Back in 1998 less than five Saint Lucians had heard of Gilbert Chagoury, let alone his connections with our nation’s main movers and shakers. During an interview I had with Sir John Compton he recalled their only meeting, a year or so before the prime minister retired in the best interests of Vaughan Lewis.
“I knew absolutely nothing about the gentleman until Archbishop Kelvin Felix introduced us in 1995,” the enlightened 2003 Compton regretfully confessed. It emerged during the remembered interview that he knew even less about the church leader’s history with the Lebanese billionaire. By Compton’s mournful account the influential archbishop brokered the deal that had resulted in the precedential appointment of Saint Lucia’s first Arab ambassador.
Chagoury had sugared the arrangement with an unsolicited offer to pay out of his own pocket whatever the price of persuading UNESCO to do for Saint Lucia particularly what in 1948 it had been established to do for world peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture, respect for justice, for the rule of law, and for human rights.
Compton told me he had reluctantly agreed to grant Chagoury’s prayer, but only on condition the Lebanese also financed the appointment of a native Saint Lucian as his assistant in Geneva.
The man the prime minister handpicked for the plum position was Petrus Compton, a relative then attached to his government’s legal department. Alas, by the time Ambassador Chagoury was ready to receive his Saint Lucian shadow, the vast majority of his fellow citizens had evicted Vaughan Lewis from the prime minister’s chair—Petrus Compton had lost his presumed UWP heart to the new SLP administration while winning the position of attorney general. Such water-into-wine miraculous conversions are, in political Saint Lucia, every-day occurrences.
Among the first foreign dignitaries to arrive in Saint Lucia following the 1997 general elections was Ambassador Gilbert Chagoury. Conceivably, he wished personally to congratulate the Kenny Anthony government. But chances are he also harbored a selfish motive or two. (It is hardly a secret that newly elected Caribbean governments have zero tolerance for diplomats not cut out to be floor mats.) All the same, the well-heeled Lebanese failed to impress the newly-minted foreign affairs minister George Odlum, ever wary of foreigners bearing gifts for his prime minister. Days before Chagoury’s scheduled arrival here, Odlum had set out to uncover his history. What he learned confirmed his suspicion: the billionaire’s main interest was personal, less to do with his professed love for Saint Lucia than with keeping his diplomatic golden key, without which several important doors would once again be closed to him, regardless of his immense wealth!
Whether the fruits of Odlum’s labor proved too bitter for some of his Cabinet colleagues must remain conjectural. Perhaps the late foreign minister had been a tad too late with his findings. By the time he had the opportunity to engage his prime minister on the subject of Chagoury’s association with various suspect governments, including Nigeria’s Abacha regime, not only had the Kenny Anthony administration confirmed him in his position—and appointed him this nation’s ambassador to the Holy See (reportedly without consulting with the local Catholic church authorities)—but the prime minister and his deputy had themselves accepted Chagoury’s generous invitation to party with his daughter at her wedding in Monaco.
Fast forward to “better days.” The Lebanese continues to wear his Saint Lucian face at masked balls also attended by the world’s richest and most powerful. Earlier this year he was controversially awarded our nation’s most prestigious award: The Saint Lucia Cross. At the special Government House occasion (the press was uninvited) the prime minister, on behalf of the nation, profusely thanked Chagoury for his arcane services to Saint Lucia “at no cost to the government.”
And now it seems Gilbert Chagoury was only the tip of the diplomatic viceberg. The latest Arab to place Saint Lucia in the international headlines is Walid Ahmed Juffali of Saudi Arabia. A month or so earlier it was his daughter Hala Juffali who had attracted special media interest in local politics: in the 17 October issue of this newspaper Hala Juffali was pictured with our always gregarious governor general Dame Pearlette Louisy, bosom to bosom and beaming. A Government Information Service caption described Ms Juffali as Saint Lucia’s recently acquired honorary consul. There had been no prior announcement of her visit. Her only media contact while here was the talk-radio host and senate president Claudius Francis. He alone knows whether his few questions to his special guest were spontaneous.
Reportedly, while on “a tour of Saint Lucia” she had found time to meet with “government officials, major national institutions and government agencies to familiarize herself with business and life in Saint Lucia, in preparation for her responsibilities as the representative of the government of Saint Lucia in Saudi Arabia.”
According to the government’s public relations department, “a major training workshop with travel agents in Saudi Arabia [would] be organized as the first activity of Ms Juffali’s office.” The release did not identify the workshop organizer; neither the highly privileged business people Juffali had encountered during her tour of the island. As for the precise address of Saint Lucia’s honorary representative in Saudi Arabia, that too remains classified. The government release ended with a reminder that “the kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the largest economies in the Middle East and the largest producer and exporter of oil in the world.” Oh, and that the Arab lady would be servicing Saint Lucians for free.
According to the UK’s Independent newspaper (24 October 2015) quoting IMF and Al-Jazeera sources: “Saudi Arabia could be bankrupt in five years due, in large part, to the fall in oil prices.”
Additionally: “The kingdom will suffer a negative 21.6 percent general government overall fiscal balance in 2015 and a 19.4 percent negative balance in 2016, a massive increase from -3.4 percent in 2014 . . . The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency has withdrawn $70 billion in funds managed by overseas institutions, and has lost almost $73 billion since oil prices slumped. Saudi Arabia generates 90 percent of its income from oil . . .”
The Saint Lucia government neglected to mention in its earlier cited press release that Saudi Arabia is as famous for its oil as its having brought into the world Osama bin Laden, whose fellow terrorists had on 11 September 2001 laid waste New York’s Trade Center and attacked the Pentagon building, in the process claiming some 500 lives.
Our government also forgot to announce—until Wednesday this week—one other related tidbit: the multi-billionaire Walid Ahmed Juffali had been serving unannounced and unsalaried as Saint Lucia’s permanent representative on the board of the International Maritime Organization for over a year. The declaration came only after the UK’s Telegraph newspaper had published online a story centered on Mr. Juffali’s refusal to pay a financial settlement to one of his ex-wives while forking out close to US$800,000 for two nudes of famous female models.
Describing him as one of Saudi Arabia’s “most prominent billionaires,” the paper revealed that Juffali had “gained legal immunity in Britain ever since his appointment as a Caribbean diplomat representing the island nation of Saint Lucia.” (News media elsewhere had earlier referred with undisguised cynicism to philanthropist Gilbert Chagoury’s legal immunity, thanks to “the small island nation of Saint Lucia!”)
Remarkably, although Juffali has received, according to the Saint Lucia government, a number of prestigious awards including Knight of the Order of Dannebrog; Knight of the Cedars; Knight of St. Sylvester (the Vatican), and “other diplomatic positions,” it would appear only his Saint Lucian award affords him legal immunity. Or perhaps he keeps to himself his “other diplomatic positions” to spare the conferrers unwanted publicity.
The Saint Lucia government, meanwhile, had made certain Saint Lucians realize “the Knight of St. Sylvester being given to a Muslim by the Catholic Church speaks volumes of his [Juffali’s] philanthropic contributions to the international community.” On the other hand some might say it is its historic acceptance of the unacceptable that speaks loudest about the Vatican!
On Wednesday the government gave Saint Lucians its assurance that all “necessary” due diligence had been done prior to the appointment of Walid Juffali as Saint Lucia’s representative to the International Maritime Organization. What does “necessary” mean in this instance? Who undertook such due diligence? Invest Saint Lucia?
Did the government know one of Juffali’s ex-wives was demanding a larger financial settlement in the UK than the relative pittance allowed her in notoriously misogynistic Saudi Arabia? I have been reliably informed that it was Christina Estrada who first issued divorce proceedings against Juffali in a London court in August 2013, just four months before his first private visit to Saint Lucia.
Reportedly, he had persuaded her to retract the proceedings. Juffalli then traveled a second time to Saint Lucia in April 2014, at which time he was appointed hush-hush to his current diplomatic position. Five months later, in September 2014, Juffali served his own divorce proceedings—in Saudi Arabia.
His separation from Christina Estrada was made final three months later, in December 2014. Several days later Christina made her application to the UK courts for a settlement. Only then did she learn from Walid Juffali’s lawyers that he now had diplomatic immunity. How much of that did our government’s due diligence uncover?
Also on Wednesday Senate President Claudius Francis, in his role as talk-radio host, referred to Christina Estrada’s marital predicament. I understood him to say he agreed (surprise, surprise) with the government’s decision not to interfere. But then, isn’t it the government’s well-timed diplomatic appointment that renders Juffali untouchable by his ex-wife’s lawyers?
For the record: Diplomatic immunity ensures diplomats are given safe passage and are considered not susceptible to lawsuit or prosecution under the host country’s laws, although they can still be expelled. Diplomatic immunity as an institution developed to allow for the maintenance of government relations including during periods of difficulties and armed conflict.” (Could it be our government equates marital squabbles as “armed conflict?” This is Saint Lucia, after all!)
There appears in Juffali’s history nothing that obviously qualifies him to represent Saint Lucia on the board of the International Maritime Organization. Officials here, including the government’s maritime consultant, claim to know nothing about Juffali, save what appeared this week in a government press release. None that I spoke with had ever met the gentleman—or, for that matter, his daughter our island’s honorary consul.
Still the toxic fall-out rains, all thanks to the internet—worldwide. One report is headed: “Caribbean State Refused to Waive UK Immunity for Saudi Diplomat Facing Ex-Wife’s Property Claim!” This particular feature ends with the somewhat shocking disclosure: “Friendly governments usually waive the immunity of diplomats subject to legal proceedings in Britain. Saint Lucia is a commonwealth country which gained independence from Britain in 1979.”
The report quotes Mark Stephens, a former president of the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, in relation to the Juffali matter: “If this was a genuine appointment, there is the tradition of the government concerned waiving that immunity so the person can be subject to justice. What I find astonishing is that it hasn’t happened in this case immediately. That only raises questions over what the government of Saint Lucia is doing in effectively colluding in avoiding the rule of law.”
Yes, here we go again. According to IMO sources, there have been twenty-seven meetings of the organization since Juffali’s appointment. Neither he nor his deputy Tafawa Williams has attended even one!