You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Billionaire got Canadian citizenship after renting a Montreal basement

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2017-11-30 Marco Chown Oved - Investigative Reporter,Robert Cribb - Investigative Reporter
Romano Prodi, left, then-president of the European Commission, sits with Wafic Said at the official opening of the Said Business School at Oxford University. © Tim Ockenden Romano Prodi, left, then-president of the European Commission, sits with Wafic Said at the official opening of the Said Business School at Oxford University.

Among the most curious revelations contained in the Paradise Papers is the question of Wafic Said’s Canadian citizenship, and how he obtained it, given his tenuous ties to this country.

Said, a Syrian-born, Monaco-based billionaire, was the broker of the 1985 Al-Yamamah arms deal to sell British warplanes to Saudi Arabia, in which £6 billion in “corrupt commissions” were allegedly paid to members of the Saudi royal family.

The longtime friend of Brian Mulroney also donated $4 million to the soon-to-open Brian Mulroney Institute of Government at St. Francis Xavier University, where he received an honorary degree in 2015 and was announced as a Canadian citizen.

But how did this Saudi-Syrian businessman pick up a third passport?

It’s not clear exactly when, but at some point in the 1990s, Said received Canadian citizenship. To fulfil the three-year residency requirement, public records show that instead of living in a luxury building, as he did in London, U.K., Said rented a basement apartment in Montreal.

“I am a Canadian citizen and am proud to be one,” wrote Said in an email to the Star and CBC/Radio-Canada. “I took appropriate professional advice about my entitlement to Canadian residency and citizenship. I followed this advice to the letter, met the relevant qualifications and was granted citizenship.”

A spokesperson for Said later added: “Mr. Said lived in Canada for three years thus complying with the immigration residency requirements.” He was only “absent” from Canada for a few weeks in 1989 and 1990, the spokesperson wrote.

The first trace of Said in Canada shows up in 1988, when he registered a numbered company in Canada that would later be renamed Safingest Inc. and declared himself president and sole shareholder.

In public filings, Safingest states its business is “indeterminate and imprecise.” Its office shares a Montreal address with the office of his lawyer, Annie Kenane. Said’s personal address is listed as an apartment in a building also owned by Kenane.

And it was not the kind of apartment where one would expect to find a wealthy international businessman. According to public records, for three years, Said appears to have been a billionaire in a basement.

The basement apartment is in a three-storey walk-up in the gritty Montreal neighbourhood of Côte-des-Neiges.

Elaine Gloutnez, who lived on the third floor of the same building from 1987 to 1991, said she had never heard of Wafic Said. When shown a photo of Said and his wife, Gloutnez said she had never seen them at the house.

“He’s not the type that would live here,” she told Radio-Canada. “Here it is simple people, young families, students . . . It’s not luxury housing. We’re not in Westmount here.”

“I’ve been in this area since ’85 and I’ve never seen a billionaire here,” Gloutnez said.

In his statement to the Star and the CBC, Said wrote that the apartment was “rented for me but when I was there with my family it was easier to stay in hotels.”

A representative for Said later added: “Mr. Said paid rent under the terms of the lease for the apartment at Légaré Street and used it often.”

Public filings in the U.K. show Said also stated he was living in the prestigious London neighbourhood of Mayfair at the same time, in 1990 and 1991.

In 1990, Said purchased a penthouse in a more upscale Montreal neighbourhood for $1.5 million. In 1999, he sold it for $825,000.

Said did not clarify when and where he received his Canadian citizenship.

The earliest trace of Said’s Canadian citizenship is a Canadian passport issued in Paris in 1996.

From 1986 to 2014, Canada had an immigrant investor program that granted permanent residency to wealthy foreigners who made large investments in the country. At the end, in order to qualify, an applicant had to have $1.6 million in assets and commit to invest $800,000 in Canada.

The program was shut down by the Harper government in 2014 and replaced with a one-year pilot program that raised the mandatory investment to $2 million. Quebec continues its own program that requires $800,000 is invested.

“Investments enabled me to qualify for permanent residence and then for Canadian citizenship,” Said’s statement reads.

Said said he made a “very successful investment” in a company called Jordan Petroleum Ltd., whose shares were held by Safingest Ltd. His Bermuda-based offshore company, Said Holdings, which counted Brian Mulroney among its board members from 2004-2012, “has continued to invest substantial sums in Canada,” he added.

Andrew Feinstein, the executive director of the group Corruption Watch in the U.K., has investigated Said for many years. He had no idea Said was a Canadian citizen.

“What on earth would he want a Canadian passport for? And how would he be granted one, because I’m not aware of . . . when he would have spent any meaningful time in Canada.”

Immigration lawyer Richard Kurland says the Canadian government can waive normal residency requirements and grant citizenship in “very special” cases.

“The special treatment to issue a national interest Canadian citizenship comes in two flavours,” Kurland said. “It’s direct in the open, the way we give it to the Dalai Lama. Or it’s behind the red curtain in Ottawa.”

“You don’t have to tell parliament you’re doing this. You don’t have to apply the normal way. If they don’t give it to you directly, they will tell you: ‘Just apply. Put it in the system. And our folks in the system will take your case and process it no questions asked.’ That’s how it’s done.”

Canadian citizenship is one of the most sought-after assets for Middle Eastern billionaires, Kurland said.

“Billionaires like two things: There’s the money and the freedom . . . A Canadian passport is the golden ticket,” he said.

“You’re not taxed in Canada because Canada taxes on residence, not on citizenship. And you can travel visa free, no questions asked, in almost every country in the world.”

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From Toronto Star

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon