The Arifs became partners with Turkish President Erdogan's childhood friend, Sitki Ayan, on a failed Iran-Turkey-Europe gas pipeline
This partnership now includes futher multi-billion deals backed by Erdogan, including exclusive contracts to sell natural gas and electricity from Iran and Turkmenistan
Arifs discussed paying millions to get Real Madrid to perform for Turkmenistan president in the hope this would facilitate the energy deal.
Even though the Savarona yacht prostitution scandal supplied an abundance of unwanted attention in Turkey, where citizens are mostly conservative and Muslim, it seems it did not dampen the Arifs' appeal to the country's privileged elite, including those within President Erdogan’s inner circle.
It certainly didn't sway Ali Demirhan, stalwart of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party, known as the AKP, when he became Doyen's new legal advisor in 2012. Demirhan is a Turkish lawyer and chairman of his own construction and tourism company, Mirhan Holdings.
He is described inside Doyen as a “close friend and partner” of the Arifs. According to his own bio, Demirhan “was born in 1976 in Istanbul; he is married and has 3 children. He has a BA in Law from Istanbul University.”
He is also reputedly a good friend and supporter of Erdogan: “For the past 30 years Mr Demirhan’s family has been supporting the political career of Prime Minister Erdoğan,” the biography stated. A few years ago he unsuccessfully ran as an MP for the AKP.
Demirhan became useful almost immediately, during a scandal involving Sarah Ferguson, Britain's Duchess of York and former wife of Prince Andrew, brother of the heir to the British throne.
In 2008, the Duchess took part in an undercover documentary on the shabby state of Turkey’s orphanages. In the film, disabled chidren were left in their own excrement and one, who was never let outside, had to lay in a corridor close to a window to feel the sunlight on his face.
The film prompted Turkey's Social Security and Child Services Authority and the Ministry of Family Affairs to lodge a criminal complaint against Ferguson for entering the country under false pretences, and claimed she was part of a “smearing campaign against Turkey by [those] opposing Turkey’s EU membership.”
The Ministry of Justice even issued an international arrest warrant.
The Duchess turned to her friend in London, Arif Arif, and Demirhan, to defuse the crisis. Doyen drafted an apology letter for Ferguson addressed to Prime Minister Erdoğan explaining the misunderstanding. It is not clear if the letter was ever delivered, but the charges against Ferguson were eventually dropped.
Aside from a little PR for former royals, Demirhan assisted Doyen in exploring education and gold deals in Turkey. But he also opened doors for Doyen.
On a chilly Istanbul evening in the beginning of March 2012, Demirhan introduced Doyen Capital's vice president, Tevfik Eren to Turkey’s answer to Donald Trump: Ali Agaoglu – a real estate magnate close to Erdoğan. Agaoglu has in the past been accused of donating millions to Turgev, the education foundation of Bilal Erdoğan, the president’s son, in return for public contracts.
After a dinner at the up-market Maisa restaurant in Istanbul's bankside neighbourhood İstinye, the trio travelled to Fiyapi Inonu stadium, home of Beşiktaş football club, to watch the team play local side Trabzon. Here, Eren made some important contacts.
“In the half time,” Eren writes, “Ali [Demirhan] introduced me to Mr Sadik Albayrak and Mr Murat Ulgen, CEO of [Beşiktaş]. Mr Sadik Albayrak is the father of Mr Berat Albayrak, CEO of Çalık Holding, who is also the son-in-law of Mr Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”
“Both conversations were short and welcoming,” he adds. “Ali mentioned briefly about our presence in UK and told that he’d introduce me to Mr Berat Albayrak, in order to pursue potential synergies that we might achieve together.”
Ağaoğlu arranged meetings for the following day with several other prominent figures, including AKP MP Mikail Arslan, Guney Ikiz, who became head of TGG Construction a year later, Hakan Ferhatoğlu, chairman of Ata Invest & board member of construction company, and Yuksel Insaat, involved in the 6.3 billion USD Istanbul-Izmir Highway project.
It appears that the introductions bore fruit for the ambitious Arif enterprise. Doyen would soon be involved in Turkmenistan energy deals with Çalık Holding.
The energy deals appear to be facilitated by another prominent business connection: Sitki Ayan, chairman of energy trading firm ASB Group and childhood friend of President Erdoğan. Ayan and Erdogan are close. So close that Ayan calls the president by his first name in public and occasionally joins the him on official trips abroad.
In July 2010, Ayan and the state-owned Iranian National Gas Company declared that Som Petrol, a subsidiary of ASB Group, Ayan’s main enterprise, had been awarded a billion Euro contract to help build the ‘Persian pipeline’ – a huge, four-year infrastructure project to transport 35 billion cubic metres of natural gas from Iran to the EU, though Turkey.
The ‘Persian pipeline’ - or Iran-Turkey-Europe pipeline (ITE) - deal was forged amid increased international pressure to enforce sanctions against the Iranian government over the West’s fears of nuclear proliferation.
Seemingly, the announcement by Ayan and Iranian officials came as a shock to some. Almost immediately, Turkish energy minister, Taner Yildiz, publicly rejected Ayan’s claims, declaring that neither the government nor Turkey’s Petroleum Pipeline Corporation, BOTAŞ, had determined who would receive the contract on the Turkish side.
But Ayan’s confidence was not exactly misplaced. Despite ASB Group and SOM seen largely as trading companies, with no experience in infrastructure projects of this size, Erdoğan’s cabinet approved the pipeline deal in August – as Tevfik and his Kazakh friends were preparing their adventures on Ataturk’s yacht – naming SOM Petrol subsidiary, Turang Transit Tasimacilik, as the licensee.
A year later, in the autumn of 2011, months after Tevfik was acquitted of the trafficking charges by a Turkish court, the Arifs and Ayan struck a deal for the Iranian gas.
The Arifs controlled 50 per cent of the new venture, Somas Enerji, which held the rights to sell the gas in Turkey, through ASTU Doğalgaz Enerji Ticaret Ltd., jointly owned by Refik Arif and Malik Ali.
The Arifs' role was unsurprising, given their background. According to agreements found in the Football Leaks data, they will “exclusively manage and conduct negotiations with gas suppliers from the former Soviet Union countries such as Turkmenistan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan etc,” – in return for 20 per cent of any profits.
Ayan and his son Bahaddin Ayan would have been tasked with lobbying the “Iran government regarding transportation/transit of the natural gas to be transferred to Turkey and/or UAE”
The Arifs were true to their word apparently. In May 2012, Turkmenistan Energy Minister Bairamgeldy Nedirov invited Sitki Ayan to a meeting in the capital Ashgabat to discuss electricity exports. Sitki graciously agrees to attend along with “Mr. Tefvik Arif, and Mr. Hamid Farzam, as Advisor to Deputy Energy Minister to Iran. [sic]”
At the time, Arif Arif told Nelio Lucas that Doyen was "on the verge of something big in Turkmenistan. This will be Skips masterpiece."
As a greaser, he suggested that they "bring either Real Madrid or Barca there to play an exhibition match to impress the president. There are billions to be made there. I need you to take this very serious and start planning asap please” [sic].
“OK,” Nelio answered, “President of Real [Madrid] is in London today. I fly with him to Madrid. A few days later, Nelio updates Arif. “It’s simple. 3m € Minimum, and they need to have a date.”
Ultimately, the money never showed up. But the willingness of the family to exploit its football connections was hampered only by a reluctance to part with three million Euro. So Real Madrid escaped having to grandstand for Turkmenistan’s autocratic leader, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, in the service of the Arifs’ business interests.
But whatever else happened behind the scenes appears to have worked. The following year, the Turkmenenergo State Power Corporation of the Ministry of Energy in Turkmenistan awarded Ayan’s company, Gent, the rights to sell electricity to Turkey through Iran.
The Arifs were placed firmly in the centre of deal.
Through its holding in ASTU Dogalgaz Enerji, the family owned 50 per cent of ASKA Energy, the company set to sell the electricity on the Turkish market. It took only a month for ASKA to obtain its licence from Turkey’s Energy Market Management Authority (EPDK). The EPDK application shows the structure of the operation, signed by Refik Arif and Sitki Ayan.
To this day, the Iran-Turkey-EU (ITE) pipeline, which Ayan promised would be completed by 2014, has never materialised. Experts believe that the Som Petrol deal was permitted by the Turkish government to soothe Washington’s concerns over a similar project agreed in 2007 between Iran and the state-owned Turkish National Oil Co, which skirted close to violating sanctions.
Whatever the truth, the Turkish state appeared keen to reward Ayan and his troupe for their failures. On 16 December 2013, the government announced 3.3bn Euro in “incentives” - customs tax exemptions, tax discounts and social security support – to Turang Transit for transporting “natural gas through pipeline”. It was at the time the second highest “incentive” package ever awarded in Turkey - the highest being awarded to Çalık Holdings – whose CEO was Berat Albayrak – for the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline project.
The following day, Erdoğan’s government was hit by a massive corruption scandal, as police arrested over 50 people with links to the AKP - including MPs and members of their families, and businessmen, like Ali Ağaoğlu - implicated in a catalogue of financial misdeeds.
In the end 14 were officially charged with a range of crimes, including bribery, fraud, money laundering and smuggling gold.
The accusations related to the Turkey’s gas deal with Iran. The Iran government was at the time still under international sanctions over its alleged nuclear programme. But Turkey had found a loophole: gold. Sanctions permitted the exporting of gold out of Turkey.
A scheme was engineered to pay for the gas and oil in Turkish Lira using an account at the county's Halkbank. With over ten billion dollars in revenue, the Iranians purchase gold bullion, which was shipped to Iran though the UAE.
A week later, the crisis intensified as tapes emerged of conversations between Erdoğan and his son, Bilal, appearing to discuss bribes from Ayan.
“Mr. Sıtkı came yesterday saying he couldn’t do the transfer properly,” Bilal says. But “that he currently has about 10 or so (million dollars), [and] that he can give it whenever we want”.
“No no,” Erdoğan replied. “Don’t you take it… If he’s going to bring what he promised, then let him bring it. If not, then no need. Others can bring it, so why can’t he, huh? … But they are falling now, they’ll fall on our laps, don’t you worry.”
Erdoğan denied the authenticity of the recordings, but many in Turkey believe the conversations related to energy deal “incentives” announced the day before the arrests.
Ultimately, the AKP government sabotaged the corruption investigation. But if Erdoğan ever thought to distance himself from Ayan and the scandal or mitigate accusations of political nepotism and corruption, he didn’t show it. In November 2014, three months after becoming Turkey’s first ever publicly elected president, he made an official visit to Turkmenistan to meet with President Berdimuhamedov.
It seems that gas was the primary purpose of the trip. Standing proudly in the Seljuk Khan Hall, named after the 11th century Turkic ruler who founded the Seljuk Empire in Central Asia and Anatolia, at the Oguzkhan Presidential Palace, the presidents announced the signing of a “Framework Agreement on Cooperation in the field of purchase and sale of the natural gas” between Turkmengaz and Atagas Dogalgaz Ticaret A.Ş, through Iran.
It was quite a gift. The people now set to get rich from the world’s desire to reduce its dependency on controversial Russian energy are none other than Sitki Ayan, the Arifs, and Ahmet Çalık, owner of Çalık Holdings, of which Berat Albayrak used to be CEO.
Albayrak resigned from Çalık in late 2013 and was appointed Minister for Energy and Natural Resources for the AKP government in 2015.
Documents from April 2015 reveal that Sitki transferred half of his shares in Atagas to ASTÜ Doğalgaz Enerji, the company opened by the Arifs back in 2011 when it engaged in the original Iran pipeline contract. At the same time, a young Azerbaijani named Elçin Beridze, was appointed to Atagas’s board of directors. His address is listed as the £20m mansion at Carlyle Square in London – where he presumably lives with his wife, Ayla Arif - Tevfik Arif's daughter.
Months later, the gang got together again at a ceremony in France for the celebration of Arif’s wedding to a young Uzbek woman.
The guest list, included in the Football Leaks data, shows diplomats, oligarchs and former heads of state, invited to mingle with reputed mobsters and convicted criminals. It is a luxurious event that celebrates not just a marriage, but the Arif family’s quiet pursuit of money, power and influence over the last 25 years.