If the union was a shotgun marriage with Quebec Inc. in the role of the determined father, then Lavalin was the penniless, adventure-seeking groom, and SNC was the cautious, reserved bride. The smaller company was risk-averse, publicly traded and far more transparent than Lavalin. And, compared to Lavalin, SNC was less dependent on projects in troubled countries. High on the list of priorities for the new unified company was getting a handle on Lavalin International’s myriad opaque deals with rulers and kings around the world.
By the middle of the decade, this job had fallen to Rod Scriban, a senior vice-president who came from the SNC side and was placed in charge of SNC-Lavalin International in 1994. A civil engineer who helped design the towering LG-3 dam in the James Bay hydro project, Scriban was accustomed to scanning the horizon for problems. And he started to think that Riadh Ben Aïssa was a problem.
Ben Aïssa had been placed in charge of operations for the Middle East, based in his native country, Tunisia. Shortly after the appointment, he married a Saudi woman. (It was his second marriage; his first was to Marianne Vézina, whom he met in his first year of university. They divorced after six years.)
Scriban was alarmed to learn that Ben Aïssa had negotiated an unusual deal with his old bosses at Lavalin: He, with at least one of his new wife’s relatives, would together earn a 2% commission on any SNC contracts in Saudi Arabia, regardless of whether they performed any work.
“This arrangement seemed unethical and conflicted,” Scriban says, adding that the margins on such deals were so small that a 2% cut could seriously hurt the bottom line.
It wasn’t just this strange deal (which ultimately ended after Ben Aïssa’s second divorce) that gnawed at Scriban. As the senior vice-president in charge of every foreign representative, Scriban was supposed to have access to every country file. The Libya file didn’t seem to exist.
During Scriban’s tenure overseeing SNC-Lavalin International, Ben Aïssa had made inroads with the Gadhafi regime—the company had secured a lucrative contract on the Great Man-Made River project, an ambitious plan to pump water from deep desert aquifers to many of Libya’s cities. Scriban couldn’t locate a single piece of paper about this job or any of the Libyan projects in the pipeline. It was the only country file that he could not access. He was never given a definitive answer about why the Libyan work was so secret, he says. But he remembers thinking, “This file is so risky that people feel like hiding it.”
Scriban took his concerns about the Saudi deal to SNC-Lavalin’s legal department and asked it to investigate. When the lawyers got back to him, he was told that a message from “on high” had come down: “Stop badmouthing Ben Aïssa and lay off his case.” (SNC has confirmed that Ben Aïssa’s brother-in-law was a shareholder in the Saudi subsidiary.)
A few weeks later, Scriban says, he was sidelined. He couldn’t say whether his challenging Ben Aïssa’s special status resulted in his transfer—there were others vying for his job—but he says it may have played a role.
Almost a decade ago, when Colonel Moammar Gadhafi refashioned himself as an ally of the West and began distancing Libya from terrorism, he also unleashed upon the world a new wave of destructive chaos: his children.
In Geneva in 2008, his fifth-born son, Hannibal, was arrested for beating his servants. The second-youngest son, Saif el-Arab, plotted to spray acid in the face of a Munich nightclub bouncer after he and his girlfriend were thrown out of the venue in 2006 after she performed a strip act.
But there is one son, third-born Saadi, whose ostentatious antics stand out above the rest.
In his mid-20s, Saadi spent three seasons on the roster of various Italian pro soccer clubs, despite having no previous professional experience. The contracts were so inexplicable that most observers of the sport have attributed them to the elder Gadhafi’s close relationship with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. By the end of his soccer career, Saadi had logged a total of 25 minutes on the field. He appeared in only two games.