Morocco’s royal family was amongst the clients of HSBC Private Bank. According to confidential documents obtained by Le Monde, a bank account under the name of “His Majesty King Mohammed VI,” and co-owned with his private secretary Mounir El Majidi, was opened on 11 October 2006 in the Geneva branch of HSBC Private Bank. The monarch’s identity was concealed behind internal code BUP (for “Business Partner”) 5090190103, as registered in the bank's books. The listings we have been able to check, covering the period between the autumn of 2006 and March 2007, featured a maximal amount of USD 9,125,792.32.
It is, in principle, illegal for Moroccans residing in Morocco to own a bank account abroad. Only the Office Des Changes (Currency Office) can grant special exemptions. Le Monde contacted the direction of the Office on February 5th 2015, but was not given feedback. This administration, in charge of regulating the flow of currency in and out of Morocco, regularly grants amnesty in exchange of the repatriation of national funds illegally held abroad—the latest campaign of the kind recently ended with a record repatriation of US$ 2.49 billion. In such a context, the revelation of a Swiss account in the name of the King is politically sensitive – even though the amount, US$ 9.1 million, seems modest in the light of the monarch’s personal net worth, which Forbes magazine estimated at US$ 2.1 billion in 2014.
Le Monde interrogated Mr. El Majidi about the king’s Swiss account, asking whether it was still active. His lawyers in Paris, Hicham Naciri and Aurélien Hamelle, stated that they would “neither confirm nor deny (these information, which) pertain to strict banking secrecy and to the private life of His Majesty, since these elements pertain to (his) private patrimonial sphere.” Then they added: “At any rate, any opening of a bank account abroad was performed in strict respect of Moroccan regulations.”
Mohammed VI’s younger brother Prince Moulay Rachid and his older sister Princess Lalla Meryem were also listed as HSBC Private Bank’s clients in Geneva, without indication of the amounts in their accounts. Le Monde contacted them as well. The same lawyers provided the same answers as the ones given for the king.
Other than its many lands and estates, the ruling family’s main source of wealth is the Société Nationale d’Investissement (SNI), the biggest private corporation in Morocco. According to Le Monde's estimation, Mohammed VI received about US$ 9.8 million in dividends from SNI in the summer of 2006. It is approximately the same amount that was deposited in the Geneva account in October of the same year.
In 2013, business juggernaut SNI, the #1 conglomerate in Morocco, was worth US$7.3 billion--the equivalent of 7% of the country's GDP. 60% of its ownership belongs to the royal family.
SNI (formerly ONA-SNI, formerly ONA) was inherited from the late king Hassan II upon his death in 1999. In his last days, the former monarch held only 13% of the holding’s shares. Since then, royal control was strengthened, and the group significantly developed. It is now a business juggernaut controlling, often with majority shares, 34 companies—some of them multinational ones—covering a dozen major economic sectors (banking, energy, mining, telecom, real estate, tourism, distribution…)
In 2013, 60% of the US$7.3 billion-worth conglomerate (the equivalent of 7% of Morocco’s GDP,) was owned by the royal family through various personal holdings. The structure and numbers of SNI are quite well known in Morocco, but that is not the case for the royal holdings that own it—though some of the veil of mystery surrounding them was lifted on the occasion of a stock exchange operation in 2010. After consulting some documents aside of the HSBC files, Le Monde is able to unveil more details today.
Ergis and Siger (two anagrams of regis, the latin word for King), the two main SNI-owning holdings, belong to the monarch himself, even though he never officially confirmed it. However, the Palace’s lawyers readily admit it: “The fact that his Majesty owns a private patrimony and participation shares in a number of companies, through a holding company, is perfectly known to the public and absolutely not hidden.”
On top of their shares in SNI, Siger and Ergis have significant stakes in a number of industries including agribusiness, cosmetics, hotels, electricity, furnishing, and also surprising sectors such as game hunting, glassware and floor care. In total, about twenty companies, some of which heavily capitalized. Additionally, each sibling of Mohammed VI has his or her own holding company: Providence Holding for Prince Moulay Rachid, Unihold for Princess Lalla Meryem, Yano Participation for Princess Lalla Asma, and Star Finance for Princess Lalla Hasna.
Since 2009, the six holdings mentioned above have been sharing ownership of the Commerciale de Promotion et de Participation, also known as Copropar, a mutual fund which only purpose is to centralize the SNI shares of the royal holdings (with the exception of Siger, which also holds 4.8% of SNI directly). It is thus through Copropar that SNI’s profits are channeled to Morocco’s royals in the form of annual dividends. In 2013, the latter amounted to US$ 2.2 million for the princesses, US$ 4.2 million for the prince, and up to US$ 10 million for Siger and Ergis, the king’s presumed holdings.
The distribution of Copropar’s ownership shares reflects that of its dividends. Whereas Mohammed VI’s presumed holdings own 50.6% of Copropar, his brother’s only owns 18.6% of it, and his sisters’, between 9.3% and 11.3%. The prince and princesses do not seem much interested in doing business. Moulay Rachid has made some investments in the exportation of olive oil, while his three sisters are partners in a warehouse-renting venture in Casablanca. But other than that, their holdings’ main function is to centralize their real estate assets (residences and farms) spread throughout Morocco, and to stock their revenues from SNI. In 2013, Mohammed VI’s siblings owned a total of US$ 480 million in financial assets (165 million for the prince, between 121 and 80 million for the princesses).
From an ownership standpoint, the very existence of SNI is a challenge to Morocco’s Constitution, of which article 36 forbids “conflicts of interest [and] all practices contrary to the principles of fair and free competition.” In a country where the king is the supreme administrative and judiciary authority, are his corporations really held to the same standards as the other ones?
The royal palace’s lawyers insist that they are, denying any constitutional violation: “The corporations in question are managed by autonomous executive teams, and subject to the same business- and competition-related laws as other companies in Morocco.” His Majesty’s lawyers conclude: “Allow us to note that your questions reflect a profound ignorance of Morocco’s institutional framework, one of a monarchy, which can hardly be compared to the French institutional framework.”
This is not the first time a foreign bank account of the king is mentioned. In June 2012, the picture of a 787,000 euros (US$ 890,000) check, issued personally by Mohammed VI to finance the building of a mosque in Blois, France, circulated on the Internet. The picture showed that the check was cashable at a branch of the BNP Paribas bank located Boulevard Malesherbes, in Paris. Asked about that as well, the monarch’s counselors declined to comment.
*Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme are investigative journalists for Le Monde. Ahmed Benchemsi is an investigative journalist and the editor in chief of Free Arabs. A French version of this article was published in Le Monde. This investigation was conducted in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).