Vale do Lobo in the spotlight as Saudi tycoon eyes investment…and resort is “frisked” over Sócrates corruption claims

Vale do Lobo’s world famous resort has been dragged into the media spotlight this week with police searches connected to the Sócrates investigation and press rumours of an impending multi-million euro purchase by “one of the world’s richest Arabs” of Caixa Geral bank’s 25% share in the resort. As we went to press, everyone was playing their cards close to their chests.

Caixa Geral de Depósitos – keen to off-load the share it holds in the resort where stakeholders are reported to have debts that total at least €300 million – has neither confirmed nor denied media reports that it is about to sign a multi-million euro deal with business tycoon Sheikh Mohammed Bin Isser Al Jaber.

And it has been equally tight-lipped over whether or not business associates connected to the resort are next-in-line to be cited as “arguidos” (official suspects) in the ongoing “Operation Marquês” investigation – which sees former prime minister José Sócrates remanded in custody in Évora jail since November last year.

Initial reports coming out on the “raid” last Thursday by public ministry officials suggest searches took place not only at the resort’s administrative base but at “the homes of some administrators connected with the group”.

National tabloid Correio da Manhã claimed “superjudge” Carlos Alexandre and his public prosecutor Rosário Teixeira were on the trail of “transfers involving administrators and official suspects in the investigation”.

Público referred to “documentation and proof relating to former suppliers of the resort”.

Both papers confirmed that documents were seized and will now be “the object of scrutiny”.

As CM pointed out, “some of the stakeholders in Vale do Lobo’s holding company have already been flagged” in the corruption investigation trying to unravel the source of millions in allegedly illicit payments made to former PM José Sócrates.

Among the stakeholders is understood to be Hélder Bataglia of Escom – the company hugely implicated in catastrophic BES’ business in Angola.

In other words, the contortions of Operation Marquês are rapidly connecting dots between business people up and down the country, with all lines suspected of leading to the former, now jailed, Socialist prime minister.

But as this latest twist to Operation Marquês got print space and airtime, national media revived an “old story” centring on purchase interest in the now exceedingly hot property of Vale do Lobo, often referred to by its initials VdL.

CGD’s share in the sumptuous 450,000-hectare resort – purchased nine years ago for €500 million, according to SIC channel – has been up for sale for at least two years and has always purportedly had a lot of interest.

Even this week a spokesperson for the resort confirmed: “It is public knowledge that Vale do Lobo has been looking for investors … and the Sheikh is one of those investors who has shown interest. He is not the only one.”

However, if Sábado is to be believed, he is the one most tipped to win through – as he already has a string of touristic interests throughout the region and his proposal is the one that opens the resort to the best “synergies”.
Introducing the entrepreneur and philanthropist

So who is Sheikh Mohammed Bin Isser Al Jaber? Again, it depends on what you read as to what you learn.

According to Sábado, he was listed by Forbes in 2013 as having a fortune of $7 billion (€6.2 million).

Bloomberg described him last October as “Saudi Arabia’s second richest man” with a net worth of $8.9 billion. However, elsewhere, he is understood to have been removed from Forbes list of billionaires, without any apparent explanation.
Through his company JJW Hotels and Resorts, he already owns VdL’s prestigious Dona Filipa hotel, as well as the Algarve’s legendary Penina, with its world-famous golf course.

Other Algarve business interests include Quinta do Lago’s San Lorenzo and Pinheiros Altos golf courses, while elsewhere Wikipedia reveals he owns resorts in the Middle East, two Nile cruise ships, a portfolio of hotels and a 60% share in an Austrian ski and tennis racquet business.

Diário de Notícias puts the Sheikh’s age at 56, while his own website describes him as a self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist.

He has a charity that describes itself as “building bridges between the Middle East and the wider world” but a trawl through back press reports shows that he is currently embroiled in a $10 billion lawsuit with Barclays Bank plc, over what Bloomberg Business website calls “bilking”, another word for billionaire fraud.

Barclays is understood to be “vigorously” contesting the suit, contending that Al Jaber’s company had gone on an “unmeritorious fishing expedition”.

Meantime, a representative for Al Jaber in Portugal is quoted as “not wanting to comment” on this latest news that points to a VdL deal going ahead as soon as next month.

Other “big-business” interests in VdL
Visão magazine carried an extraordinary article in 2012 entitled “The secrets of the web that washes millions”. In a section headed: “The beginning of the end”, it talks of two family clans that divide the administration of VdL resort, saying “Luís Horta e Costa is perhaps the most noticeable”.

Horta e Costa is another “ESCOM manager” and was “recently absolved in the Caso Portucale”, Visão wrote – an investigation into political funding and the trafficking of influences during the short-lived PSD government of Pedro Santana Lopes.

Horta e Costa was also cited in documents “drawn up by the German public ministry relating to the case of illegal commissions in the purchase of submarines from the Portuguese state”, said the magazine. So was Hélder Bataglia, who CM highlighted at the weekend as being one of the main focuses in last Thursday’s police swoop on VdL.

By NATASHA DONN [email protected]