Why is Yemen’s presidential family loaded up with millions of dollars in D.C. real estate?
- By Ken SilversteinKen Silverstein is a contributing editor with Vice and writes the Washington Babylon column for New York Observer. Follow him on Twitter at: @KenSilverstein1.
Shortly after being named one of the three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize this month, Yemeni activist Tawakkul Karman said that if embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh is driven from power, investigators should immediately begin searching for assets held abroad by members of his government. The money "plundered" by the regime, she said, should be "brought back to the Yemeni people," according to an account on an opposition website.
If Saleh is forced out — he has held power for more than three decades — the asset hunters might want to begin their search in Washington, D.C. Real estate records show that in 2007 a man named Ahmed Ali Saleh bought four condominiums in a luxury building in Friendship Heights, right near one of the capital’s swankiest shopping areas. He paid $5.5 million — in cash — for the condos. He also owns a property assessed at about $220,000 in Fairfax, Virginia, bought in the 1990s.
Saleh is a common name in Yemen, and the Yemeni embassy in Washington won’t comment on the matter, but substantial evidence indicates that the Ahmed Ali Saleh who owns the condos is the eldest son and longtime heir apparent of President Saleh. He also heads the elite Republican Guard, which has allegedly led many of the attacks on the country’s largely peaceful protesters at Change Square in Sanaa.
Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, erupted in revolt against the Saleh family’s rule in February, soon after the fall of Tunisia’s Ben Ali. Tribal fighters, young pro-democracy activists, and government security forces have been vying for control ever since. In recent days, the capital has been gripped by violence. International human rights groups say the government has killed at least several hundred demonstrators since the uprising began; some estimates are many times that.
The unrest in Yemen was triggered in part by anger over the ruling family’s self-enrichment, of which the military has been a prime beneficiary. (In addition to the Republican Guard, President Saleh’s close relatives control other key branches of the military and security establishment.) Yemen is rapidly running out of oil, which underpins the economy, and other resources, which makes the situation all the more explosive.
In Washington, at least some members of the president’s family live in posh style. Among the four condos owned by Ahmed Ali Saleh, the most expensive unit, which he bought for $1.7 million, is currently up for rent (furnished) for $7,500 per month. That’s more or less equivalent to what a typical Yemeni makes in seven years. The rental listing describes the 2,019-square-foot unit as "LUXURIOUS and SPECTACULAR," with two bedrooms, walk-in closets, two-and-a-half baths (one with whirlpool), hardwood floors, and marble and granite trimmings. The listing also boasts of the building’s 24-hour front desk and fitness center, as well as its location "steps from … [the] best shopping in DC."
Indeed, Saleh’s condos are just around the corner from Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and a multitude of high-end retailers at Mazza Gallerie shopping mall on Wisconsin Avenue. "So perfect, you’ll want to move in immediately!" says the listing.
Frank Goldstein, who headed the building’s condo owners’ association until earlier this year, said that young Yemenis "in their 20s" lived in the condo units and that he was told by the Yemeni embassy that they were cousins and nephews of the president who were attending universities in Washington. Legal records show that Khaled Saleh, which is the name of another son of President Saleh, was living in one of the condos in 2009. A public record database search found that one of President Saleh’s grandsons has lived at Ahmed Ali Saleh’s Fairfax property. Khaled Saleh and at least two other relatives of the president are currently on the embassy’s payroll, according to a document filed by the Yemeni government with the U.S. State Department. (Ahmed Ali Saleh himself lived in Washington in the mid-1990s and graduated from American University, one U.S. source told me. The university confirmed that an Ahmed A. Saleh graduated in the 1990s, but would provide no other information.)
Several people connected with the building, including Goldstein, told me that they never met the condo’s owner — but that the Yemeni embassy in Washington was the contact point when issues arose. When I called the concierge service at the building and said I wanted to get in touch with Ahmed Ali Saleh, the person I spoke with said, "He doesn’t live here. If I need anything I call the embassy [of Yemen], and they get someone for me. If you want anything to do with those units, you have to go through the embassy."
Daphne Coates, who manages the units for Legum & Norman Realty, told me: "I’ve never met him [the owner] or talked to him. I don’t know where he lives, here or in Yemen. When I need something I call the embassy, and they find someone for me to talk to."
Goldstein said he was told by his contact at the embassy that one of the president’s brothers owned the units. Yet Mohammed al-Basha, a public affairs officer at Yemen’s Washington embassy, said the president has no brother named Ahmed Ali Saleh or any relative of that name other than his eldest son. "I don’t have answers to your questions," he said when I later asked him directly if the condo owner was the president’s son. He suggested I contact the press secretary for Ahmed Ali Saleh in Yemen, who failed to reply to an email seeking comment.
I called the Yemeni embassy on Monday, Oct. 17, and told the receptionist I wanted to speak to the person at the embassy who handled Ahmed Ali Saleh’s condos. She put me through to a woman who became indignant when I told her I was seeking confirmation that the president’s son owned the units. "So you’re asking questions that don’t pertain to you," she said. "What business is it of yours who owns the property?" When pressed, the woman, who wouldn’t give her name but said she worked with the ambassador, said she would get back to me on the question of ownership. So far she hasn’t. When I asked her how else I might confirm ownership, she replied, "Try contacting the government of Yemen and see how far that gets you."
I spoke on backgroundwith four U.S. experts on Yemen who have many decades of combined government and private experience in the country and intricate knowledge of the ruling family. They all said that given the evidence — including the obvious wealth of the properties’ owner — the president’s son almost had to be the proprietor. One termed it "virtually impossible" that he was not, adding, "It is inconceivable that there is another Ahmed Ali Saleh in Yemen who has $5 million to buy condos in Washington." Another said that during his conversations with Yemeni diplomats, several had mentioned that the president’s son owned property in Washington.
A New York Times story last year said there was a sense in Yemen that the country was run as "a family corporation." A 2005 State Department cable, written by an officer at the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa and released this year by WikiLeaks, made the case that "Rampant official corruption impedes foreign investment, economic growth, and comprehensive development." The State Department’s most recent annual human rights report on Yemen says that "officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity" and that international observers "presumed that government officials and parliamentarians benefited from insider arrangements and embezzlement."
"It’s a poor country, so there isn’t a lot of money to steal, but because it’s poor it needs every dollar it can get," David Newton, who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen between 1994 and 1997, told me. "Corruption really hurts."
President Barack Obama’s administration — which has been targeting suspected al Qaeda militants operating in Yemen with drone strikes, including U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in late September — has worked closely with Saleh’s government on counterterrorism matters but has spoken out against the regime. During his address to the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, Obama said Yemenis calling for Saleh’s ouster were seeking to "prevail over a corrupt system" and that "America supports those aspirations."
The State Department has asked for $35 million in foreign military financing for the next fiscal year for Yemen. Total military, security, and economic aid to the country has surpassed $100 million during the past two years, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
Stephanie Brancaforte, the Berlin-based campaign director for Avaaz, a global human rights group that has worked extensively on Yemen and that alerted me to the D.C. properties, criticized U.S. policy. "Saleh’s forces have not only killed protesters — they have inflicted a humanitarian crackdown by intentionally cutting off water and electricity to millions of people," she said. "The U.S. invested more than $100 million to fight terrorism in Yemen, but that money has primarily gone to prop up a corrupt family…. Meanwhile, the average Yemeni is less likely to be a victim of terrorism than malnutrition."
Ahmed Ali Saleh is one of the most powerful men in Yemen, and his father has long groomed him to be his replacement (though the president recently promised that his son would not succeed him). When President Saleh was evacuated to Saudi Arabia in June after he was seriously burned in an attack on the mosque he was attending, the younger Saleh moved into the presidential palace and took charge. His troops have been directly implicated in some of the worst abuses against protesters.
A September 2005 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Yemen, released by WikiLeaks, said the president was using the years leading up to a scheduled 2013 election to "groom his son (a la Mubarak), make him increasingly visible, and place him in positions of higher responsibility so that he will be seen as an acceptable candidate." But the cable said that "there are considerable doubts as to his [Ahmed Ali Saleh’s] fitness for the job" and that he did "not currently command the same respect as his father."
The cable also called Ahmed Ali Saleh a force of "the status quo, [which] is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, given a declining economy, rising frustration over official corruption, and increasing U.S. and international pressures on the regime to change the way it does business."
Ahmed Ali Saleh is certainly not the only controversial foreign official to have bought real estate in the United States, but the transactions could attract scrutiny if, for example, the funds used for the purchases could be shown to have originated in corruption. Ahmed Ali Saleh clearly fits in the category of "senior foreign political figures" as defined by the USA PATRIOT Act, who are supposed to be subject to especially careful due diligence by American financial institutions before accepting their money.
Jack Blum, an attorney and former Senate counsel who played a key role in investigations into the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and the Lockheed Corp.’s overseas bribery scandal, summarized the key questions surrounding Ahmed Ali Saleh’s condo-buying: "Was an American bank involved at any point in the transactions, and if so, did it file a suspicious activities report? If so, was anything done with it, or did it just make for interesting wastepaper? Where did he get the money? Could he have afforded to buy the properties on his official salary?"
Al-Basha, at Yemen’s Washington embassy, would not provide information on the salary of President Saleh, his son, or other top government officials.
Meanwhile, back in Yemen the uprising continues. President Saleh has repeatedly said he’s going to leave office — only to back away at the last minute.
The rental listing suggests that neither the president nor his eldest son plan on retiring to Washington anytime soon, however. The property owner "will consider long term lease," the listing says, so it looks as though Ahmed Ali Saleh isn’t ready to move in to his luxury condo just yet.