On a summer’s day in 2009 on the sparkling waters of the French Riviera, the superyacht Alfa Nero was playing host to a crucial meeting that, it is alleged, was part of a plot that triggered one of the world’s biggest financial scandals.
Najib Razak, then prime minister of Malaysia, met the young financier Jho Low and the bosses of the international oil firm PetroSaudi International to discuss the potential of a partnership involving his country’s wealth fund 1MDB. The bones of a deal were quickly agreed.
PetroSaudi chief executive Tarek Obaid was cock-a-hoop, but wanted to canvas the opinion of a trusted adviser. He called Rick Haythornthwaite, a respected City figure advising the UK arm of PetroSaudi International, who was announced last week as the £775,000-a-year chairman of the NatWest Group from next April.
Haythornthwaite believed a deal made sense and could offer opportunities to reactivate offshore fields in Malaysia. “That’s just as well,” Obaid responded. “Because we’ve done it.”
Crime investigators now allege that the venture agreed was a front and conspiracy involving PetroSaudi to embezzle $1bn from the wealth fund, with Jho Low funding a jet-setting lifestyle from Malaysia to Hollywood on the criminal spoils.
Haythornthwaite was kept in the dark by other key PetroSaudi managers about the alleged fraud and was not involved in the planning or formation of the 1MDB joint venture. But he now faces questions over whether it was a misjudgment to work for the UK arm of the oil services firm and whether he adequately responded to warnings of a scandal.
Haythornthwaite, 66, held advisory roles at PetroSaudi International (UK) including president (2010 to 2013) and chairman of the operating businesses (2014-2015), according to corporate filings by the global payments giant Mastercard where he was chairman from 2006 to 2020.
A source close to Haythornthwaite said: “His role at PetroSaudi UK was a part-time advisory assignment alongside a number of other chairmanships. He was never a director or privy to the action of the owners.
“His sole focus was on the exploration and production activities of the UK subsidiary, an entity that had no board and was purely operational. At no time did he see any evidence of wrongdoing but as rumours increased he decided to step away.”
1MDB was launched in 2009 by former prime minister Razak, raising billions of dollars in bonds. It is claimed by the US Department of Justice that between 2009 and 2014 individuals and corporations, including PetroSaudi, fraudulently diverted billions of dollars from the fund.
Embezzled money was allegedly used by Jho Low and others to purchase properties, fund gambling sprees and help to back the production of Hollywood movies, including The Wolf of Wall Street, the film about financial excess starring Leonard DiCaprio.
As one of its first investment projects and following the informal summit in August 2009 on the Riviera near Monaco, 1MDB formally agreed to put $1bn into a joint venture with PetroSaudi.
The oil firm had been founded in 2005 by Prince Turki bin Abdullah – a son of the late King Abdullah – and Obaid, an entrepreneur and former banker. It had offices in London – where Haythornthwaite worked – and Saudi Arabia.
When the joint venture was formalised in September 2009, Jho Low emailed his family members with the message: “Just closed the deal with petrosaudi. Looks like we may have hit a goldmin[e].” Under the deal, PetroSaudi would provide assets valued at $2.7bn, which, according to Swiss prosecutors it did not possess.
During the correspondence between 1MDB and PetroSaudi, Nik Faisal, one of the fund’s senior officials, wrote in December 2009 to Haythornthwaite and Patrick Mahony, one of PetroSaudi’s directors, and said: “I trust Rick is the main man where contact will be established.” Mahony quickly corrected Faisal, and made clear Haythornthwaite was to be kept out of the loop.
Haythornthwaite did visit 1MDB offices in Malaysia after the venture was agreed, but was unimpressed. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a shower in my life,” he told colleagues.
Legal filings now state that from $1bn due to be paid to PetroSaudi, $700m was sent to an account at RBS Coutts bank in Zurich held in the name of Good Star, a Seychelles company. The remaining $300m was wired into accounts under the control of Obaid, the PetroSaudi boss.
According to court filings, the Good Star account was controlled by Jho Low, who orchestrated the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to the US and Singapore. Good Star also agreed to pay $85m to Obai as a fee for “brokering services”.
Jho Low, who was nicknamed the Whale, quickly became renowned for his extravagant spending and a celebrity-studded party lifestyle. He celebrated his 28th birthday with a four-day event in Las Vegas, including a party at a pool surrounded by caged lions and tigers.
Former BBC reporter Clare Rewcastle Brown, an anti-corruption campaigner who runs the Sarawak Report website, had scrutinised the deals involving 1MDB and suspected wrongdoing. She was the first to report the scandal in February 2015 after Xavier Justo, a Swiss banker and former PetroSaudi executive, leaked more than 220,000 documents from the PetroSaudi servers to her.
In December 2015 Rewcastle Brown wrote to Haythornthwaite as one of the company’s management team to challenge him on who really owned Good Star. PetroSaudi had insisted the firm was one of its subsidiaries. She asked whether he was prepared to stand by the claim.
Seemingly irritated by her approach, Haythornthwaite stonewalled Rewcastle Brown. “It is clear that you are an active campaigning blogger rather than an objective journalist with a desire to understand the true facts behind this matter,” he wrote. “That your email to me contains fundamental factual errors – not least suggesting that I am, or have ever been chairman of PetroSaudi International – reinforces my concerns about your credibility.
“Even if I were to be in possession of information relevant to your query, I would be unwilling to assist you in your questionable activities.”
A source close to Haythornthwaite said there was conflicting information about the authenticity of some leaked emails, with claims that some had been doctored. Now, however, the City stalwart recognises he could have responded more helpfully.
PetroSaudi had said in March 2015 in response to Rewcastle Brown’s investigations that allegations about the 1MDB venture were “simply false” and based on unlawfully obtained emails that it claimed had been altered in some cases.
Investigators were already digging into the 1MDB money trail and the role of Razak, the Malaysian prime minister. The Wall Street Journal revealed in July 2015 that investigators had traced nearly $700m of deposits into Razak’s personal accounts that were linked to 1MDB, with the book by two of the paper’s journalists, Billion Dollar Whale, later detailing the global fraud.
In July 2016, the US Department of Justice filed a civil suit to seize assets it alleged were bought with funds from 1MDB. By 2018, the wealth fund was under investigation in at least six countries, including the US, Switzerland and Singapore.
In July 2020, former prime minister Razak was sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering and breach of trust. Jho Low has been charged in the US for money laundering and is a fugitive from justice, with his whereabouts unknown.
Last April, the office of the Swiss attorney general filed an indictment against two unnamed PetroSaudi managers over the joint 1MDB venture. Haythornthwaite has provided help to the authorities as a witness or potential witness. There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by him.
A source close to Haythornthwaite said he had worked as a part-time adviser from about 2008 to 2016 for the UK arm of PetroSaudi, which had offices in London’s Mayfair.
A proposed contract involving his work seen by the Observer says he would work 2.5 days a week on a basic salary of £200,000 a year.
This contract covers his employment from August 2010, about a year after the 1MDB venture was first agreed – and while Haythornthwaite was also serving as chairman of Network Rail in the UK.
The contract says that he would be entitled to bonuses of £1m in February 2011 and £1m within two months of June 2014. A separate note that appears to have been written by Haythornthwaite proposes the bonuses were “ringfenced” offshore.
The note says: “The contract would state that the company will pay me £2m net if I remain through to 1 September 2014 … On each vesting date the gross funds would be placed in an offshore Zurich International Portfolio Bond Wrapper which in turn will be placed in a discretionary trust with me as a co-trustee with a PetroSaudi person. This is a simple structure that can be put in place rapidly by Coutts.”
There is no suggestion this proposal was unlawful and it appears to be devised to ringfence the bonus pot. A source close to Haythornthwaite said various contracts were discussed and the £2m in bonuses was not paid, but could not provide details on the bonuses received.
The source said the proposal of an offshore structure was never executed and Haythornthwaite could not recall ever making such a proposal.
He walked out in mid-2016, more than a year after questions were raised about the 1MDB deals, with one source saying he considered there was “too much noise around”.
He is understood to have challenged the bosses about the scandal and was told it was fuelled by a political vendetta against Razak.
A NatWest spokesperson said: “At no time has Rick Haythornthwaite been a director of PetroSaudi International (UK) Limited (now PSI Group Services Limited) as is clear from disclosures on Companies House.”
PetroSaudi International did not respond to a request for comment.