Between friends

Tuesday 2 February 2021

They were meant to be secret: money transfers between Saudi Arabia and King Juan Carlos of Spain, and then between the king and his lover. But they came mercilessly to light


The king of Spain called his Swiss wealth manager. He told Arturo Fasana that he was expecting a “large donation” from his “friend,” the king of Saudi Arabia, and that he should come to his office at the Zarzuela Palace in Madrid to discuss it.

It was early 2008 when Fasana arrived with Dante Canonica, the king’s Swiss lawyer. Canonica asked the king how much money they were talking about. He replied that he didn’t know, but assured them that it wasn’t an illicit commission or a kickback. Still, Fasana advised him, “this could be delicate in view of his status”. As head of state, the king received a €194,000 yearly stipend.

The king asked them to create a “structure” to receive this donation. They contacted a company formation agent who offered them several names. They picked Lucum Foundation, a shell company in Panama, where the identities of beneficial owners are not public and can be hidden behind administrators. Fasana was Lucum’s president and Canonica its secretary. 

Now they needed a bank account for Lucum, but Canonica told Juan Carlos they were not going to open one until they “received confirmation from Ambassador Al-Jubeir” – Saudi Arabia’s man in Washington and the king’s liaison – “that it was really a donation”.

Fasana met Al-Jubeir at his embassy in July 2008. They had lunch and talked about different subjects until Fasana asked about the size of the “donation” from the Saudi to the Spanish king. Al-Jubeir said he didn’t know. Fasana then asked him if it was a commission or fee. 

“No,” Al-Jubeir replied, “it’s a pure gift to his brother.”

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia speaks with King Juan Carlos of Spain in the presence of Queen Sofia at the Royal Palace in Madrid, 2008

Satisfied with both the Saudi and Spanish sides claiming that the donation was a “pure gift,” Fasana went to Mirabaud, an old private bank in Geneva, because he had “excellent contacts” there and because Mirabaud gave Fasana’s wealth management company a 0.4 per cent commission on money he brought in. 

On the bank account opening form for Lucum, the beneficiary was “J. Carlos De Borbon y Borbon”. Address: “Palacio de la Zarzuela – Madrid.” Profession: “Roi.”

Mirabaud never met Juan Carlos or the Saudi king. It never asked for or received any official contract of the donation between them. And like the rest of the characters, it didn’t know what amount to expect when the account was opened. 

But, “a few days before the transfer”, Fasana told the bank to expect “around $100m”. He added, “the bank took note of the amount and did not ask me any additional questions.”

“The funds did not come immediately,” Canonica said. “Fasana was contacted by Ambassador Al-Jubeir, who wanted to know if we had been able to open an account. At my request, Fasana met with Al-Jubeir in Basel, at the Jet Aviation terminal, to give him the details of the IBAN of the account that we had opened.”

“Oh my God!” Juan Carlos said when the funds arrived a few days later, in August 2008. “They have been very generous.” 

Despite Juan Carlos’s surprise, Canonica said the king did not “feel uncomfortable with the amount received. He is not the type of man who feels uncomfortable.”

When the financial crisis hit Spain soon after, Fasana said that Juan Carlos “sometimes told me about the difficult economic situation in Spain, but he never told me how he felt about his rather comfortable personal situation”.

The luxurious Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa in Villars, where Sayn-Wittgenstein purchased an apartment

Between October 2008 and March 2012, during which Spain’s unemployment rate went from 11 to 25 per cent, Juan Carlos ordered €5.5m in cash withdrawals. He would call Fasana to place his orders and either meet him at his apartment in Villars or send someone to collect the cash. He said it was for his “personal needs”. He sent around €1m to Marta Gayá, one of his many lovers. The good times rolled.

And then, in April 2012, everything changed. Juan Carlos went to hunt elephants in Botswana with Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a striking Danish businesswoman with whom he had begun an affair in 2004. The affair ended five years later, she said, but they remained close. She knew about the donation he had received from the Saudi king.

Around a year after Juan Carlos received the donation, €2.2m in funds from Lucum helped Sayn-Wittgenstein purchase a duplex apartment with a private elevator at the Hotel RoyAlp in Villars, an exclusive development where Juan Carlos also has a home. She claimed she bought hers because her son was at Aiglon, a boarding school six minutes away.

Her identity and romantic relationship with Juan Carlos had remained secret until, on that elephant hunt, Juan Carlos tripped, broke his hip, and had to be flown back to Madrid for treatment. News of the trip and of Sayn-Wittgenstein broke around the world and set Spain, still deep in financial crisis, alight with anger.

King Juan Carlos poses in front of a dead elephant during a hunting trip to Botswana in 2006

Mirabaud found the news embarrassing. One of its bankers, of Spanish origin, told Canonica that Juan Carlos’s account posed a “reputational risk” for the bank. He wanted to end the banking relationship. And there was another problem.

An international tax treaty requiring Swiss banks to automatically share information on their EU account holders with their home countries was about to come into effect. Juan Carlos had never declared his Mirabaud account which, Canonica said, was now a ticking “time bomb”.

Canonica said he “visited the palace in Madrid many times to discuss with Juan Carlos and find out what he wanted to do with the money deposited in Switzerland. He wanted to get rid of that money because he was afraid that it would be known.” 

Juan Carlos dithered. 

“Finally,” Canonica said, “he made the decision to give everything to Corinna.”

“Since I didn’t necessarily appreciate Corinna’s personality,” Fasana said, “I didn’t take care of this donation.”

It was all in Canonica’s hands. He called Sayn-Wittgenstein and told her that Juan Carlos wanted to give her a gift. He didn’t mention any amount of money. In Canonica’s study later, he explained that Juan Carlos wanted to give her the gift to make sure that she and her son are looked after, although she said she already had a “significant fortune,” having advised corporates like Lukoil, she said, at a rate of €100,000 per month.

“I think he offered me that money out of gratitude and love,” she said. “He knows that I have done a lot for him.” She offered one more reason: “that he may still be hoping to get me back.”

Sayn-Wittgenstein and her son attend the White Nights Festival in St. Petersburg, 2014

Once she accepted the gift in principle, and flew to Madrid to show her gratitude to Juan Carlos, Canonica set her up with Solare Investors Corporation, another Panama shell company. Solare needed a bank account, but Mirabaud didn’t want to keep funds given to Juan Carlos’s romantic partner for reputational reasons. So Sayn-Wittgenstein approached Gonet Bank, another private bank in Geneva. Sayn-Wittgenstein told Gonet that Juan Carlos had received a gift from the Saudi king and he now wanted to pass it on, as a gift, to her.

Gonet was satisfied with the explanation. The bank said it would have been more profitable for them to open an account for Solare in Switzerland, but they chose an account at Gonet in Bahamas, which is not party to any international tax treaty that requires it to share banking information with other countries and has strict banking secrecy laws. Sayn-Wittgenstein said she chose the Bahamas because she often goes there and enjoys it.

Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn dances the night away in New York, 2005

With the Bahamanian bank account ready, Canonica wanted to make clear that Juan Carlos’s donation to Sayn-Wittgenstein was “true and irrevocable,” and that it was not “a fiduciary transfer”. Anything else would make her his front and so a money launderer. She and Juan Carlos signed a two-page contract to this effect, dated simply as “2012” with no location or witness.

Canonica then gave Juan Carlos power of attorney over the Lucum account at Mirabaud so that the king could order the transfer himself. As Juan Carlos’s son Felipe was the second beneficiary of Lucum, Canonica “did not want the heirs of Juan Carlos to reproach me for this transfer one day”. In May 2012, Juan Carlos ordered the transfer to Sayn-Wittgenstein’s Solare account in the Bahamas and the money arrived in the first week of June, making her €65m richer.

Things for Juan Carlos went less well. His son-in-law, the duke of Palma de Mallorca, a former handball player, was accused of embezzling millions of euros in public funds. This royal scandal, along with Juan Carlos’s elephant hunt, trashed the monarchy’s popularity among crisis-stricken Spaniards. And then, right before his daughter Infanta Cristina was also charged alongside her husband, Juan Carlos abdicated in favour of Felipe.

Princess Cristina her husband arrive at the courtroom for summary proceedings in January 2016

At least, Juan Carlos thought, he would be able to spend more time and spend it more freely with Sayn-Wittgenstein. But her name had been dragged through the mud after the elephant hunt, and a failed attempt to implicate her in the embezzlement case. When she asked why Juan Carlos had failed to protect her like he had tried to protect Infanta Cristina, he told her, “blood is thicker”.

She felt “terrified” and distanced herself from him. He became what she called a “bunny boiler,” a reference to a character in the 1987 film Fatal Attraction who takes dramatic revenge after being spurned by her lover. With his hopes of rekindling the romance dashed, Juan Carlos thought he might at least recover the €65m “gift” from Sayn-Wittgenstein.

On the advice of her lawyers, she refused to do so to avoid accusations of money laundering. After she refused, in a WhatsApp group called “The Pride,” which contained Sayn-Wittgenstein, her son and daughter and two former husbands, Juan Carlos accused her of being a thief. He shut her out of his world. 

He met two close friends at White’s, the oldest gentlemen’s club in London, in November 2014. One of them had told him a few years earlier that Sayn-Wittgenstein was “bad for you, bad for Spain, and a bad person”. Juan Carlos hadn’t listened then, but now he did. He told him he was right and that he needed “moral support” in leaving Corinna for good. He asked whether he should try to get the money back and they said, “leave it.”

But he was under pressure from Infanta Cristina to recover it. She was fretting over how to support herself and three children when her husband, the former duke of Palma de Mallorca, was about to be sentenced to prison. 

So Juan Carlos persisted with Sayn-Wittgenstein and, as he did, the money in her Solare account in the Bahamas began to move. In 2015, she used £6m of it to buy a large estate in Shropshire called Chyknell House and another £6m to renovate it. Between 2016 and 2017, another $11-$12m went to her “English account” and then $42m to her account at Fieldpoint Private Bank in New York.

Her friend Juan Villalonga, who had resigned as chief executive of Telefonica after accusations of insider trading, offered to help in shaking Juan Carlos and the head of Spanish intelligence – now trying to recover embarrassing documents on the former king’s finances from her – off her case. 

Villalonga introduced her to José Villarejo, a decorated former police commissioner who ran a private investigations business, which collected kompromat for blackmail. They had a frank discussion about her relationship with Juan Carlos and how he and Canonica put assets in her name. 

“Not out of love,” she said, “but because I am a resident in Monaco.”

“So, without telling me, they put it on me and then they say: ‘This one does not want to return the thing to you.’ But if I do,” Sayn-Wittgenstein continued, “it is money laundering. It is money laundering.”

Other than arranging a seemingly accidental encounter with a Spanish television crew where Sayn-Wittgenstein said she felt uncomfortable returning to Spain, Villarejo seems to have done little to help her and soon he would do a lot to hurt her.

At the end of 2017, following a tip from a source in Guinea where Villarejo used to extract money from state-owned companies and funnel it to a network of shell companies, a Spanish spy caught him and sent the evidence to a prosecutor.

Villarejo was arrested and remanded in custody. Swept up in some 10 criminal investigations, he warned the Spanish state to back off because he had compromising information on many powerful state agents. They ignored him.

Kiss and don’t tell: Juan Carlos and Sayn-Wittgenstein in 2006

The recordings he had secretly made of his discussions with Sayn-Wittgenstein three years earlier were leaked to the Spanish press in June 2018. 

On one surreptitious tape, she is talking to Villarejo with Villalonga, the friend who introduced them, in the background translating, about a €6.7bn contract that a Spanish-led consortium won to finish a 453-kilometre high-speed railway to carry pilgrims between Medina and Mecca.

“The train has nothing to do with me,” she said. “Importante.” 

But she knew about it because Juan Carlos had sent her an email, saying he was going to demand a commission for his role in securing the deal from one of the leading Spanish businessmen involved in it, the billionaire marquess of Villar Mir.

Villar Mir told Juan Carlos that the Spanish-led consortium had already paid their agent in Saudi Arabia, the Iranian Shahpari Zanganeh, widow of arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, around €80m in fees. 

“What the fuck!” Juan Carlos said, according to Sayn-Wittgenstein, “my commission. I made the train deal. I spoke to my friend, my brother in Saudi.”

King Juan Carlos greets Juan Miguel Villar Mir, 2016

Villar Mir suggested that he try to recover some of the €80m for Juan Carlos. When Juan Carlos told Sayn-Wittgenstein of this plan, she emailed back, saying: 

“Under no circumstances. This is illegal. It’s illegal, completely illegal.”

“Oh!” Juan Carlos said. “You! You are so German.”

He stopped talking to her about the commission, but, Sayn-Wittgenstein said, “It has arrived, I think… I suddenly see in 2012, on a bank account statement, a big amount of money and I said to him, ‘Where does this money come from?’ And he says, ‘From Saudi.’” 

“This is one thing,” Sayn-Wittgenstein told the blackmailer Villarejo. “I have all of this.”

Bombas atómicas,” Villalongo said in the background.

It was Canonica, Juan Carlos’s Swiss lawyer, who moved the money that Sayn-Wittgenstein saw on that 2012 bank statement of Juan Carlos. 

And when Yves Bertossa, a young and ambitious Swiss prosecutor, heard it in the leaked Villarejo recordings, he opened a case for aggravated money laundering, which carries a prison sentence of five years.

As Spanish prosecutors hit a wall because their constitution provided Juan Carlos, as king, with immunity, Bertossa raided the offices of Fasana, Juan Carlos’s Swiss wealth manager. While sorting through the material they seized, they saw documents on Lucum and its Mirabaud bank account.

They raided Mirabaud. Bertossa’s agents didn’t find any documents to support the claim that the $100m sent via the Ministry of Finance of Saudi Arabia to Lucum was really a “gift” and that it wasn’t money in exchange for some service.

Bertossa suspected the service Juan Carlos provided was securing a 30 per cent discount from the Spanish-led consortium on its bid for the Medina-Mecca railway contract, and that some of the money the consortium paid Saudi agents to secure the deal was funnelled through the Saudi government to him.

Prosecutor Yves Bertossa makes his way to Geneva’s courthouse for a trial, 2021

If Bertossa’s suspicions are correct that the origin of the $100m is an illicit kickback, then for him it follows that Fasana, Canonica, and Sayn-Wittgenstein laundered it. At a minimum, the first two failed to take all the steps to ensure that the origin of the money was legal.

With Sayn-Wittgenstein, the suspicions are of aggravated money laundering in accepting the €65m – then around $100m – in the first place in her Solare account in the Bahamas. Questioned under caution by Bertossa, she maintained that the origins lay in a gift from one king to another and so are necessarily clean.

When Bertossa asked her directly about the Villarejo recordings, in which she discussed Juan Carlos’s commission on the deal, she exercised her right not to incriminate herself. “On the advice of my lawyer,” she told Bertossa, “I refuse to answer any question related to these illicit and truncated recordings.” She then refused to confirm or deny that it was her voice on the recordings.

Bertossa is still investigating Sayn-Wittgenstein, as he is investigating Fasana and Canonica. He may summon them for questioning again, file charges or, as Sayn-Wittgenstein’s lawyers expect in her case, close the case without charges.

Her lawyers and advisors provided another argument besides the one that money’s origin lies in the gift from one king to another. It’s that the money couldn’t have come from a commission on the Medina-Mecca railway deal because the timing doesn’t work: The Spanish-led consortium officially won the bid in 2011, some three years after Lucum received the money. And the winning consortium was not even formed in 2008.

It was, in fact, forming at that time. In June 2007, the Saudi king visited Spain and with King Juan Carlos launched the Saudi-Spanish Infrastructure Fund at the El Pardo palace. Sayn-Wittgenstein, who advised on the Fund, says the idea was “to set up a private equity project with partners from both countries that would create an investment vehicle where they were de facto partners on infrastructure projects”.

Spanish and Saudi officials watch as King Juan Carlos of Spain cuts a cake following the signing of an investment promotion agreement between Riyadh and Madrid

The fund, run by an investment committee, did away with the usual way of investing in Saudi projects, by which a foreign company would have to partner with a Saudi company that, in exchange for commission payments, would provide connections to the Saudi decision makers.

“So I liked it because it was a very clean structure,” Sayn-Wittgenstein says. “I was retained by Cheney to manage the relationships with the Saudis.”

Cheney Capital was a hedge fund that would advise on the investing. Morgan Stanley Spain was brought in to raise capital. The Saudis committed $700m and Spanish companies committed around $220m, in memorandums governed by English law.

But the Saudis never came through. “They just kept saying, ‘Oh, we’ll do it after Ramadan,’” Sayn-Wittgenstein says. “And that became a later and later stage.”

What she didn’t know then was who the lead investors were. On the Spanish side, it was the infrastructure giant OHL, the company run by the Marquess Villa Mir. On the Saudi side, it was the Al Shoula Group, run by Saudi Prince Abdulaziz bin Mishaal. The same companies in the Spanish-consortium that won the Medina-Mecca railway contract.

While Sayn-Wittgenstein was struggling to understand why they weren’t kicking up a fuss that no other Saudis had put money into the fund, they were bidding on the much more lucrative railway contract. And bin Mishaal was contracted by OHL and its Spanish associates to receive €120m to secure the contract.

“I guess somebody must have realised that there were no more bribes,” Sayn-Wittgenstein says. “The Fund was a corruption-free structure. This was the consequence.”

As a result, the fund collapsed and while Sayn-Wittgenstein earned a reported $5m advisory fee and Cheney earned a $15m management fee, none of the other Spanish companies sued to recover their money.

“There was no conflict because the Spanish at the highest government level said, ‘Ok, let’s not make any noise about that… We are going after the train deal, maybe we can use the fact that this didn’t work out because of their defaulting on their commitments, maybe we can use that as an additional argument.’”

The new high-speed railway line between Mecca and Medina is ready for passengers

News of the Spanish-led consortium’s win broke before the official decision when the Saudi government had invited it to the country to discuss the project’s technical details.

If Bertossa’s suspicions are correct, the win was secured thanks to Juan Carlos’s 30 per cent discount and Sayn-Wittgenstein found more success with the train deal – in which she denies any involvement – than the Spanish-Saudi Infrastructure Fund that she advised on and whose collapse was falsely blamed on her by the press. 

“The Hispano-Saudi Fund sponsored by the King and Corinna made Spanish businessmen lose 21 million,” one headline read. “The adventure turned out to be a complete fiasco.” One Spanish businessman, who participated in the fund was asked why. “One explanation is that this was a way to employ the ‘princess’ Corinna and make her earn money.”

“It’s a complete fantasy,” she says. “But even this Swiss prosecutor obviously has only ever read these things about me. You’d think I’m some sort of, you know, hardcore criminal.”

Portraits Harry Borden

Other photographs Getty Images, PA, Shutterstock, Alamy, Chalet RoyAlp Hôtel & Spa/Facebook

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