Ramadan 2009. Turkey’s Transport and Maritime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, was invited to break fast with the top brass of his country's shipping business at a ceremony of the Barbaros Shipowners Association in Istanbul.
After the meal, Yıldırım took to the stage. His speech adopted a serious tone.
From now on any Turkish businesses owning ships, yachts or sea vessels that flew foreign flags would be “treated with suspicion” by the government, he said. “We gave the [vessels] three months to change flags, free of charge,” Yıldırım added, referring to the requests of his Ministry. “Now they have no excuse. If they insist on not changing to the Turkish flag, we don't see that [they have any] good intentions.“
The idea was to create a strong, national shipping fleet brandishing the Turkish colours and paying fees and taxes to the Turkish state.
Sat a few metres from Yıldırım was his 30-year-old son, Erkam. He might have felt some embarrassment at his father’s speech, since at that time Erkam was the registered owner of least one general cargo ship, called the ‘City’, through the family’s offshore company in the Netherland Antilles. This freighter flew not the Turkish flag, but that of the Dutch Caribbean Islands.
Since then, the family's ownership of foreign-flagged ships has grown, leading to the conclusion that Yıldırım's speech was nothing less than hypocrisy.
An investigation into the Yıldırım family enterprise for European Investigative Collaborations’ (EIC) #MaltaFiles project reveals that the family currently sits on shipping and other assets totalling well over 100 million euros.
These consist of eleven foreign-flagged ships nestled in a network of secretive companies in Malta, the Netherlands, and the Netherlands Antilles - now Curaçao - and with more suspected in the Marshall Islands and Panama. At least four of the ships are financed with huge loans from Swiss and Turkish banks, including one part-owned by the Turkish state.
While some of the family's activities, especially in tax havens, remains opaque, The Black Sea discovered that Yıldırım's son, daughter, uncle and nephews have purchased at least seven properties in the Netherlands, worth over two-and-a-half million dollars – all of which were paid for in cash.
The investigation also uncovered how the Yıldırıms used one of these Dutch companies to anonymously donate 600,000 euros (1.75 million Turkish Lira) to the municipality of Pendik, near Istanbul, for a lavish new mosque.
EIC's investigation traces how the family's offshore shipping operation has grown in line with Binali Yıldırım's political career, which saw him become the second most powerful man in Turkey.
Family business at the heart of government
Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım is no stranger to mixing his family's fortunes with his role as a public servant. His career in shipping began in 1994 when he managed the Istanbul Fast Ferries Company (IDO), owned by the city. The Istanbul bosses fired him in 2000 after revelations that he awarded a contract for the ferries’ canteens to his uncle, Yılmaz Erence.
The scandal did little to harm Yıldırım’s career. Instead, he entered politics. Since 2001, he has been a key member of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). When this fledgling movement won the 2002 Turkish elections, Yıldırım landed the job of Minister of Transport in the new government’s first ever cabinet. He held this job, with some interruptions, for almost 12 years.
Throughout his tenure, there has been speculation in the Turkish press and among lawmakers about his family’s business. Several times, Yıldırım refused to answer questions in parliament from opposition MPs who demanded he reveal details of how the family makes their money in shipping.
His only public statement is to a journalist from CNN Türk in March 2013, when he coyly explained that that he passed his shipping business to his children when he became a MP in 2002. But he would not go into details.
How does a politician’s family build an asset portfolio of 140 million euros in just over ten years?
The first traces of the Yıldırıms’ offshore business appear in Malta in 1998, via a company that alludes to the Turkish provenance of its shareholders - Tulip Maritime Limited.
This was headed by Yıldırım's uncle, Yılmaz, and contacts from Turkey’s political and business world. These included Salih Zeki Çakır, a known ship-owner who briefly employed Yıldırım before his career in government, Ahmet Ergün, President Erdogan’s advisor from his days as Istanbul Mayor, and former MP and high court judge, Abbas Gökçe. Their first vessel was the Silver Fish, a cheap twenty-year-old cargo ship which was soon broken apart.
Over the course of the 2000s, the group built up other companies and bought other ships. These are now mostly broken up or sold. By 2009, when Yıldırım delivered his impassioned speech promoting Turkish nationalism at the Ship Owners Association, the 4,000-tonne ‘City’ appears to be the family's only foreign asset. This was sold by Erkam two months later to their Panama company, North Bulkers S.A., before being broken up in 2011.
Since then the family’s shipping fortunes have acquired a formidable buying power. Six of the eleven ships identified by The Black Sea and EIC - which are worth between 1.9 million and 33 million euros each - appear to have been bought without any bank loans, suggesting an enormous cache of funds exists in the Dutch operation, despite on paper being a money-losing business.
All eleven ships are owned by offshore companies in the Netherlands and Malta, where attractive tax benefits are offered to the maritime industry.
In February this year, Binali Yıldırım – as prime minister - visited Malta to sign a refugee agreement with the local government. If he had been so inclined, he might have taken the short journey to the offices of Mifsud and Sons Ltd in the capital, Valletta, and to the nearby town of St Julian's. This firm is owned by its namesake, Simon Mifsud, and represents the Yıldırım family’s latest shipping outfits in the country, called Dertel Shipping Limited, Nova Ponza Limited, Rory Malta Limited and Nova Warrior Limited.
The Yıldırıms took over the new companies on 9 June 2016, a little over two weeks after Erdogan appointed Yıldırım as Turkey’s Prime Minister.
The director of each of these is Süleyman Vural, Yıldırım’s nephew.
Inside three of these companies are three ships. These include the never-before revealed MV Shark, owned by Rory Malta Limited, the MV Ponza, by Nova Ponza Limited, and the MV Frezya S, registered to Nova Warrior Limited. Two of these, worth 1.9 million and two million, were obtained with the help of loans from the Swiss Cornèr Bank.
Rory Malta and Nova Ponza lead to Ceren Danışmanlık Denizcilik in Turkey, a shipping business set up by Uncle Yilmaz and his son, Rifat Emrah Erence, in Istanbul, at the end of 2015.
The shareholder of Dertel – which does not own any ships - and Nova Warrior is a Dutch Caribbean offshore company called South Seas Shipping NV. On paper, it appears to be a dead end, leading to corporate law firm CMT Shipping NV, in Curaçao.
Corporate service providers such as CMT are often used as nominees by businesses and individuals wishing to hide their involvement. When the companies are in a tax havens like Curaçao, this adds an often-impenetrable layer of secrecy.
Maltese company records give strong hints to the real owners. For example, Erkam Yıldırım signs the documents for one of the above companies, South Seas Shipping.
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Today, the ships sail through the Med around Bari, Italy, the Greek Islands and the southern coast of Spain. They are each valued at between two and three million dollars.
The Yıldırıms did not answer questions about South Seas Shipping.
But this is minor league compared to the family’s Dutch operation - where the assets reach over 130 million dollars.
Landlords to Dutch dentist and shoemaker
Erkam Yıldırım has strong commercial ties in the Netherlands. These interests include modest properties and expensive ships.
When analysing the Yıldırım family’s offshore structure, EIC learned of a property company called Castillo Real Estate BV, based in the suburban city of Almere, across from Amsterdam on the Markermeer lake.
The Netherlands's newest city is not the most likely place to find connections to the foreign elite. Here on Guamstraat is a dentist's surgery - Tandartspraktijk de Compagnie. Any customer who has a wisdom tooth pulled out in this clinic is experiencing such pleasure in a building owned by the son of Turkey’s prime minister.
Next door to the dentist, at Number 14, are the offices of Castillo Real Estate and Zealand Shipping – two of the family’s major companies. In addition to the two buildings in Almere, Castillo owns four more properties in the country, a modest-sized apartment building in the centre of Schoonhoven, two houses on the Joseph Haydnlaan street in Utrecht, and a shoemaker’s shop in The Hague.
The six properties cost the family over 2.16 million Euro - and were all paid for in cash. The seventh is also in Almere and was purchased by Erkam personally for Zealand's manager.
These are small pickings.
The real money in the operation here is on the waves: Zealand Shipping.
Set up in 2007, Zealand, housed next door to the dentist's office, was run and owned by Erkam until June 2014, when it was bought by Holland Investments Cooperatif UA.
This change is cosmetic. Like with South Seas, company records in the Netherlands reveal Erkam as the man behind the new owner, and in charge of its 129.8 million USD assets.
Through Holland Investment Cooperatif UA, the company records show that family also owns 30 per cent of Q-Shipping BV based in Barendrecht. The partner in this venture is Abdülvahit Şimşek, a Turkish businessman who shares an office with the Yıldırıms in Istanbul.
Right now, Q-Shipping BV and its subsidiaries manage 20 ships - none of which sail under a Turkish flag.
Until last year, Zealand Shipping had ten ships flying the Dutch flag. In January 2016, a Turkish conglomerate close to the Erdogan government, Kolin Group, bought two of these vessels.
Today, Zealand Shipping and its subsidiaries still own eight vessels.
Every one of these boast names that display rampant Turkish nationalism - the Zealand Almere, MV Zealand Amsterdam and MV Zealand Rotterdam bought new in 2012 and 2013; the MV Zealand Ariane and MV Zealand Alexia, purchased second-hand throughout 2014; MV Zealand Beatrix, MV Zealand Delilah, MV Juliana bought new in 2010 and 2011.
The bill for these is not small. The Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Almere cost around 33 million Euro each to build. But Dutch records show that only the Amsterdam listed a debt, a loan of 33 million to the Kuveyt Türk Bank, a non-interest, Islamic financial institution part-owned by the Turkish government though the Directorate General of Foundations, whose director sits on the bank’s board.
Another loan taken out by Zealand is for the Juliana, a dry bulk carrier, which was financed by a 17.16 million Euros from the Yapı ve Kredi Bank in Turkey.
In total, three of the ships were constructed by Sefine, a shipbuilder close to Binali Yıldırım. Sefine was run until 2014 by Suat Hayri Aka, when he was forced by Turkish law to transfer his shares to his brother in order to to accept a government job.
What was this position? Undersecretary to the Ministry of Transport. This made him the deputy of Binali Yıldırım.
But rules do not always apply to friends. Despite clear conflicts of interest rules on public entities, the Ministry continued to conduct business with Sefine, likely violating laws in the process.
It is not the only act of generosity towards Sefine by Yıldırım. In 2010, the year Sefine began constructing Zealand’s ships, Yıldırım brokered the sale of half of the company’s shares to Kolin to save it from financial ruin.
After Turkey's constitutional referendum last month, which granted President Erdogan the power to destroy the Prime Ministry in two years, Yıldırım's tenure at the top is coming to an end.
But in the nearly twenty years since he “transferred his businesses” to his children, they have created a soft cushion for him to land upon when he leaves politics for good.
The Black Sea approached several relevant parties named in the story with unanswered questions.