The merchant bank MerchantBridge and Co. Ltd describes itself as ‘the bridge between the Middle-east and the World Financial Markets’, its senior advisors include Baroness Chalker, Lord Lamont (British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Benador Associates Chairman of Le Cercle), Lord Denman (Consolidated Goldfields and The Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, the 1994 edition of Who’s Who, also adds that Denman was part of the Export Credits Guarantee Department) and Andrew Buxton the former chairman of Barclays Bank.
Since 1988 MerchantBridge — which operates in the ‘MENA’ (Middle East North African) region has been the advisor to British Government of the Offset Programme which is a supposed £1 billion economic investment agreement in Saudi Arabia as part of the notorious Al Yamamah (‘the Dove’) arms deal. MerchantBridge thus become part of the UK Ministry of Defence’s Saudi Armed Forces Project — the staff includes a number of secondees from BAe Systems.
The “Offsets” require that 30% of the value of the imported components of Al Yamamah be reinvested in commercially-viable businesses in the Saudi Arabia. British Aerospace and Thomson-CSF are the main U.K. firms involved, with the key U.S. participants: Lucent Technologies (formerly AT&T), Boeing, General Electric, General Dynamics, United Technologies, Hughes Aircraft Company, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman Corporation, Smith Industries.
The company say they provide “Knowledge and access to key decision makers in Washington and Iraq.” The London office is run by Basil Al-Rahim, Managing Director and CEO of Safron Advisors, (Merchant Bridge’s previous name) which he founded in in partnership with a number of large institutional investors. Prior to that he was based in Washington D.C. where he was managing director of the Carlyle Group, which had become the gatekeeper to foreign investing in Saudi Arabia through also running the Saudi Economic Offset Program.
“Carlyle had a relationship with the bin Ladens that began in the early 1990s, when they tried to put together a deal for the Italian Petroleum (IP) company. At the time, Basil Al Rahim, a young Carlyle associate, was travelling from Saudi Arabia to Amman to Bahrain, to United Arab Emirates, drumming up support for Carlyle’s forthcoming international funds. One of the clients that Al Rahim helped secure was the bin Laden family, which owned a $5 billion construction business by the name of Saudi Binladin Group.”
Al-Rahim was also the co-founder (in 1991) with Rend Rahim Francke of The Iraq Foundation which promotes Al-Rahim’s neo-liberal agenda for rebuilding Iraq, the “Phoenix Plan,” and is funded by the The National Endowment for Democracy.
Al-Rahim was the joint founding managing director of MerchantBridge together with the late Colin Craig OBE. Craig started in 1963 at Conservative Central Office, as a personal assistant to the party chairman, Viscount Blakenham, and his successor, Edward du Cann. He went on to work at the newly-founded Opinion Research Centre. In 1974 he moved to the merchant bank Guinness Peat. In 1995 he was appointed head of Middle East business at Robert Fleming & Co, where he developed investment banking operations through offices in Bahrain, Beirut and Cairo. After the acquisition of Flemings by Chase Manhattan, Craig’s team joined Close Brothers, taking much of their existing business with them. Finally, in 2002, he established MerchantBridge.
MerchantBridge was recently appointed Lead Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Minerals for their Lease of Industrial Factories Programme, and has has launched an ‘Iraq Construction Materials Fund’ to capitalise on this.
“The first tranche of US$20 million has been raised from cross-border investors for a new US$ 50 million, 5-year, direct investment fund to finance manufacturers and suppliers of construction materials in Iraq. The fund will invest in sub-sectors where strong demand is expected but supplies are limited or uneconomical to import. Four such projects have been launched immediately: Ready Mixed Concrete, Industrial Paint & Coatings, Engineered Steel Structures & Fabrication, and Plastic Pipes.”
According to a 2005 press release MerchantBridge’s management team includes:
Eric le Blan: 25 years banking experience advising public sector bodies on their international debt and developing domestic capital markets, including Warburgs (now UBS) and Saudi International Bank. Currently involved with MerchantBridge projects in Iraq advising the Ministry of Industry & Minerals.
Dimitri Casvigny: Previously Senior Vice-President, investment banking division of Bear Stearns in London in charge of telecom and media as well as working on transport and industrial sectors. Also worked for Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, BNP Paribas in the emerging market department in London and CCF in Paris (now part of HSBC).
Tim Holder: 17 years experience in corporate and project finance and has been involved in a number of significant deals in the region. Holder set up the Bahrain office of Close Brothers in 2000, and earlier worked for Flemings and Schroders for 10 years advising the UK Ministry of Defence on the Saudi Offset Programme. Before that Holder worked for PriceWaterhouse.
Abdallah Lahoud: Previously with Safron and with the research department of Bank Audi in Lebanon. He is experienced in negotiations, and the process of sale and purchase of companies including all legal documentation.
Samir Arab, Marketing and Placement: Over 16 years of Private Banking experience. Former Global Country Manager and Senior Officer in charge of Saudi Arabia at Chase Manhattan Private Bank (London) Arab also set up a multi-family wealth management office to advise a large Middle Eastern conglomerate. Prior to working for Chase, Arab was head of Marketing and acting head of Private Banking at Riyadh Bank Europe covering Saudi clients.
According to their site the Advisory Board includes Andrew Buxton (ex-Barclays Bank) Norman Lamont, Baroness Symons (formerly a defence procurement minister), Lord Peter Palumbo (of the art world), and Ali Ghandour (an adviser to King Hussein of Jordan).
”The Arabian Connection”: The UK Arms Trade to Saudi Arabia, written and researched for CAAT by Chrissie Hirst includes detail on the Al Yamamah deal and its tie-in the oil business and its geo-political ramifications. The report also notes the corruption surrounding and underlying the deal.
“It was also in 1994 that scandal erupted around the former Prime Minister’s son, Mark Thatcher, much of it based on allegations made by the Saudi dissident, Mohammed Khilewi (Independent, 10.10.94; Guardian, 14.10.94; Sunday Telegraph, 16.10.94). As Anthony Sampson commented at the time, “with the huge sums at stake, it would be surprising if some money did not find its way to the British side… To reward the son of the British Prime Minister – even if he gave no help – would be as natural as rewarding the King’s son” (Times, 12.10.94). In October 1994 Mr Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for Linlithgow, submitted documents to officials in the House of Commons, a US intelligence report and an internal British Aircraft Corporation memo, which he claimed proved that Mark Thatcher was involved in Al Yamamah (Financial Times, 19.10.94). The all-party Public Accounts Committee, however, decided not to investigate the allegations that Mark Thatcher received commission payments of £12m from Al Yamamah as this was outside their remit of issues concerning taxpayers’ money (Financial Times, 20.10.94).”
The Al Yamamah agreements have drew repeated media allegations of corruption. The government held one investigation into the deals, an internal inquiry, the findings of which were suppressed. Matters of probity were not exactly helped by the appointment in 1992 of Jonathan Aitken as the then Minister for Defence Procurement.
“The argument of public service has been put about by Aitken and his friends, and there are suggestions that he was a long-time MI6 ‘asset’ who, at the time of his trial, was president of ‘Le Cercle’, a far-right grouping of intelligence people and parliamentarians. Perhaps fearing that if he is seen as a promoter of the arms trade Aitken’s misdeeds would gain a patriotic aura, The Guardian dismisses these suggestions, saying that ‘Le Cercle’ is not influential and that Aitken’s Paris visit was private and unauthorised. In doing this, however, The Guardian leaves unchallenged the central premise that the arms trade is in the national interest. The paper failed to use the Aitken trial as an opportunity to question the very basis of the UK’s arms trade, the culture of which attracts and creates the ‘Aitkens’ of the business: The Guardian prosecuted the symptom and not the cause.”
Interestingly Lord Lamont of Merchantbridge is also a member of Le Cercle (also known as the Pinay Circle) and Denman’s involvement with the propaganda organisation the Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism (RISCT) also brings him into this orbit. RISCT is a renamed version of the Institute for the Study of Conflict (ISC) which was funded by the CIA and the Pinay Circle and more or less run by Brian Crozier (also Pinay Circle). Largely unknown until internal documents of the ISC were leaked to Time Out Magazine in 1975 the organisation is a loose gathering of various conservative and anti-Communist politicians, publicists, bankers and VIPs and included Alan Clark and Jonathan Aitken who both oversaw the Al Yamamah deal and the ‘Arms to Iraq’ scandal.