Khaled Juffali once helped Nissan revive its business in the Middle East. Now the prominent Saudi businessman has been drawn into a high-stakes courtroom battle that will decide the fate of Carlos Ghosn.
Ghosn, the former chairman and CEO of Nissan (NSANY), has been accused by Japanese prosecutors of financial wrongdoing, including payments of $14.7 million reportedly to a company belonging to Juffali between 2009 and 2012. Ghosn was arrested in Tokyo on November 19 and has been detained since then while prosecutors continue to investigate.
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Ghosn and Juffali on Tuesday denied the prosecutors' claims that the payments were illicit.
The issue is whether they were made in return for legitimate services — or for Ghosn and Juffali's personal benefit.
The matter highlights the complex, sprawling nature of the allegations that have taken Ghosn from the summit of the global auto industry to a Tokyo jail cell and rocked the huge carmaking alliance he built.
Japanese prosecutors haven't identified Juffali or his company by name in their public statements.
But after multiple media reports identified Khaled Juffali Company as the recipient of the payments from Nissan, the Saudi company issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the money was for "legitimate business purposes."
In his first public comments since his arrest, Ghosn also defended the payments to Juffali's company as appropriate compensation for "critical services that substantially benefited Nissan."
Prosecutors say the money was in return for help provided by a businessman to Ghosn when the auto executive got into difficulty during the global financial crisis in 2008.
Ghosn had taken out contracts to protect his earnings at Nissan from swings in the yen-dollar exchange rate, he said in a statement. During the financial crisis, he said, he was asked by his bank to put up more collateral on the contracts. He says that with the global financial system virtually paralyzed, he asked Nissan to take over the contracts temporarily while he raised funds elsewhere.
Prosecutors say Ghosn transferred the contracts, carrying losses of about $16 million, to Nissan in 2008 and later secured bank guarantees with the businessman's help so he could reclaim them. The prosecutors allege that both men benefited from the millions of dollars Nissan subsequently paid to Juffali's company.
Ghosn, 64, is under arrest in Tokyo on suspicion of aggravated breach of trust in relation to the transfer of the contracts and the payments. He has also been indicted on allegations of understating his income.
Appearing Tuesday in a Tokyo court for the first time since his arrest, Ghosn professed his innocence, saying he had been wrongly accused and unfairly detained.
Working for Nissan
Ghosn said that Nissan had incurred no losses from the currency contracts, and that payments to the Khaled Juffali Company were properly approved in exchange for services such as helping Nissan solicit financing and resolve problems with distributors in the Gulf that allowed the company to compete better with Toyota (TM) and other rivals.
Juffali had also helped Nissan negotiate the development of a factory in Saudi Arabia, organizing meetings with officials, Ghosn said in a statement released by his legal team.
"Khaled Juffali Company was appropriately compensated — an amount disclosed to and approved by the appropriate officers at Nissan — in exchange for these critical services that substantially benefited Nissan," he said.
Khaled Juffali Company said the payments from Nissan "were for legitimate business purposes in order to support and promote Nissan's business strategy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and included reimbursement for business expenses."
Prominent Saudi family
Juffali is a member of a prominent Saudi family whose conglomerate, E. A. Juffali & Brothers has helped global companies including IBM (IBM) , Siemens (SIEGY), and Mercedes-Benz do business in the kingdom.
He also sits on the board at the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, the kingdom's central bank.
In 2004, he founded Khaled Juffali Company and four years later, he joined forces with Nissan to create Nissan Gulf to promote sales in the region.
According to the Khaled Juffali Company website, Nissan Gulf "is the regional Nissan [and] Infiniti headquarters for the Bahrain and Kuwait distributors."
In 2014, Nissan Saudi Arabia was formed between Khaled Juffali Company and Nissan Motors. It "is responsible for the exclusive import and marketing of the full Nissan and Infinity range of vehicles," according to its website.
A spokesman for Nissan declined to comment about the payments made to Khaled Juffali Company, but confirmed that its Nissan Saudi Arabia partnership continues.
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