Gold Rolex, Chopard cufflinks: How Saudi gifts to Bolsonaro sparked a scandal

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The case of three sets of jewels gifted by the Saudi government to former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro between 2019 and 2021 sparked a scandal in the Latin American country and led to speculation about the interests of the Gulf nation behind the generous offers .

Among the 14 items, which were not reported to Brazil’s revenue service as state gifts, are a white gold Rolex watch with diamonds, a pair of luxury Swiss Chopard watches, and Chopard jewelery (given to then-first lady Michelle Bolsonaro ). The total value of the three sets was estimated at $3.5m.

On March 6, the federal police launched an investigation into the Bolsonaro administration’s attempt to smuggle women’s jewelry in October 2021 through the São Paulo airport.

A group of government officials, the then Minister of Mines and Energy Bento Albuquerque and his aides, were returning from an official visit to Saudi Arabia on October 26 and did not report to the customs agents that the gifts were being delivered they behaved.

Bolsonaro did not join them on the visit because he stayed in Brazil, where he had lunch a day before with the Saudi Arabian Ambassador in Brasilia.

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The officers decided to inspect the baggage of the entourage and discovered that one of Albuquerque’s assistants, Navy Lieutenant Marcos Soeiro, was carrying the treasures in his backpack, hidden inside a statue of a golden horse (whose legs were partially broken ).

The women’s possessions (with an estimated value of at least $3m) were seized by the airport’s revenue office. News reports showed that Bolsonaro tried to use his influence to get hold of them several times, pressuring members of at least three ministries and even sending aid in an Air Force jet to São Paulo.

Newspapers later revealed that the group had managed to smuggle out a set of men’s jewelery on the same day. The Federal Court of Accounts, an independent regulatory authority that monitors the federal government’s finances, ordered Bolsonaro to hand over the jewelery to the presidential secretariat.

Last week, the Brazilian press discovered that Bolsonaro kept the third set of men’s jewelery given to him by the Saudi government in 2019. It was not declared to the revenue authority as a state gift.

Jewelery given to Jair Bolsonaro and former first lady Michelle Bolsonaro by the Saudi government on display at Guarulhos International Airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 15 (AFP)

Bolsonaro held the 2019 giveaway on a farm owned by former Formula One driver Nelson Piquet, who strongly supported the far-right politician. (Piquet was convicted of racism on March 24 this year for using racial slurs against F1 champion Lewis Hamilton during an interview. He will have to pay a fine of almost $1m.)

The scandal has led many of Bolsonaro’s opponents to question Saudi Arabia’s intentions. Senator Omar Aziz, for example, declared on March 14 that the case had “strong indications of bribery” and related to the privatization of the Brazilian oil refinery Landulpho Alves, one of the oldest and largest in the country, in 2021.

Brazil’s state oil company Petrobras sold the plant to Mubadala Capital of the United Arab Emirates for US$1.8bn. According to the oil workers’ union, independent institutions estimated the value of the refinery at between $3bn and $4bn.

Aziz demanded clarification on the deal and declared that he would like to know “who gave those jewels [to Bolsonaro]if it really is Saudi Arabia, and who is the recipient.”

The oil workers’ union issued a statement raising similar doubts and calling for an inquiry into the privatization of the refinery. He asserted that the “geographical proximity and strategic alliance” between Saudi Arabia and the UAE justifies his need for an investigation.

Gifts as part of the Arabian culture

With the political atmosphere in Brazil – intensified during last year’s presidential campaign, after which left-wing politician Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva Bolsonaro won by a small margin – the jewelery scandal became politicized.

“Many things were said about the supposed things of the Saudi government. Brazil is divided and Bolsonaro’s enemies have created a few theories,” said Tufy Kairuz, an expert on Middle East affairs from York University in Canada.

Kairuz, whose father was a business consultant with deep ties to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s and 1980s, confirmed that the Gulf country has a tradition of giving expensive gifts to foreign dignitaries.

‘They are being asked to be generous and I don’t think there is any wrong intention [behind the gifts],’

– Chas Freeman, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia

“My father once got a gold Longines watch and a silver misbaha. It’s a cultural thing for them,” he told MEE. His father had exchanged letters with King Faisal bin Abdulaziz for years and encouraged the kingdom to establish an embassy in Brasilia.

Chas Freeman, who was the ambassador of the United States to Saudi Arabia and former president of the Middle East Policy Council, thoughtful thanks in Washington, told MEE that the estimated value of Bolsonaro’s jewel is not too rich in Saudi terms.

“They have an incentive to be generous and I don’t think there is any wrong intention [behind the gifts],” he declared.

There are many stories of Arab hospitality – and of Iranian hospitality as well – to foreign authorities among diplomats who have worked in the region. Retired ambassador Sergio Tutikian, who spent years in Baghdad, Tehran and Kuwait, and headed the Middle East department at Brazil’s foreign ministry, told MEE that he commonly received carpets and other gifts from governments of those countries.

“I was in charge of escorting Ashraf Pahlavi, the sister of the shah of Iran when she came to Brazil in 1978. She would distribute gold coins every day to her bodyguards in Brazil,” he said.

When Pahlavi left Brazil, she gave Tutikian 10 kilograms of fresh beluga caviar.

“At that time, there was no rule that limited the value of the gifts we were allowed to accept. In fact, it would be very insulting to refuse such an offer,” he said.

Former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greets supporters from a window at the Liberal Party headquarters in Brasilia on March 30, 2023.
Bolsonaro greets supporters from a window at the Liberal Party headquarters in Brasilia on March 30, 2023 (AFP)

According to Isac Falcao, who heads the national union of tax auditors of the revenue service, current Brazilian law stipulates that government officials cannot accept gifts worth more than 1 percent of the maximum salary among government authorities. In 2023, it will correspond to US$82.

When it comes to gifts given to the president, the rule establishes that expensive items must be added to the presidential collection. At the end of his or her turn, in this way, the leader is not allowed to keep them. That, apparently, was what Bolsonaro was trying to avoid.

Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil received the third package of jewels from Saudi Arabia: Report

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“The treasures given to Bolsonaro [and his wife] which was part of the country’s patrimony. But they were brought to Brazil unusually,” he told MEE.

The minister’s aide carrying the jewelery gifts had to report them to the customs authorities, Falcao said.

“No taxes would be charged if the jewels were declared as gifts to the president, since the federal government does not tax itself,” he said.

Attempting to enter national territory with a concealed item to avoid taxes may be a criminal act.

After finding and seizing the hidden treasures, the presidency made several attempts to recover them, but its delegates repeatedly refused to formalize them as state goods, Falcão recalled.

“Later, news reports revealed that the president kept other treasures. All these aspects are an indication of a possible attempt at the private appropriation of public goods,” declared Falcao.

‘Penal consequences’

According to Falcao, the ongoing investigation by the police will show whether that attempt really took place and that the jewelery will likely be incorporated into the public patrimony.

“There could be punitive consequences,” he concluded.

Kairuz concludes that “there is nothing wrong on the part of the Saudi government, but only on the part of Bolsonaro.

“Any action taken in relation to that situation is a purely Brazilian matter,” he said.

‘The Brazilians should have dealt with it more prudently. Maybe an apology to Saudi Arabia’

Sergio Tutikian, retired ambassador

Tutikian considers that the case has been politicized in Brazil and is a scandal in the media, which could have an impact on Saudi-Brazilian relations.

“This probably caused discomfort among them [Saudi Arabia]. The Brazilians should have dealt with him more prudently. “Maybe we have an excuse in Saudi Arabia,” he argued.

Bolsonaro, 68, returned to Brazil on Thursday after three months in self-imposed exile in Florida.

The former president the Supreme Court faces five investigations that could land him in prison – four for alleged crimes during his term (2019-2022), and one for allegedly inciting a riot of supporters who stormed a palace of the presidency, the Congress and the Supreme Court on January 8, protested his election victory.

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