Zine el Abidine Ben Ali fled Tunisia in January 2011 following popular protests which ended his 23-year rule at the start of what became known as the Arab Spring. It is no secret how the ruler and his family enriched themselves during that period. The World Bank estimates the wealth of the Ben Ali family at the end of his rule at USD 13 billion (€11.5 billion) – more than a quarter of Tunisia’s gross domestic product.
How could a dictator seize so much money?
Reportedly, more than one-fifth of the Tunisian private sector’s profits went to the family and associates of former dictator Ben Ali. Telecommunications, transport and real estate were in the hands of the family and they were able to set the prices at their own discretion. Importantly, these are not illegal measures: the laws of Tunisia were tailored to suit the Ben Ali family and he and his family took advantage of the regulations that were in place to siphon money off. This legal method is one of the issues that has caused difficulties in confiscating these assets.
What kind of assets does the Ben Ali family own?
Due to the illicit nature of the activity, it is difficult to determine a precise figure. However, anecdotal evidence shows that their wealth has been deposited or invested outside Tunisia, in countries including France, Switzerland and Germany.
Switzerland alone has frozen USD 66 million dollars (€59 million). The German Federal Bank reports that the amount of assets of Tunisian origin held in Germany as of 2013 was €344 million. Reacting promptly to EU sanctions, Germany is reported to have frozen several bank accounts belonging to two members of the Ben Ali family.
- Real estate
The family reportedly owns a “significant amount of property” in Paris, on the Cote d’Azur and in the Alps. In Canada, a $2.5 million mansion belonging to the Ben Ali family was seized.
Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali’s wife, withdrew bars of gold, 60 million dollars in gold bullion, from the central bank not long before leaving Tunisia, according to reports.
- Luxury products
Racehorses and luxury cars held in France, a Falcon 9000 Jet in Switzerland and yachts located in Italy and Spain have all be identified as potential or actual stolen assets.
Is Tunisia recovering its assets?
Yes, but very little and very slowly.
- In 2013, Lebanon returned USD 28.8 million (€26 million) to Tunisia. The money had reportedly been held in a Lebanese bank account belonging to Laila Trabelsi, the wife of Ben Ali.
- In 2013, Tunisia recovered a luxury yacht belonging to the brother-in-law of Ben Ali from Spain. The yacht has an estimated value of USD 8 million (€7.2 million).
- In 2016, Switzerland returned the first tranche of the USD 66 million (€59 million) it’s in blocked in assets, around USD 230,000 dollars (€206,000).