Fugitive tycoon Hussein Salem talks Mubarak, Israel gas deal in first TV interview

Bassem Abo Alabass, Friday 4 May 2012

Speaking from Madrid, Salem denies charges of corruption and profiteering that in March saw him sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Cairo court

Screengrab from the first ever TV interview with Egyptian businessman Hussein Salem

Controversial Egyptian business tycoon Hussein Salem has made his first television appearance in Madrid, giving an interview to a pan-Arab channel in which he spoke about his ties to Egypt's ousted president Hosni Mubarak and the country's gas deal with Israel.

Salem was interviewed in the Spanish capital on Wednesday by 'Al-Youm', a satellite channel run by Orbit TV, a pan-Arab broadcasting network.
The 79-year old took his interviewer, prominent TV host Amr Adib, on a wide-ranging tour of his professional history from the late 1950s until 2011, when Egypt's popular uprising turned Salem into a fugitive.
Proud and well-spoken, the one-time commerce graduate of Cairo University denied having fled Egypt to escape justice.
"I went to see my doctor in Switzerland on 29 January last year but I went to Spain [afterwards] because of [Egypt's] popular protests after the Spanish government sent an e-mail alerting me of them," Salem told Adib.
In March 2012, Salem was found guilt of illegally acquiring public property and sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison by an Egyptian criminal court. He still lives free in Spain despite a reported agreement by the Spanish government to extradite him to Egypt.
In June 2011, Salem was detained in Spain on an international arrest warrant issued by Interpol. He was released by Spanish authorities the same month after paying 27 million euros in bail. Spain had previously frozen $45 million of his assets in the country, according to The New York Times.
"I did not have money to pay the bail as my assets were frozen. One of my Spanish friends paid for me but the bail was reduced to around one million euros," Salem said during Wednesday's interview.
Cairo Criminal Court took a similar move against Salem in March 2011, freezing all his personal and family assets pending corruption investigations. The decision affected all liquid and real estate assets, including stocks and bonds.
Despite lengthy, often unsourced, reports about Salem's business and political endeavours in Egypt, not much is known about the man himself. There is scant definitive information about a man who is said to hate being photographed.
He referred to Wednesday's encounter as his "first and last interview".
Salem's name is most frequently associated with the controversial deal to export Egyptian natural gas to Israel. 
He is a founding shareholder in the East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG), the firm responsible for delivering the gas, and reportedly contributed $95 million to EMG's paid up capital.
"I am an open minded businessman, I don’t have a problem in dealing with Israelis," Salem explained to Adib. "But it wasn’t my idea to export gas to Israel."
During the interview, Salem denied the widely-circulated charge that he sold Egyptian gas to Israel at prices below market value, saying the rate was fair when compared to that of other gas exporters such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia. 
These countries, according to Salem, exported natural gas at less than $1 per million metric British thermal units (MMBTU) while Israel paid up to $3 for the same measure of Egyptian gas.
Egypt agreed to provide Israel with natural gas in 2005, in a deal built on the two countries' landmark 1979 peace accords. The public prosecution claims the agreement caused Egypt's losses of over $714 million.
Salem, EMG's founder, said the company was set up to export gas to Turkey but the Egyptian government ordered him to halt such operations and export to Israel instead.
"Mubarak told me that the gas deal with Israel will be a strategic point in the relations between Egypt and Israel," said Salem, adding that deal seemed like it would serve Egypt's interest.
"This is my first time to reveal that I did not sign any contracts with Israel concerning the gas deal," Salem told Adib.
In 2008 Salem had sold his take in EMG to global companies, including Thailand's state-owned PTT PLC.
"My $95 million investment increased to half a billion dollars by the time I sold my share in the company," he said.
Along with the former Egyptian president and his two sons, Hussein Salem is standing trial -- albeit in absentia -- on charges of abusing his political status to accumulate wealth. The verdict is due on 3 June.
"I had never been involved in politics and I was not Mubarak's best friend as the media claimed," Salem said on Wednesday. 
"Despite this, all the country's top politicians have trusted me since the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser."
Among the charges against Hosni Mubarak is that of receiving bribes from Salem in the form of four villas in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.
"The villas were not for free. I sold them to the Muabraks for LE2 million while they had cost me LE900,000," Salem told his interviewer. "Regardless of anything else, I am a businessman and I made a 103 percent profit in this deal."
Salem denied that his political connections were the reason behind his business success.
Without telling his interview the exact amount of his wealth, Salem said that he started his professional life earning LE18 per month as a public servant in the Egyptian council for the cotton industry in the 1950s.
All manner of myths and rumours surround Salem when it comes to the origins and amount of his fortune. Such speculation has increased since the toppling of Mubarak and an emerging popular conception that he was one of the president's most trusted cronies.
Unverified tales about his supposed criminal activities have filled the headlines of the Egyptian press since spring last year.
Tackling some of the rumours, Salem denied claims he had been involved in under the table arms trade and added that, contrary to public speculation, he did not have ties to Egyptian intelligence services.
Salem also presented the original contract of the land on which he built his Mövenpick resort in Sharm El-Sheikh and said that, contrary to reports, he had paid LE1 million for the plot.
He also denounced the attacks on his reputation by the Egyptian media, saying that such behaviour was unexpected given all his contributions to the
Egyptian economy.
"Workers at my hotels still get their salaries. I was even one of the first business owners in Egypt to set a minimum wage of LE1,000 per month for my employees," he explained.
"I am ready to donate any amount of money to support Egypt's suffering economy," Salem said. "But I do not believe I owe the country a single penny."
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Feteha)
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