammed in there with 18 people,” he recalled. “You pissed and shat in a bucket. You had to pay to use the phone, so people sold credit, but I saw knives get pulled out too. There were rats, mice — you name it. It was serious, serious stuff.”
Before long, Halawi’s pulmonary and cardiac health deteriorated to the point that he was transferred to a military hospital. “His days were numbered in there,” said Chaabani. “It’s no place for humans. You had to see him.” Over the next few months, Halawi moved from the prison to the hospital and back. “I had to bribe everyone,” he recalled. “I paid off left, right, and center. I paid guards to transfer me to the hospital.” He added, “They messed with me and treated me like a dog.”
The bank’s health, too, was failing. In early November 2017, the Comorian Central Bank sent the Banque Fédérale de Commerce a letter notifying them that they no longer had the cash to meet the country’s reserve requirements, and that its balance at the treasury has fallen by 59 percent since the previous January. Halawi’s colleague, who requested anonymity, said the bank had lost a major client, Comores Telecom.
“It’s a bank waiting to die,” Chaabani said.
So far, though, the bank has managed to at least survive. This past summer, a Mauritian named Azad Dhomun was appointed the Banque Fédérale de Commerce’s general manger. Dhomun said he would help transform the Comoros Islands into “the Switzerland of the Indian Ocean.” But, before long, another mishap would befall the bank: In August, the bank suffered a massive fire. The fire brigade’s slow response aroused a controversy — the Comorian head of civil security was eventually sacked — but the cause of the fire remains unknown.
Halawi was in the hospital, under the care of the Comorian justice system, on December 2, 2017, when Sabah paid the Comoros a visit. The sheikh, however, ignored his former employee languishing in custody. On the contrary, the local paper noted that the Kuwaiti “reiterated his total confidence in the impartiality of the Comorian justice system” and “renewed his commitment to the BFC and pledged to pursue different missions in the Comoros.” (Sabah did not respond to a request for comment made to the Kuwaiti embassy in Washington.)
When Halawi found out that the sheikh had been in town, “I wanted to seek vengeance with my teeth,” he recalled. Then, with the help of a well-known lawyer named Pierre-Olivier Sur who flew in from France, Halawi took his case before an appeals court in March 2018, which ruled in his favor. His sentence was commuted to time served, his fine was erased, and he was promptly deported to Lebanon, where he’s currently looking for a job. It’s not an easy task, given his money-laundering conviction.
Halawi filed a suit against the Banque Fédérale de Commerce for, among other things, wrongful termination. The court ruled in March that the bank should compensate him a total of 90,000 euros for backpay, severance, and damages, but it recently appealed and the case will next be heard at the end of November.
“I’m still recovering my strength,” Halawi said a few months after his release. “I’m still weak. I have nightmares every day, and I cough up blood morning and night. I have no appetite. I don’t want to talk to people. I’m not the man I used to be, who was always strong. I’m embarrassed to be this way.”
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