A less intimidating team of experts from SNC also offered their services. A 2009 technical services agreement between SNC and the Corps of Engineers shows that SNC planned to offer advice about the structure, staffing and mission of the Corps. The proposed SNC consulting team included Vice-Admiral (ret.) Ron Buck, former second-in-command of the Canadian armed forces, and Gary Wiseman, former chief engineer for the Canadian military’s industrial task force. (SNC and Buck both declined to comment on whether the proposed team members received any payment.) This was a relatively small consulting deal for SNC, worth only $1 million over six months, but the paper trail shows that Saadi felt he needed the advice. He asked for more consultations the following year.
SNC, a company active in more than 100 countries in addition to its substantial Canadian footprint, was growing its Libyan business.Revenue was on track to reach $418.2 million (Canadian), or 7% of the company total, by 2010. Things were looking up for the Libyan file, for the go-where-others-dare-not tendency it represented in the company, and for Riadh Ben Aïssa.
By 2008, CEO Jacques Lamarre had placed Ben Aïssa in charge of all international construction—a division that had made an aggressive push into countries where other firms were reluctant to operate, including Algeria and Venezuela. Ben Aïssa became responsible for 10,000 employees and churned out contracts worth hundreds of millions in Libya alone: The company was drilling wells, manufacturing concrete pipes, drawing up proposals for new parkland, developing oil and gas facilities, and constructing a new airport terminal.
A company spokeswoman says the only project that involved formal co-operation between Saadi’s engineering corps and SNC was the $275-million Guryan “rehabilitation centre,” a sprawling prison in the desert near Tripoli (a project undertaken even though Libya had a history of detaining dissidents without trial, as well as torturing and killing them). A letter from December, 2009, shows that Saadi was personally involved with handling at least some contracts besides Guryan. The letter is a warm note to Ben Aïssa regarding the airport project, celebrating “the commitment and lasting contribution of SNC-Lavalin...to the development and prosperity of Libya.”
While SNC’s business in Libya was growing, benefits flowed to Ben Aïssa’s relatives as well. Some of the company’s Libyan operations were organized from SNC’s office in Tunis, which sat on property belonging to the Ben Aïssa family. SNC hired a firm headed by Ben Aïssa’s sister, McGill-trained Ramla Benaïssa, for architectural work on the prison. (She has declined to answer questions about how and why she was awarded the contract.) The company also purchased technical equipment from Orbit Media, an import business run by Ben Aïssa’s mother from a storefront just around the corner from SNC’s front gate in Tunis.
For all of Ben Aïssa’s good fortune in Libya, he could not relax and enjoy it. A former employee who served under Ben Aïssa says that he was a steamroller of a boss, who screamed at his underlings when things went wrong on the airport project. “I was flabbergasted,” the former employee said. “He was yelling on the phone for two hours. The contract said we must build the airport in two years. But it wasn’t possible, and we didn’t have enough money.” He added: “You know, I just read the biography of Steve Jobs, and he reminded me of Riadh. You’re his buddy or his worst enemy.”
Back in Canada, everything regarding Ben Aïssa was seemingly copacetic. He was invited onto the advisory board of his alma mater, the University of Ottawa’s business school. In June of 2009, he co-chaired a charity soirée with National Bank chief executive Louis Vachon. The event, which benefited the Canadian Centre for Architecture, was featured in the society pages of the Montreal Gazette, where Ben Aïssa was photographed with his third wife, Sara Al-Molki. A former executive said that, within SNC’s offices, it was generally understood that doing business in North Africa required some compromises. “His downfall was not corruption,” the former executive said. “To me, his problems started when things got political.” Indeed: The Arab Spring was a political earthquake across a region where strongmen had enjoyed generations in power and then abruptly found themselves challenged by Internet-savvy revolutionaries. As the streets filled with angry protesters, SNC employees joined the expat workers scrambling for the docks and airports.