Beirut - The prime minister of Lebanon gave more than $16 million (about R245 million) to South African bikini model Candice van der Merwe who said they had a romantic relationship after they met at a luxury resort in the Seychelles, according to South African court documents obtained by The New York Times.
The prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, was not in office when he sent the money starting in 2013, and the transfer does not appear to have violated any Lebanese or South African laws.
But the revelation in a South African court case this year of the extravagant gifts to a younger model comes during a difficult period for Hariri, the top Sunni Muslim politician in Lebanon and a US ally.
His business and political empires have fallen on hard times, depriving many employees of their pay. His family’s construction conglomerate, Saudi Oger, ceased operations in 2017, and his media outlets have struggled to pay salaries.
A looming financial crisis in Lebanon has set off anti-government protests. This month, Hariri said the Lebanese government would declare an “economic state of emergency” and push through austerity measures.
Hariri did not respond to questions sent to his media team about his relationship with Van der Merwe, or any gifts to her.
The gifts have no clear tie to Lebanon’s current economic woes, and Hariri, a married father of three, was sufficiently wealthy to have made the payments himself. Forbes magazine estimated his net worth in 2013 at $1.9 billion, thanks largely to business interests he inherited after his father, Rafik Hariri, who also served as prime minister, was assassinated in Beirut in 2005.
Since then, the younger Hariri has remained one of Lebanon’s best known political figures. He makes frequent state visits to Paris, Washington and Riyadh and favors pro-Western policies but heads a power-sharing government that includes Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group and political party backed by Iran.
His bank transfers to van der Merwe were made between his two terms as prime minister but while he was the head of his political party, the Future Movement. He was 43 at the time of the first transfer, in 2013. He was then running family businesses in construction and other domains and living in France and Saudi Arabia.
Van der Merwe was 20 years old. She had appeared in energy drink promotions and swimwear calendars, but her reported annual income had never exceeded $5,400.
In a promotional interview in a skimpy bikini conducted in conjunction with the publication of a swimsuit calendar in 2011, she said her interests included listening to Jack Johnson and Celine Dion, riding Jet Skis and flying helicopters with her father.
Then in May 2013, her assets suddenly soared, thanks to a transfer of $15 299 965 from a Lebanese bank.
“Lady luck, it would seem, suddenly smiled on the applicant,” a South African judge wrote in 2015.
The transfer would most likely have remained secret had the large sum not raised suspicions among South African financial and tax authorities, who investigated and deemed it taxable income.
Van der Merwe insisted the money was a gift and not taxable according to South African law. In subsequent court cases, she argued the money had been given to her without conditions and identified her benefactor as Hariri.
“Love you my Saad :),” van der Merwe wrote in an email to Hariri in which she provided her bank account details so he could transfer the money, telling him it was so she could buy property.
The money landed in her account shortly afterward.
The New York Times was unable to reach van der Merwe, but two of her previous lawyers, her current lawyer, and her father, who has represented her in tax court, declined to comment or to make her available for an interview.
In an affidavit cited in the court documents, van der Merwe said she had been recruited at age 19 to travel to an exclusive resort in the Seychelles, The Plantation Club, that was “frequented by some of the richest private individuals in the world,” including billionaires “for whom money is no object.”
At this “playground of the super wealthy,” she said, “it is the norm for lavish parties and events to be held,” and models were flown in “to lend a sense of glamour and exclusivity.” The models’ passports were taken when they arrived, and they were forbidden from taking photos.
Van der Merwe spent four days at the resort in 2012, she said, and connected with people she met because of her “healthy lifestyle” and other qualities.
“I have also been told that I have a very engaging personality,” she said.
Other trips followed. On her first two, she flew economy class. Later, she was upgraded to first or business class.
During a trip in March 2013, she said, she told friends that her “dream car” was the Audi R8. After she returned home, she had an accident that totaled her car and cracked her cellphone screen.
A car dealer soon called her to pick up a new Audi R8 Spyder, which had been paid for and registered in her name. She also received two new cellphones, including one with international roaming, and a Land Rover Evoque.
The two vehicles were worth more than $250 000, a sum that was added to her tax bill. Her lawyers wrote in 2015 that they were gifts from the same “extremely well-to-do Middle Eastern gentleman” who sent her the money.
When government investigators asked about the $15 million transfer, a bank official said that “the sender and beneficiary are boyfriend/girlfriend and are currently together in the Seychelles.”
Van der Merwe bought properties worth more than $10 million, including a house in Cape Town’s upscale Fresnaye neighborhood with an outdoor swimming pool and commanding ocean views. She also lent $2.7 million to a real estate company her father was involved with and made other transactions, leaving $537 000 in her account, she said.
Tax authorities considered her claim that the money was a gift implausible and suspected the funds had been for her father, Gary van der Merwe, a businessman who had fought repeated court battles with tax authorities over his own business dealings. Authorities levied income tax on the sum, froze Candice van der Merwe’s assets and appointed a curator to oversee them until the matter was settled.
So Hariri stepped in again, sending van der Merwe an additional $1 million to help cover her legal and living expenses, according to court documents.
In correspondence with tax authorities, van der Merwe’s lawyers acknowledged it was hard to believe that “such largess was bestowed on a young girl” by someone with whom she had “a casual relationship.” But van der Merwe insisted the money and cars were gifts for her personal use with no conditions.
She reached a settlement with tax authorities in 2016, which she appealed last year. A judge dismissed that case this month.
In January, she sued government officials for $65 million in damages she attributed to the tax authorities’ pursuit of her. Those documents made Hariri’s role in the case public this year.
In the suit, she argues that she had to sell the house because the asset freeze prevented her from paying for its upkeep. She also says the court cases and related publicity caused irreparable damage to her career and severed her link to Hariri.
“The plaintiff’s relationship with Mr Hariri was terminated, which resulted in the loss of financial benefits that would have accrued to her from the relationship if it had been allowed to persist without outside interference,” the suit says.