IRH Mining Dealmaker Has Met With Congo Gold Smugglers, UN Says

Gold bars. Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg (Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) -- A businessman who has been leading a push into mining by Abu Dhabi’s largest listed company has been cited for having dealings with smugglers of gold from central Africa, according to a United Nations report. 

Sibtein Alibhai has been chief global strategist of International Resources Holding since April 2023, according to the company. He helped the firm acquire a major Zambian copper mine, according to people familiar with the matter, and has played a key role in discussions with foreign governments on at least two other occasions. 

But UN investigators this week said that Alibhai discussed business with gold traffickers in his role at another venture established to clean up the mineral trade in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Their report on Congo didn’t mention IRH or Alibhai’s work for the Emirati company, but described him as having had meetings with gold smugglers as recently as March this year. 

IRH is a unit of International Holding Company, a conglomerate controlled by United Arab Emirates’ National Security Adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The company was relatively unknown in the global mining world before late last year, when it made the winning bid to buy control of Zambia’s Mopani copper-cobalt complex from the government with a commitment to inject more than $1 billion into the asset. Alibhai led the negotiations for the deal for IRH, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private information. 

Since then, the company has been on an aggressive hunt for mining deals in Africa and elsewhere, which could turn it into a key player in metals that will be crucial for the energy transition — including copper, which many observers expect is heading for a large shortfall in the coming years as demand outstrips supply. Critical minerals are also a growing focus for western governments seeking to counter China’s dominance of global supply chains. 

Potential Deals

IRH has struck agreements to mine iron ore in Angola and is exploring potential deals around the globe for metals including cobalt, nickel, lithium and graphite, according to a company spokesman. Alibhai led an IRH delegation in April to No. 3 copper producer Peru for talks with the country’s government, according to a post on X by the Peruvian mining ministry. 

Around the same time, however, Alibhai also “approached several gold smugglers” on behalf of a company he founded named Primera Group and “offered them business opportunities,” experts appointed by the UN Security Council said in a new report. Those meetings took place in February and March, the report said. 

IRH and Alibhai declined to comment on the allegations about meetings with smugglers. Via a representative for IRH, Alibhai said that he “resigned from Primera Group in April 2023 to accept the position as chief global strategist at IRH. Mr Alibhai has not represented Primera Group since 2023.”

Representatives for IHC, Primera and Congo’s government didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Abu Dhabi-registered Primera is the majority shareholder in a project launched in December 2022 to formalize the gold trade which was supposed to combat the rampant smuggling that fuels deadly violence in the African nation’s eastern provinces. The partnership – which was granted a 25-year contract to export hand-mined gold – sold 5 tons of the metal, worth about $300 million, in its first year of operation, but sales have since plummeted. 

Congo’s government told Bloomberg last month that it was finalizing a deal to buy out Primera’s 55% interest in the gold-buying business, without providing further details. 

For nearly three decades, smuggling minerals from eastern Congo has helped fund local and regional conflicts. Congo’s government says much of the trafficked gold reaches the UAE after transiting neighboring Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi, which have exported billions of dollars worth of gold in recent years despite having few mines of their own. The countries deny they’re shipping stolen gold.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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