The Swiss Leaks scandal, which began when a former HSBC staffer stole client files from the bank’s Geneva branch in 2008, got juicer this month, after 140 journalists working together with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists released "Swiss Leaks: Murky Cash Sheltered by Bank Secrecy,” detailing client names, transactions and dollar amounts.
The interactive report also breaks down the money in HSBC accounts by country - which gave some interesting results in the Middle East. Shocking? We think not.
It’s probably not surprising to anyone that Saudi and Emirati citizens had billions in the Swiss bank – $5.8 billion and $3.5 billion respectively – but billions from Lebanese and Egyptian citizens – $4.8 billion and $3.5 billion respectively – strike us as slightly more suspicious. Saudi Arabia was No. 11 on the list, by dollar amount, while Lebanon was just one spot behind at 12. Egypt was ranked No. 20, the UAE was 22 and Turkey was 23.
The amounts, based on account holdings over a four-month period in 2006-2007, don’t imply any wrong doing or illegality, as there are legitimate reasons for holding a private Swiss bank account or trust, but the sheer amount of wealth flowing through just one bank is staggering.
To put it in perspective for the reader, Lebanon’s figure represents 20 percent of its 2007 GDP, a staggering sum for such a small country. The 4,450 accounts, for 2,998 clients, that the ICIJ report listed as linked to Lebanon represent accounts held by Lebanese citizens or linked to Lebanese companies and bank accounts.
The ICIJ report did not name every client who held an account, and only one Lebanese name was on their list of biggest account holders – Georges Frem, the industrialist and politician who died in 2006, was the account holder or beneficiary on two accounts holding more than $3 million.
Regionally, the client list reads like a who's who of Middle Eastern royalty: Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos and King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
While the data doesn’t imply – yet alone prove – any malfeasance on the part of the individual account holders, the investigation of HSBC’s practices has landed it in hot water with tax authorities around the world, leading CEO Stuart Gulliver to issue an apology for the bank’s past behavior and assurances that the practices uncovered in the report do not reflect the current state of controls at HSBC.
As a part of the wider leak, a treasure trove of correspondence has been released, demonstrating that HSBC actively worked with clients to avoid the taxman in their home countries.