On August 4, 2020, shortly after 6 p.m., in the port area of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which was confiscated (because of its dangerousness) from a Russian ship in 2013, and, due to the bankruptcy of its owner, have remained in a customs shed without precautionary measures, exploded. It was an earthquake-like explosion that killed around 200 people, injured over 7,000 and destroyed homes for more than 300,000 city residents.
Regardless of the considerations on the very serious errors of the port administration, this tragedy caused another incurable wound in the urban fabric of a city victim of wars and political attacks of all kinds for a hundred years and thus constitutes a privileged arena for companies who are called upon to rebuild after each disaster. What we are telling is the story of the oldest and most famous of these Lebanese construction companies: The Dar Al-Handasah group of the Shair family.
This story shows a similar evolution as during the construction boom in the Third World, but also in the European countries destroyed by the Second World War: Regulating the industrial processes of a country under reconstruction involves an almost compulsory “acceptable” form of corruption. This paradox is even more evident in certain third world countries, where there is no state social policy (because it is a dictatorship, because the country is poor, because it is emerging from a civil war catastrophic) and where domination over available resources is the only reason why every investor is ready for anything.
The story of the Lebanese group Dar Al-Handasah was born thanks to a happy start, due to the favorable wave for construction companies in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East, and thanks the ambition of four young men who were friends since childhood. The founder, Kamal A. Shair, is a visionary engineer (“From the moment I founded Dar Al-Handasah, I thought that the company should become something that would continue to prosper long after I started working – and even after I will have left this earth”) which is characterized by its determination and its ability to forge friendships and professional relationships, using charisma, the quality of his work, but also (if necessary) corruption – from Lebanon, then all around the world, to some controversial construction contracts for the CIA and the US Department of Defense.
Born in the West Bank in the small village of Es-Salt (known for the devastation caused by the Battle of Transjordan between the British and the Ottomans on Easter Saturday 1918, in which peaceful Christians and Muslims were slaughtered together because they opposed the Turks), he realizes that in times of turbulence an international engineering, architectural and planning firm is needed, capable of ruthlessly fighting competition.
Beirut 1956, four boys and a dream
His business idea and his vision of the world go hand in hand with his political ideology: thanks to his studies at the American University of Beirut, where he graduated, he dreams of a future in an emancipated, progressive and democratic country, supported by political and economic reforms – whose principle have the characteristics of social openness, environmental protection, innovation and higher education. The four boys became friends and advisers to heads of State, intellectuals, soldiers, entrepreneurs and politicians who shared the dream of a new era for the Middle East: almost a utopia in the areas marked by civil war and corruption. If you add to this the charisma of Kamal A. Shair, the attractiveness of his industrial project becomes stronger and stronger. He calls it Dar Al-Handasah, “The Home of Engineers”.
After growing up together in the streets of the capital, in 1956, studying in the same rooms and sharing dreams and needs, four very young professors from the American University of Beirut founded an engineering office in Beirut, which, at that historic moment, was an absolute vanguard in the construction industry. There is a world to imagine and build – and everyone did it with such fervor that Beirut at the time was called the “Golden Switzerland”. The year 1958 was the turning point for the company. Thanks to the first major contract in Kuwait (a power plant), the rise of Dar Al-Handasah begins explosively, with subsequent projects in the Middle East, in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and in Africa. Today, the group controls 47 international offices outside Lebanon.
Ten years later, in the early 1970s, Dar Al Handasah changed its name to Dar Al-Handasah Shair and Partners: now Kamal A. Shair has become the undisputed leader of the company, he ousted his childhood friends and decides to sell 60% of the shares of the holding company to managers who have stood out over the years; a symbolic gesture, a message of absolute bond between those who form the heart of the company, a “magic circle” which stands out and has become a national elite – especially after the seizure of power by the family of Suleiman Franjieh in Lebanon and Syria and became the epicenter of a Pan-Arab economic engine that emerged from the humiliation of the Six Day War: a wave that Kamal A. Shair masterfully rides, securing large and profitable contracts in Nigeria, Algeria, Qatar and everywhere around the East. Gradually winning, allowing the group to extend its activity to all construction sectors: residential, transport, industry and services.
The Dar Al-Handasah group is one of the leaders of the golden age of the reconstruction of the Lebanese country, after 25 years of civil war – a modernization which will not be completed until 1991. Today, Dar Al-Handasah is one of the world’s most renowned architectural design companies and one of the largest employers in Lebanon. However, this does not happen without consequences – the group is under investigation for corruption in three jurisdictions: Angola, Egypt, Lebanon and finally, due to a serious accident (due to construction without the necessary safety measures) also in Saudi Arabia. It is now known that, thanks to his friendship with an Angolan guerrillero, who later became president (José Eduardo Dos Santos), Dar Al-Handasah also received orders in the 1970s which were paid for by the Soviet Union and guaranteed by the one, who is accused today of being a former employee of the KGB – Herminio Joaquin Escorcio.
The friendship with President Dos Santos
The first stages of success were also those that were accompanied by events of corruption, starting with one of the booming governments (thanks to the great mineral deposits) of those years: The Angola of President José Eduardo “Zedu” Dos Santos and his daughter Isabel, who was pushed thanks to the main means of corruption of this clan – the FESA Foundation (Foundação Eduardo Dos Santos de Angola).
Over the years, the bond of friendship between the Shair family and the Dos Santos family has grown stronger thanks to converging economic interests: according to research by the ICIJ and Global Witness, the Dos Santos Clan has entered a severe liquidity crisis after the end of the civil war and accepted secured loans for oil that would in future have been extracted from Sonangol (which to date risks bankrupting the over-indebted state oil company). But not all of these loans end up in state coffers: some money is transferred to a UBS account in Jersey – money that was never found because it was processed by the London branch of Arab Bank – there, where the Dar Al Handasah group has its bank accounts and from where they were immediately transferred to another location.
A part was used to finance an account of the subsidiary Penspen International Holding Limited, used in Hong Kong, which allowed the company Qatar Petroleum to sign several contracts in Iran (without appearing directly) for the establishment of a consortium with the oil trading company Initial Oil. Initial Oil is controlled by a personal assistant to Kamal A. Shair: again the former KGB employee, now Angolan Ambassador (and friend of José Eduardo “Zedu” Dos Santos), the aforementioned Herminio Joaquin Escorcio.
It also explains the connection with Qatar, where Dar Al-Handasah has an institutional headquarters, just like in Abu Dhabi – the Shair family always manages to get along with everyone. In Doha, however, Dar Al-Handasah creates one of his masterpieces. There is talk of investment figures well over $ 3 billion between 1989 and 2004 – money that was used to manage the contract for one of the biggest construction projects in Qatar: “The Pearl“ (see photo opening of this article) which consists of creating two peninsulas for rich customers, with 10 huge apartments’ buildings composed of 40 towers, each with a place for boats, supermarkets, gymnasiums and even a mosque, and completely independent, all two for drinking water (filtered from the sea) as well as for energy (solar panels and geothermal systems).
Advice payments given to middlemen (possibly bribes) by Dar Al-Handasah are estimated to be around $ 100 million, compared to around $ 16 billion in profits for architecture and construction, and around $ 4 billion dollars over ten years for subsequent infrastructure administration. A thousand and one nights’ affair. According to international NGOs, these 100 million went through another bank account in Jersey which was offered to Lebanese leaders by intermediaries in Qatar. In this case also, one of these intermediaries is the former CEO of Sonangol, Escorcio: the assistant of Kamal A. Shair, who thanks to his Lebanese boss became ambassador in Austria, Switzerland, Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, Germany, Portugal, Libya, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Dos Santos family has controlled the construction’s system since the end of the Angolan civil war through the friendly and corrupt companies that support them: the construction sector is closely linked to social needs and politics as a symbol and factor of growth and the emancipation of the nation. When you control that sector, you have the power and respect of the local oligarchies. The objective is to create a sort of bourgeoisie with oligarchic functions (made up of the leaders of the ruling party, the MPLA, and high-ranking military officers such as General Hélder Vieira Dias “Kopelipa”, as well as certain executives from Sonangol and FESA), whose job it is to control Angola’s economic and infrastructural growth – a conception of which Dar Al-Handasah has always been a part.
Herminio Joaquin Escorcio and the building boom in Angola
Because Angola is also in a hurry to grow. In 2006, the capital Luanda needed new apartments in a flash due to the increasing urbanization of the population, who escaped the misery of rural areas and sought happiness in the city. Zedu sought help in Russia, in the United States, and in his daughter Isabel’s Portuguese friends – without success. According to legend, things changed one day in 1984 when Ronald Reagan (then a friend of Lebanon), along with Lebanese President Amin Gemayel (Maronite leader of the Christian Phalanx) introduced President Dos Santos to Kamal A. Shair.
It’s probably just a legend. Shair and Zedu must have known each other for a long time, as Kamal took part in the Angolan civil war and certainly met Zedu. Kamal is said to have been making round trips to the Angolan bush in a private jet in the spring of 1979, bringing medicine and ammunitions to the rebels in exchange for deals to operate the uranium, diamond and gold mines after the war. However, Kamal A. Shair is the first entrepreneur to pledge help to José Eduardo Dos Santos.
After the Angolan war, Kamal, with his assistant Herminio Escorcio, offered his help in all negotiations on the sale of oil and gas until he became the mediator of many development projects also funded by the Chinese, such as the “Big One Route” which leads from Port Said to the ports of Rio Congo, in particular to Port Matadi, which was built by the French of the Bolloré group with Chinese money and was supposed to be the sorting center for the products of Angola’s richest oil region comes from the province of Cabinda.
Kamal’s good mood therefore rests mainly on his interpersonal skills and his entrepreneurial fervor: it is no coincidence that the Egyptian army, when choosing a leader for the coup, specifically chose Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi – one of the best and closest friends of Kamal A. Shair, elected Chief of Staff of the Army and Secret Service, then Secretary of Defense and certainly one of Herminio’s trusted men Joaquim Escorcio when he was Angolan Ambassador to Cairo.
In the 90s, Kamal, now an older man, gave way to his son Talal, who, like his father, is an intelligent man with good business acumen and very good connections. Talal is therefore tasked with solving the problem of the housing shortage in Luanda – he does so with an incredible proposal: Dar Al-Handasah is building 1 million houses and the new Palace of the National Assembly, where the project is questioned by the president as a political victory, but paid with the money of the Shair family. Dos Santos accepted the proposal and proudly launched in 2012 the “Minha casa, meu sonho” (My house, my dream) construction program, the real cost of which has never become public, even though it was close to 3 billion euros. A huge sum.
Half a century of leading connections in Egypt
Talal K. Shair becomes a close friend and advisor to Zedu’s daughter, Isabel Dos Santos, whom he supports and accompanies in all his operations in the Middle East. In addition, Talal has always been associated with the MPLA, whose pragmatic and secular ideology he shares: he himself dreams of an Islam in which Sunnis, Shiites and Wahhabis are brothers and not enemies as they are today. Very young, still in pursuit of his dream, Talal K. Shair was a supporter and financier of the creation of the Dar Al-Maal Al-Islami bank in Geneva, a bank created on the initiative of entrepreneurs, professionals and “enlightened” Saudi aristocrats.
These are ideas inherited from his father: Kamal, through his friendship with the dean of the Cairo Faculty of Architecture, was involved in the project of building a group of public houses that were built specifically for the workers by the oil wells in the desert of eastern Egypt. Through his consulting firm Shair & Partners, he got in touch with the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan Al-Banna, but then he was befriended President Gamal Nasser and later with Hosni Mubarak. No problem.
Both presidents knew that the Shair family was associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi, and that Kamal was active with him in the Suez Canal military unit (where Kamal later attempted to do business with his company) and in maintained, during the years of the war, a deep link with the organization led by Said Ramadan, but also with the Egyptian political power. This gives a measure of the relational talent of the founder of Dar Al-Handasah.
Even in Lebanon, despite being the Shair family known through deep friendships with the Maronites and Gemayel families and then with President Rafic Hariri, they managed to ensure that the father and son continue unhindered after the death of these two presidents and the takeover of Hezbollah. With the passage of the leadership of the group from Kamal to his son Talal and after the discovery of the role of Herminio Escorcio (who was forced to resign as soon as “Zedu” lost the presidency), Dar Al-Handasah had to separate from his former Angolan partner. Talal has since appointed a new assistant, the Lebanese Ramzi Klink.
Klink was not only director of the holding company of Dar Al-Handasah group in Dubai, but was also appointed to the board of directors of FESA (Fundação Eduardo Dos Santos de Angola) and became the link between the Shair and the Dos Santos family in leading the acceptance and distribution of Angolan bribes in connection with companies controlled by Dos Santos such as Angoalissar and Arosfram – and in particular Suninvest, a chemical and pharmaceutical industry group in which Klink , Dar Al-Handasah and the Dos Santos family – until the seizure, exploited by a presidential decree in June 2019 – held a part of which they now deny the existence. Moreover, these are all companies in which (according to Angolan and Portuguese investigators) Hezbollah was involved through Ramzi Klink until 2019 or was useful in carrying out secret business transactions.
It is far from everything. In the 1990s, Kamal Shair was a strong friend and industrial partner of the PLO and of Yasser Arafat, who appointed him to the board of directors of the PDI Palestine Development and Investment Company, which is still one of the pillars of the political and economic power structure in Ramallah. As for Iraq, relations with Saddam Hussein were also excellent, and after the fall of the dictator they did not change: at the time of his death, Kamal A. Shair was an influential member of the Baghdad Engineers Union.
During the years of the Iraq war, Kamal had fought against the American embargo on Saddam Hussein – or rather, he wanted his homeland, Jordan, to remain an open channel for Iraqi trade. Immediately afterwards, Shair became a supporter of post-war aid to force Baghdad to join the liberal and capitalist West. Dar Al-Handasah has a large office in Istanbul and several in the Persian Gulf – including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Syria, and Iran, although these are countries that have sometimes extremely difficult relations between them.
The Barrio Boa Vista scandal
The border line between advisory and corruption funds is difficult to define. As a result, the role of the Dar Al-Handasah group has never been fully clarified in another question: the permits for the demolition of the slums of Luanda in Boa Vista and the contracts for the construction of new buildings, a power plant and of a section of motorway instead of the hovels. The Barrio Boa Vista had developed spontaneously due to the savage urbanization during the civil war and included more than 30,000 people who lived without running water, without electricity, without sewers – in an area which was on the outskirts of the city in 1975, but 25 years later it has become central. The situation in Boa Vista was so dire that a cholera epidemic broke out in 2006.
In the spring of 2001, numerous heavy rains collapsed some huts and after official checks it was found that 10% of the hovels were now severely damaged and uninhabitable. As the provincial council decides on the course of action, President Dos Santos signs a decree calling on the local police to immediately evict the residents – a veritable deportation to some tent towns on the outskirts of the city on the basis that this would have been impossible to redevelop the area quickly.
In August of the same year, an announcement was published on the Dar Al-Handasah website: in 2002, 583 new apartments in Boa Vista (Luanda) would be ready. Those wishing to book should write to the email address of Dar Al-Handasah Consultants Angola – the group-controlled holding company in Luanda. The Lebanese group plans to demolish the huts freely and then build the new houses, the highway and the power station on the basis of a confidential agreement with the Dos Santos Family Foundation (FESA), which officially owns the new buildings, but transferred all sales and rental income to the Dar Al-Handasah group.
Dar Al-Handasah awards the project to Sonils, a construction and logistics consulting firm associated with Isabel Dos Santos and (officially) controlled by Sonangol. The original project (which pays several other subcontractors for the actual work) will be completed with a freeway interchange, two swimming pools and a restaurant, and later also with a shopping center and the new Sonils headquarters – a hated building who, in February 2018, due to the frustration of the population, will be the object of the incendiary fury of people who have never been identified; The scandal exploded, the director of Dar Al-Handasah Angola, Ramzi Link, had to leave his post, he fled to South America and founded the construction consulting company Tramma Consulting Group in Junin (Peru), joint with which a certain Rafael Loredo Chupán, who is responsible for overseeing public contracts awarded by the Peruvian State.
Klink’s escape was made necessary by the fact that, under the blows of Angolan justice, Isabel Dos Santos’ financial empire is now collapsing and banks around the world are starting to ask for the money they loaned to her, after she founded a new holding company, Efacec, where she wanted to deposit as much money as possible that she had stolen from the State or received in payment for favors and transactions of questionable legitimacy.
At the same time, Klink and Zedu’s daughter have to answer for giving grants and diplomatic protection, over the past thirty years, to those on international blacklists, namely Lebanese Hezbollah leaders such as Kassim Tajideen and his sons Mohammed, Ali and Husayn. Moreover, the Tajideen Clan in Angola, sometimes with the financial support of the Dar Al-Handasah group and the FESA Foundation, have founded companies that survive on State contracts: Golfrate Holdings Lda. Luanda, Afri Belg Comércio e Indústria Lda. Luanda and Grupo Arosfran Empreendimentos e Participações Sarl Luanda.
There is no doubt that the Dar Al-Handasah group will survive all these storms and, working with governments around the world, can proudly look back on more than 60 years of industrial history. Knowing that there was invested in personal connections and that the corruption of politicians and the military brought in much more money than it costed. Not always, as the saying goes, the devil’s meal goes in the bran (translated: whatever is received with dishonesty sooner or later will strike those who have received it). Much more often it is impossible, in the great confusion, to determine which is the devil’s meal and which is not.
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