Amman, Jordan — The prime minister of Jordan, Marouf al-Bakhit, personally authorised a 2007 casino deal which he now denies knowing the details of, according to documents obtained by Al Jazeera.
Bakhit approved the deal despite a warning from the justice minister that it would violate Jordanian law, which explicitly forbids gambling. The terms of the deal also require it be kept confidential, violating a Jordanian law which demands that real estate deals be disclosed to the public.
The casino agreement, between the Jordanian government and Oasis Holding Investment, has been previously reported.
But the documents obtained by the Al Jazeera Transparency Unit, which include private correspondence between Bakhit and then-tourism minister Osama Dabbas, reveal the extent of Bakhit's foreknowledge; the documents include a September 2007 letter signed by the prime minister which authorises Dabbas to sign the casino deal.
Nor was Bakhit's the only Jordanian government to push through a casino deal. Faisal al-Fayez, the current speaker of parliament, approved two casino licenses while he was prime minister in 2003. One of them has never before been publicly reported.
Corruption has been one of the main issues behind the slowly-escalating popular protests in Jordan. Thousands of people took to the streets last month to demand Bakhit's resignation, accusing him of failing to take action against corrupt ministers.
And many Jordanians describe the casino deal — negotiated behind closed doors by well-connected businessmen — as a microcosm of the country's broader problem with corruption.
'There is a will, a wish'
The prime minister has denied any knowledge of the inner workings of the 2007 casino deal, in effect saying that Dabbas acted on his own.
Bakhit was cleared of any wrongdoing last month after a parliamentary inquiry, as were 13 other members of his cabinet.
Parliament instead chose to blame Dabbas: 86 MPs voted in favour of his indictment during a June hearing.
"He was not informed either by the tourism minister that the agreement he was authorised to sign include[d] a license to set up two casino[s], nor were the terms and conditions of the agreement explained to him before the signing," an account of Bakhit's testimony reads.
The parliamentary investigation led to widespread interest in Jordan, where few people believed that Dabbas signed the casino deal on his own authority. Oraib al-Rantawi, the head of the Al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Amman, said no minister would act without higher approval.
"I don’t believe it. Nobody does, that he [Dabbas] would even think about this without a very clear green light from influential people," said al-Rantawi.
The documents obtained by Al Jazeera confirm that belief: They prove that Dabbas only signed the casino contract with Bakhit’s blessing.
The government began debating the casino project in summer 2007, when three companies submitted bids. In an August 5, 2007 letter to Bakhit, Dabbas described one of them — from Oasis Holdings Ltd — as the most advantageous for Jordan.
Left undisclosed in Dabbas' letter is the fact that at least two of the three bids are financially related to one another. One of the two losing bids was submitted by Casino Austria, which is partially owned by Palestinian businessman Khaled al-Masri — also the president of Oasis.
Masri also owns the Ayla Corporation, which received one of the two casino licenses granted under the Fayez government in 2003.
A month after Dabbas' letter, on September 10, Bakhit wrote back to Dabbas. Bakhit's letter — bearing his signature and printed on the prime minister’s letterhead — authorised Dabbas to sign the casino contract with Oasis. "We authorise you as the council of ministers to sign the contract with Oasis," the letter stated.
Bakhit approved the casino over the objections of his justice minister, who warned that the deal would be illegal, according to Azzam al-Huneidi, a member of parliament from the Islamic Action Front who heads the party's anti-corruption committee.
"The minister of tourism took direction from the prime minister," said al-Huneidi. "He [Bakhit] called Dabbas and said, there is a desire to make a casino. There is a will, there is a wish... the justice minister told the prime minister that this would be against the law. He ignored that."
A follow-up letter from Dabbas, sent on September 15, thanks the prime minister for granting the "authority to negotiate and deal with Oasis," and includes a signed copy of the casino contract. Bakhit would send one more letter about the casino, in October, in which he directed the minister of water and irrigation to zone land for the casino.
Billions in lost revenue?
Gambling would hardly be the only "un-Islamic" activity allowed in Jordan, a country whose bars and nightclubs make it a magnet for tourists from the Gulf, and not everyone had a problem with the casino itself. But the way in which the deal was negotiated — behind closed doors, with no public input — sparked almost universal anger.
Many Jordanians pointed to the web of connections between business and political interests — Khaled al-Masri, for example, is the nephew of Taher al-Masri, the speaker of the Jordanian senate and a former prime minister.
"I think it would bring lots of money for the Jordanian government," said Rahaf Marwan, 20, a university student in Amman. "But you cannot do this in dark rooms."
The casino contract should have brought in steady revenue, but it could now do just the opposite: The decision to cancel the contract could eventually cost the Jordanian government millions.
That is because the contract includes a "breach" provision, which makes the government liable for damages if it violates the agreement. It would have to reimburse Oasis for money spent to plan the casino, and for "future lost revenues" — potentially hundreds of millions of dollars, because the contract was to be valid for 50 years.
"Oasis is entitled to compensation from the GOJ for such damages to the amount of the planning, design, development, construction, pre-opening and financing costs, and future lost revenues for each Casino, less the Gaming Tax as defined herein," the contract states.
The government tried to settle the "breach" dispute in 2008, when it offered Oasis an extra 50 dunams of land along the Dead Sea which it could use to develop a boutique hotel. The company signed the deal, but is still pursuing monetary damages from the government.