Tunisian People Fixated on Sakhr El Materi, Imad Trabelsi and First Lady Leila Ben Ali
Among the figures that angry Tunisians are fixated on is Sakhr El Materi. His trajectory is becoming shockingly identical to that of Algeria’s disgraced businessman Abdelmoumen Khalifa. Both young, both inexperienced and both deeply corrupt, essentially ending in hiding, in the UK for Khalifa and probably in Dubai for Al Materi.
Originating from yet another prominent family, Sakhr is known for investing in lucrative businesses, yet his biggest coup was probably his marriage to Ben Ali’s daughter. Today, as the drama began to unfold in Tunisia, Sakhr has been at the top of a vast business empire that spans from tourism to automobiles, and real estate to media. Many of such businesses, such as car dealerships have been destroyed by rioters in the most current events.
While the Tunisian people have long recognized the dysfunctional nature of Sakhr El Materi and what he represented, the West cozied up to him and often treated him like royalty. He happens to be the chairman of the Tunisia-US Parliamentary Friendship Group and was awarded in October 2010 the Guido Dorso prize, a “prize that honors the most deserving in the field of Media and Publishing.” The prize was handed to him by the Italian far-right Senator Renato Schifani. But for the American diplomats based in Tunis, there was no ambiguity about the man. He is a part of the Ben Ali system, deeply rooted into it, perhaps the next generation that would carry the misdeeds of the dictator. Wikileaks shows a US embassy’s cable summary that states that Sakhr El Materi
“was living in the midst of great wealth and excess, illustrating one reason resentment of President Ben Ali’s in-laws is increasing.”
Corrupt to the bones, Sakhr’s never ending pursuit of wealth and business opportunities was even evidenced during a dinner he had with the American ambassador in Tunisia. When the American diplomat raised the issue of economic liberalization, El Materi found it opportune to reply that “he would be pleased to assist McDonald’s to enter Tunisia, suggesting they begin at the new cruise port in La Goulette,” which he also owns, by the way. The McDonald franchise would inevitably be his.
Lavish Lifestyle, Irrational Behavior
Writing about the El-Materi’s lifestyle, the cable says
“his house is spacious, and directly above and along the Hammamet public beach. The compound is large and well guarded by government security. It is close to the center of Hammamet, with a view of the fort and the southern part of the town. The house was recently renovated and includes an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters. While the house is done in a modern style (and largely white), there are ancient artifacts everywhere: Roman columns, frescoes and even a lion’s head from which water pours into the pool. El Materi insisted the pieces are real. He hopes to move into his new (and palatial) house in Sidi Bou Said in eight to ten months.”
The cable adds,
“El Materi has a large tiger (“Pasha”) on his compound, living in a cage. He acquired it when it was a few weeks old. The tiger consumes four chickens a day. El Materi had staff everywhere. There were at least a dozen people, including a butler from Bangladesh and a nanny from South Africa.” The American diplomatic cable remarked that “El Materi often struck the Ambassador as demanding, vain and difficult. He is clearly aware of his wealth and power, and his actions reflected little finesse. He repeatedly pointed out the lovely view from his home and frequently corrected his staff, issued orders and barked reprimands (…) Nesrine, [Sakhr’s wife and Ben Ali’s daughter] at age 23, appeared friendly and interested, but nave and clueless. She reflected the very sheltered, privileged and wealthy life she has led. As for the dinner itself, it was similar to what one might experience in a Gulf country, and out of the ordinary for Tunisia.”
But who really is Sakhr El Materi? Coming from a Tunis family, he grew up in a political and wealthy environment. He is the nephew of Mahmoud El Materi, one of the first Muslim students to graduate from the Paris medical school (Faculté de Médecine de Paris) in 1927. This event paved the way for the El Materis then to engage in economic and political pursuits. Indeed, later Mahmoud El Materi became a figure of the opposition against French occupation and a co-founder of the Neo-Destour party, which became the party in power, the Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique (RCD). Enabling the upward movement of his siblings, Mahmoud El Materi helped his brother Moncef, Sakhr’s father, shift from a military career to business. With another brother Tahar, Moncef established in the early 1970s a pharmaceutical firm called Al Adwya, one of Tunisia’s biggest private drugs companies today. He later expanded into food and agricultural, amassing a fortune that his son could later use for his own purposes.
Groomed to take over the business, Sakhr is reported to have a Master’s in Management Sciences. Right after graduating, he joined his father’s drugs firm Al-Away, where he stills remains a member of the board, at least before the Jasmine Revolution began. Meanwhile, he married Nesrine, the daughter of the president of the country, and in 2005 he oversaw his company’s stake acquisition in Nestle Tunisia. This deal was a watershed event that led him to begin to distance himself from his family business to run solo. That same year, he purchased from the Italian financial institution Monte De Pasche De Sienna the 16% equity it controlled in the Tunisia’s Banque du Sud, only to resell it for a much bigger profit. The proceeds of his sale went toward the acquisition of the auto distributor Ennakl. It turns out, it was not a legal acquisition but a pure gift from the Ben Alis to their son-in-law. That company held the monopoly of the distribution of all German cars in Tunisia. He continued on his expansion path to create in 2007 Trucks Gros and Car Gros, two wholesalers of auto parts for the Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche models. In mid- 2008, he inked a deal with Renault Trucks International to open an industrial vehicle unit. Outside of the auto and truck business, he established the Goulette Shipping Services, and the new cruise port in La Goulette. One business venture after another, Sakhr continued to purchase or create new firms, such as real estate firms Les Hirondelles and Le Marchand and the Ben Ali affiliation helped. All of these businesses fell under the umbrella of a holding called the Princesse El Materi Holding, officially established in 2008.
Said to be a devout religious figure, something that is more of a public image than a reality, he established a religious radio station, called Ezzeitouna and in late 2009 he opened an Islamic bank to offer Sharia banking services and expanding into insurance.
In his final grab of resources before the Tunisian people took to the streets, Sakhr El Materi managed to take over the mobile phone operator Tunisiana where he was appointed chairman of the board. The deal came after he inked an agreement with Qatar National Telecommunications (Qtel) to take over the stake sold by Egypt’s Orascom. As such Sakhr would control 25% of Tunisiana, while the National Mobile Telecommunications Company KSC (Wataniya), a subsidiary which is 52.5% owned by Qtel, would control 75% of what is Tunisia’s second largest telephone operator with 5.7 million subscribers.
Although entrepreneurship with buying and creating companies are to be encouraged since they do create value, wealth and jobs, the fast expanding empire of the 30-year old Sakhr El Matri was only made possible by a corrupt environment where transparency is nonexistent. If his rapid rise in business was all legal, then how can one explain the very point Sakhr made to the American ambassador when he said about the Tunisian bureaucracy “it is difficult to get things done… communication inside the bureaucracy is terrible.”
There is still a great deal to learn about the workings of those who surrounded the Ben Ali regime. But as the Tunisians seek to start a new chapter, new information is likely to emerge on how a nation is plundered by a corrupt elite.
Sakhr is not the only one. The first lady’s family, the Trabelsi have also attracted a great deal of hatred, in particular one of her protégés’ Imad Trabelsi, her nephew. The drama of the moment amid the ousting of President Ben Ali has reached such a fever pitch that sadly Imad Trabelsi ended up killed after apparently being stabbed on Friday by a former business partner. Imad has been accused by the French legal authorities of taking part in a criminal organization that stole yachts in southern Europe. Mr. Imad Trabelsi always claimed his innocence [see his video here]. Imad’s businesses also span from real estate to retail distribution. He was the mayor of La Goulette municipality, most of which acquired through shadowing transactions and operations.
A First Lady with an Iron Fist
We often focus on President Ben Ali himself as a ruthless dictator, but the Tunisian people have shown tremendous hatred toward the first lady, Leila Ben Ali and what she represented. The woman is said to be the real deal maker. She can make or break anyone in the Tunisian political, social and economic scenes, just as she apparently led to the demise of the once powerful brother of Ben Ali, Moncef. She was also behind the fall of other leading figures who were around Ben Ali, including the mysterious Kamel El-Tayef and Slim Chiboub, to name just a few.
Many things have been said about her. Firstly she comes from a poor family with 10 siblings. She worked as a hairdresser and divorced her first husband three years after marrying him. Sources say she broke the law with small cross-border trafficking activities not reported anywhere in official records, and that’s how she met her future husband, security chief Zine El Abidine Ben Ali while she was under arrest. Observers and a book about her published in France say prior to meeting Ben Ali, she had an affair with businessman Farid Mokhtar, who died a few years later in a mysterious car accident, while taking side against the Ben Ali regime on the political sphere.
Leila Ben Ali is reported to be surrounded by her brother Belhassen Trabelsi, her nephew Imed Trabelsi, and son-in-law Sakhr El Matri. Belhassen Trabelsi is said to be in the business of buying historical land and sites at rock-bottom prices and reselling them at premium after forcing local authorities to issue building permits despite their status of historical sites. Imed Trabelsi has had serious issues with the French justice system for his alleged involvement in the theft of yachts in Corsica. Finally Leila Ben Ali is said to be behind Sakhr El Materi’s stellar rise in business, helping him build his business empire at an unprecedented pace.