Forty minutes’ drive north of the agricultural town of Louis Trichardt, through the Soutpansberg mountains and Limpopo bushveld, a small army of workers is extending a double-layered electric fence that stretches as far as the eye can see. Tight-lipped contractors come and go, leaving locals scratching their heads.

Stories swirling around the area suggest the 12,000ha game farm beyond is being turned into an exclusive hunting resort — some say for a Saudi royal — on which large private jets will be able to land.

One person claims workers use a tunnel to gain access to the complex without being seen.

Regardless of what may be wild rumour, one thing is clear: the enterprise, and especially its ownership, is shrouded in secrecy.

AmaBhungane’s investigation into this little-known game farm called Ekland — drawing on the leaked Panama and Paradise papers, among other sources — has led to a complex global network of middlemen, proxy directors and offshore companies that’s seemingly geared to shield the Saudi royal family’s immense wealth from public scrutiny. It suggests Ekland is ultimately controlled by that country’s notorious crown prince and de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman.

The Saudi Arabian embassy in Pretoria and Saudi foreign affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Murky ownership

When amaBhungane visited Ekland in January, there was a frenzy of activity around the perimeter fence. But those working at the farm, including two young hunting specialists, were cagey about the owners and plans for the land.

A less guarded contractor separately said the farm — on which game lodges have operated for nearly two decades — was previously owned by a prominent Spaniard and had been sold about three years ago to "some Saudis".

Deeds records show Ekland consists of more than a dozen farms and farm portions acquired since 1999 by Manupont 124, a local shelf company registered that same year.

But who is behind Manupont?

Farm manager Graham Moon will say no more than that the shareholder is Willow Ltd, "a Cayman company that has been set up to hold investments globally".

Records show Willow is indeed registered in the Cayman Islands — a known haven for corporate anonymity and tax avoidance.

Moon will also not identify recent guests. "It is our policy to respect our guests’ right to privacy and as such we do not comment on any individuals who may have visited the property," he says. "This is standard practice in the global luxury industry."

Moon does, however, offer a press release, which paints Ekland as providing "a bespoke, sole-use, super luxury safari experience [for] discerning guests".

It says: "The core ambitions of Ekland are … to provide the most secure sanctuary for Africa’s incredible wildlife … as well as to provide guests with an intimate experience in the African bush while allowing for complete privacy and confidentiality … it aims to become the preferred employer for the surrounding communities."

The release notes that Ekland is undergoing a significant upgrade to "deliver to the refined tastes of the luxury market". It will, it says, expand to more than 20,000ha and create more than 200 permanent positions "through a significant investment programme on the property".

A better sense of what is planned can be gleaned from the range of assessments required for such developments — heritage, palaeontological and environmental impact assessments.

These show that an area more than 3km long will be set aside for an airstrip — a size that aviation experts say is long enough to land large jet aircraft, including Boeing 747s.

The plan includes 20 "executive villas" to accommodate visitors "upon invitation". It aims to provide "the ultimate bespoke safari experience" for high net worth clients, including tailored hunting experiences.

Back to who owns Manupont: the company provided its share register after a tug of war that included applying under the Companies Act and the sheriff being sent to affix a notice to Ekland’s main gate.

What the register shows is that Manupont’s full ownership was transferred to Willow only on February 24 — about a month after amaBhungane began asking questions, and four days after the sheriff paid his visit.

Manupont’s previous owner was Eight Investment, a company with an address in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

That company has cropped up before, in a New York Times exposé based on the Panama and Paradise papers.

These two troves of leaked corporate records were obtained by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, of which amaBhungane is a member. The records have helped lift the shroud of secrecy over the inner workings of offshore law firms that take advantage of tax havens and jurisdictions with deliberately weak transparency laws to help corporations and high net worth clients avoid tax, conceal ownership structures and ensure financial transactions are kept discreet.

The Times story linked Prince Mohammed to the purchase of a $300m French chateau — "the world’s most expensive home" — using Eight Investment and a layer of other offshore entities.

The paper quoted corporate records, saying Eight Investment was "owned by members of the Saudi royal family" and its "wealth is derived from the king and the state".

The same company was used in the purchase of the prince’s 134m luxury yacht, Serene, from Russian tycoon Yuri Shefler. Prince Mohammed reportedly bought the yacht on the spot while vacationing in southern France — for a staggering €420m.

The article refers to one Thamer Nassief as the manager of Eight Investment. On career networking site LinkedIn, he lists his position as head of the crown prince’s private affairs. He was also a director of Manupont from 2015 to February 2019 — roughly the same period that Eight Investment held Manupont, according to company records.

Another Manupont director, Hans Cauchi, was involved in renovating Prince Mohammed’s chateau. Described as "a Maltese hospitality executive who caters to the superwealthy", Cauchi joined Nassief as a director in Manupont on January 1 2016. Unlike Nassief, he remains a director, despite the transfer of ownership to Willow.

AmaBhungane attempted to reach Nassief through Ekland’s management and his previous employers, but received no response. Cauchi did not respond to messages sent via e-mail and his LinkedIn account, though Moon confirmed Cauchi had seen these.

As for Willow, amaBhungane was unable to confirm who the ultimate beneficial owner is, but there is evidence of continuity despite Manupont changing hands: Cauchi remains a director, Moon remains manager of the project, and the same development plans remain in place.

In February, Nassief was replaced as Manupont director by Saudi national Yazeed Mohammed Alsaeed. AmaBhungane was unable to verify his identity, but there is a Yazeed Alsaeed on LinkedIn whose profile says he has worked as a legal adviser to Saudi government entities and a private equity firm.

It may well be that the transfer of Manupont to Willow in February aimed to restore ownership secrecy, which was compromised when Eight Investment’s link to the Saudi royal family was made known, and that Prince Mohammed remains the ultimate owner.

An offshore empire

Evidence from the Panama Papers reveals a web of overlapping connections between Manupont directors and the Saudi royal family going back to 1999, when Ekland was established.

The identity of the Spanish person who supposedly owned Ekland through Manupont before Prince Mohammed’s Eight Investment took it over would seem to firm up that royal connection.

About 10 years after Ekland was established the lodge was charging visitors $950 a night. A travel journalist, "awestruck by the grandeur" of the "colonial-style resort", would write a glowing review of Ekland and its "baobab trees silhouetted against a sky painted in pastel shades of pink and purple".

That same article referred to Ekland’s owner as "a Spanish hunter and chief executive of an international interior design company".

Neither Ekland manager Moon nor his predecessor, Wulf Schwerdtfeger, would say who the "Spanish hunter" was. However, it appears to have been Mohamed Eyad Kayali, a wealthy Spanish-Syrian businessman with strong Saudi ties.

Kayali’s architecture and interior design company, Euroamykasa, is housed in a moneyed Madrid neighbourhood. It specialises in "technical services of luxury architecture, decorating mansions and chalets" for "Arab sheikhs and businessmen".

It was Euroamykasa that held Manupont’s shares before they passed to Eight Investment in October 2015, the Manupont share register shows. And company records show that Kayali and his son Yawan, the chief executive of Euroamykasa, were directors of Manupont until 2015, when Nassief took over, later joined by Cauchi.

AmaBhungane sent questions to Kayali through his company, but received no response despite repeated attempts to follow up.

Kayali appears to prefer a relatively low profile as a behind-the-scenes fixer and consultant for both Spanish and Saudi royals, but his name and face were splashed across the Spanish press in 2012, when stories emerged of a controversial hunting excursion to Botswana by Spanish king Juan Carlos.

Media reports said the king had been the guest of Kayali, described as a "close" and "intimate" friend of the king’s, and as part of the inner circle of the Saudi royal family.

The Panama Papers show that Kayali was appointed director, or given power of attorney, in a basket of companies registered in Panama and the British Virgin Islands, and linked to the Saudi royal family’s sprawling business empire. Two of his Euroamykasa colleagues were also given power of attorney in some of the companies.

These companies were mainly used to house assets — properties in Spain and London, a luxury yacht — on behalf of prominent Saudi royals.

Among the companies for which Kayali was given power of attorney is Almack Properties, registered in Panama.

The share register provided to amaBhungane claims Euroamykasa owned Manupont from its registration and Ekland’s establishment in 1999, to the transfer to Eight Investments in 2015. In contrast, the Panama papers show Almack owned Manupont, with Euroamykasa taking it over in 2001, for $2m.

But who owned Almack?

In 1999, Almack issued four shares with a nominal value of $100 each. The shareholders were anonymous because the shares were issued as bearer shares, which confer ownership on whoever holds the physical copy of the share.

Because of their potential use in money laundering and tax evasion, bearer shares are treated with suspicion globally. In the case of Almack, they obscured the identity of the ultimate beneficial owner.

But there are business relationships and ownership structures that firm up the link between Kayali, Almack and Saudi royals.

Correspondence in the Panama Papers shows Almack to have been incorporated alongside another company, Verse Development, for a single UK-based corporate services provider. Verse — for which Kayali was given power of attorney, like Almack — can in turn be directly linked to the Saudi stable of companies and to Salman bin Abdulaziz — the Saudi king himself.

The leaked records show that in 2009, Safason, a Luxembourg-based company linked to King Salman — then a prince — began exploring options to obtain loans of several million pounds. Two subsidiary companies put forward London properties they owned as collateral. These were Verse and Inrow Corp — both companies in which Kayali had been given power of attorney.

Some years prior to the loan arrangements, Verse bearer shares had been transferred to Safason from another Luxembourg company owned by Saudi royals — Shaf Corp.

And two other Kayali-linked companies — Nibal Management and Potter Corp — which appear to have housed Spanish property assets, both had a common shareholder in Shaf. Kayali was made a director of Shaf in 2009, alongside two of King Salman’s sons.

There’s another company linked to both Safason and Kayali: Crassus Ltd, for which Kayali was given power of attorney in the mid-2000s and Safason is a shareholder. It’s registered in the British Virgin Islands and is the owner of M/Y Erga — a motor yacht whose principal user at the time was Salman bin Abdulaziz.

It remains unclear why Ekland was passed from Almack, which appears to have been managed by Kayali on behalf of Saudi royals, to Kayali’s own company, Euroamykasa, and back to the Saudis via Eight Investment.

Planes, boats and guns

Members of the Saudi royal family are known to have a fondness for colonial-style big-game hunting adventures.

An article in The Guardian newspaper is scathing about what is a commonplace ritual in East Africa: "They shoot desert species of gazelle, oryx and Nubian ibex, and take them home as trophies. There are reports that sometimes they don’t even bother to fly through Khartoum airport, choosing instead to construct makeshift landing strips in the middle of the wilderness that are dismantled after they depart, sometimes apparently in massive military C-130 planes."

Similar scenes of absurdly lavish Saudi hunting expeditions have played out in SA, causing a public stir on more than one occasion.

In 2016, local media reported on four Saudi aircraft, "including a cargo plane with a fleet of vehicles", landing at Polokwane airport. An unnamed Saudi prince was said to be among the 106 passengers.

One article alleged that the Saudis came with a cache of "suspicious firearms" that had not been registered with SA police.

Plane-spotters’ photos show two of the jets on the tarmac of Polokwane International: one of them a Saudi C-130 Hercules transporter, the other a Boeing with tail number HZ-HM1A.

The Boeing, part of the Saudi royal fleet, is used regularly by the king and senior royals, including Prince Mohammed.

Almost 10 years before that incident, in 2007, one of the royal family’s 747s touched down at Polokwane International en route to a hunting trip in the Pilanesberg, about three hours’ drive from Joburg.

During that incident, the SA captain nearly landed himself in hot water with the Civil Aviation Authority, which stopped the aircraft from taking off, citing safety concerns. It said Pilanesberg’s airfield was not designed for large aircraft.

The incident lit up online aviation forums such as Avcom — a sort of Reddit website on which aviator aficionados and plane-spotters share a mix of laddish banter about "hot" air hostesses and nerdy technical chatter about WAT (weight, altitude, and temperature) limits and PCNs (pavement classification numbers).

As the dust from the controversy began to settle, the pilot himself seemed to chip in, offering a detailed account of his tussle with "bureaucracy and the high-vis [high-visibility] jacket brigade".

Writing under a pseudonym, he claimed a 747 could safely have made the landing, but his VIP guests instead had to put up with the inconvenience of a "long drive" and a chartered DC-9.

The pilot also tackled allegations of unlicensed firearms: "Twaddle. There were at least 15 boys in blue to meet us; they verified the rifles’ serial numbers with the list with which they’d been provided earlier."

According to online flight records, the Boeing held up in Polokwane is registered to Kingdom Holding Company and is for the personal use of its founder and owner, Alwaleed bin Talal, a prominent Saudi prince and Forbes-list billionaire.

Prince Alwaleed, a cousin of Prince Mohammed, is known as an "absurdly rich" oddball investor who keeps a medieval troupe of dwarfs for his own entertainment and has a penchant for glitzy planes, boats and cars.

Dubbed Saudi’s Warren Buffett, the prince reportedly owns a Hawker jet, an Airbus A321 and a luxury yacht that was previously owned by US President Donald Trump and, before him, billionaire Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, uncle of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Palace politics

Prince Alwaleed was the most prominent Saudi caught up in an ostensible crackdown on corruption orchestrated by Prince Mohammed, in which hundreds of prominent officials, businessmen and royals were detained at a luxurious Riyadh hotel.

The move has widely been interpreted as an attempt to centralise power and shake down the Saudi elite to plug holes in the country’s oil-dependent budget.

In Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, power is exercised whimsically and the state is treated as the family business. But the rise of Prince Mohammed — the real power behind his ailing father’s throne, after he deposed the king’s nephew as heir apparent — was welcomed uncritically by many in the West. They saw in him an eager reformer who would temper the worst excesses of the Saudi establishment.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Picture: REUTERS
Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Picture: REUTERS

What it means

An SA hunting resort has opened the window on a hidden Saudi business empire

Prominent columnist Thomas Friedman wrote fawningly in a New York Times op-ed: "Now they have a young leader who is driving religious and economic reform, who talks the language of hi-tech, and whose biggest sin may be that he wants to go too fast."

Fast indeed — his de facto reign has been defined by one episode of high drama after another.

Evidence reportedly points to him having ordered the assassination of journalist Khashoggi, while his regime’s ostensible kidnapping of Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri was denounced as a thuggish and bizarre departure from diplomatic norms.

The crown prince’s hawkish foreign policy informed a Saudi-led blockade of regional rival Qatar and a protracted offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has been bogged down since 2015.

As palace intrigue and Saudi regional aggression continue to play out in foreign media reports, ordinary Saudis have faced belt-tightening measures imposed on them as the country tries to claw its way out of its 2017 recession.

Saudi royals, meanwhile, continue to live lives of conspicuous consumption, setting up playgrounds, such as Ekland in SA.

It’s little wonder, then, that Prince Mohammed would want to keep his epic spending sprees out of sight.

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• The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism, an independent nonprofit, produced this story. Like it? Be an amaB Supporter to help us do more. Sign up for our newsletter and WhatsApp alerts to get more.