British businessman jailed over £4.9m Iraq oil deals bribery plot

A British businessman has been jailed for five years for his role in a multi-million dollar bribery plot to secure oil infrastructure contracts in Iraq in the aftermath of the US-British invasion.

Ziad Akle, 45, was part of a conspiracy to pay out bribes totalling six million US dollars (£4.9 million) to politicians and state-owned companies after Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003.

Those involved sought to secure Iraqi contracts worth 800 million US dollars (£650.7 million) as the new government tried to rebuild the country in the aftermath of the war.

Akle was convicted alongside Stephen Whiteley, 65.

Akle was found guilty of two counts of conspiracy to make corrupt payments, and Whiteley was convicted of one count following a trial which had been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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The jury was unable to reach verdicts on similar charges against a third defendant, 68-year-old Paul Bond.

The trial heard that the infrastructure needed to produce and distribute crude oil in Iraq had become old and dilapidated during the Hussein regime.

As part of reconstruction efforts, the Iraqi Ministry of Oil planned to increase production by acquiring three single point mooring (SPM) buoys in the Persian Gulf to allow tankers to load oil offshore.

The ministry also sought two new pipelines to take the oil by land and sea from storage tanks near the oil fields and processing facilities to the buoys.

Basra-based South Oil Company, a state-owned firm, was put in charge of the project for the ministry.

One of the businesses hoping to cash in through commission was Monaco-based Unaoil, the court was told.

Unaoil allied itself with Dutch-based company SBM Offshore, which won the contract for the supply of the buoys.

It also helped Singapore company Leighton Offshore to land the contract for laying the two pipelines and installation of the buoys.

In each case, it was alleged that Unaoil paid bribes to the South Oil Company’s project manager.

Once recommendations to the Ministry of Oil had been obtained, Unaoil – via an intermediary – bribed senior officials at the ministry to secure the two contracts, prosecutors for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said.

In return, Unaoil was paid commission for the deals as well as the sub-contract for onshore work, the court heard.

The Unaoil group was founded by British-Iranian Ata Ahsani and had its headquarters in Monaco.

Mr Ahsani’s sons, Cyrus and Saman, held senior positions within the company.

The defendants were charged with conspiring to pay the bribes with the three Ahsani family members who controlled Unaoil.

At the time, Akle, from Marylebone, London, who is a British-Lebanese national, was Unaoil’s territory manager for Iraq, and Whiteley, from Beverley, Yorkshire, was SBM vice president until May 2009 when he joined Unaoil.

Bond, who lives in the south of France, had been SBM’s sales manager for the Middle East and was closely involved in the arrangements for the sale of the three buoys, it was claimed.

Akle was tasked with grooming a specific Iraqi official and offering him bribes to turn him into Unaoil’s “puppet” when contracts were handed out,the court heard.

Jailing Akle for five years, Judge Martin Beddoe said: “I have no doubt from the evidence I heard at trial the way Unaoil sought to position itself was by corruption, and that was something you Mr Akle at a very early stage were aware of.”

He continued: “It was motivated no doubt by the expectation of substantial financial gain on behalf of all of those involved and a substantial financial gain for Unaoil as a whole.

“The offences were committed across borders at a time of serious need for the government of Iraq to rebuild after years of sanctions and the devastation of war.

“They were utterly exploitative at a time when the economic and political situation in Iraq was extremely fragile.

“Those of us in the West should have been doing our best to help it recover from a war we had chosen to start.”

He added: “You did not cease to be involved because you had developed a conscience but because you thought you had found something more rewarding elsewhere.”

A fourth man, Basil Al-Jarah, 71, from Hull, was Unaoil’s country manager for Iraq and partner in a subsidiary company.

The British Iraqi, nicknamed Captain, had earlier pleaded guilty to the bribery conspiracy and is due to be sentenced in October.

None of the Ahsanis were defendants in the British trial, which had transferred from Southwark Crown Court to the Old Bailey because of the coronavirus crisis.

Bond faces a retrial on the two counts the jury did not reach verdicts on.

Whiteley did not attend his sentencing hearing on Thursday after suffering a suspected stroke a few hours before his court appearance.

His case has been listed for a mention hearing at Southwark Crown Court on Monday.

Serious Fraud Office director Lisa Osofsky said: “Ziad Akle and his co-conspirators exploited a country reeling from years of dictatorship and military occupation to line his own pockets and win business.

“It is this combination of greed and heartless avarice that led to these convictions.

“Today’s sentencing sends a clear message that the United Kingdom and the SFO will not tolerate criminal activity that undermines the fairness and integrity of international business.”