Ousted Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and legacy of bling

Jewellery and 39 luxury cars among items left behind by ousted president and his family that Tunisia is selling to ease economic woes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 6:54am

On a crisp December morning in Tunis, a finance ministry official named Mohamed Hamaied was demonstrating the horsepower of maroon BMW V12 on the runway of a national guard airfield.

Beside him sat an agent for a potential buyer.

"You know, this is the same runway that Ben Ali fled from," said another passenger, automotive expert Mourad Bouzidi, from the back seat.

The BMW is among the seized possessions of deposed Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his inner circle that the government is selling to help fill depleted treasury coffers.

Corruption and nepotism were rife under the regime of Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia with his wife after the first Arab spring uprising swept the country.

Economic woes stem partly from last year's revolution, which spooked tourists and foreign investors, and the euro zone crisis, which hit key trading partners.

But the roots of trouble go deeper, to a regime that spent years neglecting rural regions and allowed unemployment to rise while amassing great wealth for itself.

"Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage," wrote then-US ambassador Robert Godec in a June 2008 diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, describing an extended family he said was "the nexus of corruption".

A year later, Godec got a taste of regime opulence when Ben Ali's son-in-law and heir-apparent, Sakhr al-Materi, invited him for dinner at his seaside villa. Godec's July 2009 cable notes an infinity pool, ice cream flown in from St Tropez, France, and a pet tiger named Pasha.

Materi, 31, is the husband of Ben Ali's daughter Nesrine from a previous marriage.

Ben Ali and most of his family fled Tunisia in January last year as protests brought down his regime. Two months later, then-interim president Fouad Embazaa ordered the seizure of assets belonging to 114 top regime figures, including Ben Ali and his wife, Leila Trabelsi.

Ben Ali, Trabelsi and the couple's young son begin their third year of exile in Saudi Arabia next month. The Saudi government has declined to extradite them to Tunisia, where they have been convicted in absentia on charges including misuse of state funds.

During the revolution, villas in the Tunisian resort of Gammarth abandoned in haste by other members of the Ben Ali circle were looted, but came into public hands through the courts.

In what is billed as a "sale of ill-gotten gains", Tunisia's finance ministry is seeking to ease its stretched current account by selling off cars, paintings, jewellery and assorted bling confiscated from the deposed president.

It is unclear how much the assets - also including yachts and palaces and major stakes in Tunisian companies - are worth. One estimate last September by a government commission put their total value at about US$13 billion.

Agents of rich Gulf collectors, lovers of luxury and those simply curious to see the ill-gotten gains of the Ben Ali clan were among those drawn to an auction which started last week and is due to last for a month. The former belongings of Ben Ali and 114 of his relatives will go under the hammer.

A bright red Ferrari owned by Ben Ali's spoilt nephew Imed, and a new Porsche destined for his youngest child, were among the items on show in the Cleopatra exhibition space in Gammarth amid tight security.

Suits belonging to the toppled despot are expected to go for €3,000 (HK$30,750) each, while coats acquired by his wife, who was notorious for her expensive tastes, could fetch €4,000.

Most of the works of art, ornaments, furniture and some of the carpets on offer will be sold to the highest bidder, with no item thought to be worth less than €5,000. Animal statues of solid gold, crystal horses and an 80cm-high silver olive tree feature among the lots.

Ben Ali's personal wealth is harder to gauge, with most of his assets believed to be stashed abroad, said acting finance minister Slim Besbes. Many countries that froze his assets last year have been slow to unfreeze them - the European Union did so only last month - while other legal challenges remain.

The two largest known concentrations of Ben Ali wealth outside Tunisia are around US$65 million in Switzerland and US$28 million in an account under Trabelsi's name at Lebanon's central bank, said Besbes.

But while governments are co-operating, Ben Ali and his family's lawyers are fighting back.

Ben Ali's lawyer Akram Azoury argued that a March 2011 seizure of his client's assets was illegal and said Ben Ali has no assets in his name outside Tunisia.

Those in the country "are limited, to my knowledge, to his personal residence and a bank account whose value I cannot estimate, contrary to what Tunisian authorities have told the public", he said. The government has also begun liquidating regime assets - US$776 million generated from asset sales helped pay for a US$1.6 billion increase in this year's budget.

To oversee things, the finance ministry recruited Hamaied, an old hand in commerce.

One morning earlier this month, Hamaied and Bouzidi, the car expert, were at the national guard facility in Tunisia, giving a preview of cars to the buyer's agent.

There was Ben Ali's Maybach town car, with massage seats in back, a mini-fridge stocked with Evian and nearly a metre of leg room. The car was a present from Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, another north African dictator ousted in last year's Arab spring uprisings.

The car collection for sale includes a black Aston Martin, a Lamborghini Gallardo LP460, a Bentley Continental sports car and an armoured Cadillac.

There are also limited edition Mercedes and BMWs.

The collection of 39 luxury cars was of particular interest to an agent acting on behalf of a Saudi prince. The scout with Hamaied was drawn to the BMW. Hamaied popped open the bonnet so he could photograph the big V12 engine. The odometer showed 2,587 kilometres.

"They're all like that - these cars didn't roll much, just between La Marsa and Hammamet," Hamaied said, naming chic beachside towns near Tunis.

Then he proposed a test drive. The men got in, Hamaied gunned the engine and the BMW tore down the runway as the needle shot to 100km/h.

Of the 400 jewels and ornaments confiscated by the state, only around 20 are on display in Gammarth for potential bidders.

Among them is a made-to-measure choker that once adorned the neck of Trabelsi, sparkling with about 1,000 diamonds.

There is a constant hum of excitement in the last viewing room, where clothing and accessories formerly owned by the disgraced first lady are on display - including luxury shoes and handbags worth many times the minimum monthly wage.

A doctor who lives in France discussed the jewellery with a diamond specialist, but his wife stepped away.

"My husband wants to buy, but I'm actually disgusted. These are fabulous jewels, but they tell a harrowing story."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse, The Guardian