In 2011, as popular revolts reverberated around the Middle East, a monarch in the midst of it all made some banking decisions. Sometime that year, as neighbouring Egypt and Syria withered in the face of momentous civil protests, King Abdullah II of Jordan opened two new accounts with Credit Suisse, the Swiss bank that had discreetly served the region’s well-heeled for decades.
Abdullah, one of the world’s longest-serving current monarchs, had chosen a banker that shared his approach to secrecy, particularly surrounding his personal wealth. Over the next five years, the king was the beneficial owner of at least six accounts with Credit Suisse, while his wife, Queen Rania, had another.
According to a massive trove of data leaked from the bank that names both royals as account holders, one account would later be worth a remarkable 230m Swiss francs (£180m).
At home, King Abdullah had been experiencing a rocky ride. The revolts, which came to be known as the Arab spring, led to leaders being toppled in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, and a brutal, protracted war breaking out in Syria. Jordan, one of the region’s more efficient security states, was able to stave off a threat from a nascent opposition, through suppression of dissent and promises of better days.
King Abdullah arriving at Baghdad international airport, Iraq, for a summit in June 2021. Photograph: Ahmed Jalil/EPA
But in the decade since, a struggling economy, persistent levels of poverty, high unemployment, cuts to welfare and seemingly ever-present austerity measures have continued to stir resentment across the country. One particular gripe has been the juxtaposition between the apparent wealth of the king and the constant grind endured by most citizens just to get by. As the IMF agreed to bail out Jordan, on the condition that its people tighten their collective belts, the king was moving enormous amounts between his Swiss accounts.
The Credit Suisse data contains details of 18,000 bank accounts leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung by a whistleblower who said Swiss banking secrecy laws were “immoral”. The data was shared with the Guardian and 47 other media outlets as part of a global investigation called Suisse secrets.
Quick Guide Suisse secrets What is the Suisse secrets leak? Suisse secrets is a global journalistic investigation into a leak of data from the Swiss bank Credit Suisse. It comprises more than 18,000 bank accounts that were leaked to Süddeutsche Zeitung by a whistleblower who said Swiss banking secrecy laws were “immoral”. The data, which is only a partial capture of the bank’s 1.5 million private banking clients, is linked to more than 30,000 Credit Suisse clients. The leak includes personal, shared and corporate bank accounts – holding, on average, 7.5m Swiss francs (CHF). Almost 200 accounts in the data are worth more than 100m CHF, and more than a dozen are valued in the billions. While some accounts in the data were open as far back as the 1940s, more than two-thirds were opened since 2000. Many of those were still open well into the last decade, and a portion remain open today. The Guardian was among more than 48 media partners around the world including journalists at Le Monde, NDR, the Miami Herald and the New York Times. They spent months using the data to investigate the bank, in a project coordinated by Süddeutsche Zeitung and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). They unearthed evidence Credit Suisse accounts had been used by clients involved in torture, drug trafficking, money laundering, corruption and other serious crimes, suggesting widespread failures of due diligence by the bank. It is not illegal to have a Swiss account and the leak also contained data of legitimate clients who had done nothing wrong. In its response, Credit Suisse said it “strongly rejects the allegations and inferences about the bank’s purported business practices”. Show Hide
Lawyers for King Abdullah and Queen Rania said there had been no wrongdoing by the clients, and gave an account of the source of their funds, which they said were compliant with applicable tax law. King Abdullah is not required to pay taxes in Jordan, where the monarch is exempt by law. His lawyers said a large proportion of the funds in the Swiss bank derived from inheritance from his father, King Hussein, and there are no inheritance tax laws in Jordan.
The revelations come at an uncomfortable time for King Abdullah and his family, surfacing six months after the monarch featured prominently in the leak of the biggest ever trove of offshore data, the Pandora papers, which revealed he had acquired a $100m luxury property portfolio stretching from Malibu in California to Belgravia in central London.
Details of more offshore accounts will add to allegations that Jordan’s king of 22 years lives a life disconnected from the demanding realities faced by most of its citizens, who live by a different set of rules.
The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall, with King Abdullah, Queen Rania and Crown Prince Hussein at the Al Husseiniya Palace in Amman, Jordan, in November. Photograph: Tim Rooke/REX/Shutterstock
After publication of the Pandora papers, Jordanian intelligence moved quickly to block online access to stories detailing the revelations about the king’s wealth. The handful of journalists who defied the ban were questioned. Some were reminded of “patriotic duties” to Jordan. Others felt intimidated into silence. The Jordanian publication that did run the revelations received a call from intelligence asking for the story to be taken down.
The king’s lawyers said accusations of media repression in Jordan after the publication of the Pandora papers were “denied”. They declined to elaborate.
Two years before the Pandora revelations, Jordanian security forces arrived at the home of Moayyad al-Majali detaining the lawyer then accusing him of one of the kingdom’s most serious offences. His purported offence was slandering King Abdullah, simply by asking how much land the king owned.
Holding an offshore bank account is not illegal and there is no suggestion that King Abdullah has broken laws by structuring wealth offshore. Neither is there any suggestion of wrongdoing or due diligence failings by Credit Suisse. However, the revelations will raise renewed questions about the source of the fortune at Abdullah’s disposal in a country supported annually by billions of dollars in foreign aid. They will also spur questions about whether the king may have been seeking safe havens for family wealth as his country’s woes deepened.
On the home front, in recent years protests about deteriorating conditions have led to ongoing political chaos, with a series of prime ministers removed from office and governments remaining weak and dependent on foreign support. Even some Jordanian tribes, which have offered bedrock support for Abdullah, and from which most of the country’s establishment figures hail, have shown their frustration at a state struggling to service its own.
In March last year, the king’s hold on the country was briefly threatened when his half-brother, Prince Hamzah, whom he had ousted as heir 17 years earlier, was detained and two aides convicted of sedition after the apparent early stages of a plot against the throne were uncovered.
Hamzah’s supporters have described the events as a “mutiny” that had popular support. However, Jordanian intelligence and some senior officials believe it instead stemmed from a belated push by Trump officials and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to install a monarch who would have endorsed the failed attempt to etch peace between Israel and the Palestinians, labelled the “deal of the century”.
Through his lawyers, King Abdullah said only one of the Credit Suisse accounts remained open. They said they comprised personal investment companies (PICs) set up as vehicles for trust funds to provide for the royal couple’s children. They said one of the accounts held proceeds from the sale of a “large wide body aircraft”, while another smaller jet was bought. The king is known to use at least two private jets.
King Abdullah at 10 Downing Street for a meeting with Boris Johnson in October 2021. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
His lawyers said “a significant percentage” of his personal wealth was used to fund royal initiatives in a personal capacity to target social and economic needs of Jordanian citizens, as well as the restoration of important mosques. They declined to say what percentage.
In the Jordanian capital, Amman, anger at the king and his government has been unusually strident during recent protests against unemployment levels and a stagnant economy. At some rallies, demonstrators have hit effigies of Abdullah with shoes – considered a stark indignity across the Arab world. However, the Hashemite dynasty that Abdullah leads does not appear under serious threat, for now.
Daoud Kuttab, the director general of the Amman-based Community Media Network, predicted the disclosures would anger some Jordanians, particularly unemployed youth. “The king and the government will face some protests and demonstrations but will most likely manage this as they have previous revelations – but it will be difficult.”
Additional reporting by David Pegg. Credit Suisse response to Suisse secrets disclosures available here.