A palatial pleasure yacht fitted with swimming pools, salons and, should the winds of war blow, a secret passage and a rocket launching system is up for sale — unless Iraq can prove the vessel built for Saddam Hussein still belongs to the toppled dictator's entourage.
The 269-foot sea palace, docked at Nice on the French Riviera, was seized by French authorities Jan. 31 ahead of a court hearing expected to be held in March to determine who owns the vessel, originally built for Saddam when he ruled Iraq.
The government in Baghdad suspects the yacht is an Iraqi asset. But the posh yacht brokerage firm Nigel Burgess says that other owners, whom it will not name, have asked it to sell the vessel.
The company offers a brief photo tour of the vessel on its Internet site. The decor is sumptuous. The sale price is officially unannounced but reportedly set at 24 million euro (about $35 million U.S.).
A desert fox more than a sailor, Saddam never used the boat he had built in 1981, according to the lawyer representing the Iraqi government in the matter, Ardavan Amir-Aslani.
In fact, it barely spent time in Iraqi waters. As war with Iran raged, the yacht, originally called "Qadisiyah Saddam," was moved to the safety of Saudi Arabia's Red Sea port of Jedda in 1986, where it reportedly stayed until last fall.
Renamed yacht ties up in Nice
It showed up in Nice in late 2007 with a new name, Ocean Breeze, embossed on its streamlined white hull. Its ownership is now as uncertain as the shifting sands, shrouded in mystery, and perhaps intrigue. A cohort of Saddam? A Saudi royal? Or a wealthy jetsetter hiding behind a shell company?
"The yacht was ordered and paid for by the Iraqi government at the beginning. That is certain," the lawyer said in a telephone interview. Now, the Iraqis believe the vessel "may belong to Saddam's entourage."
"Iraq is basically trying to recover the money of the Iraqi people that was unlawfully transferred abroad," Amir-Aslani said.
However, the vessel has a Caribbean connection. A "legal entity" incorporated in the Cayman Islands claims to own the boat, the attorney said, but it is hiding the "beneficial owner," whose identity "is what we need to discover."
This is not the first time Iraq has sought the return of Saddam's overseas treasures in France. Just months ago, it successfully reclaimed a villa in Cannes, near Nice, Amir-Aslani said. He said other cases are pending, but he refused to elaborate.
When it hears of assets that may belong to Saddam Hussein or his entourage, "Iraq immediately reacts."
An ‘extremely luxurious’ gem
The vessel now bobs majestically in the port of Nice, an "extremely luxurious" gem, said Amir-Aslani, who paid a visit.
Viewing is strictly forbidden, but several photos of the interior shown on the Internet site of Nigel Burgess show an opulent Middle East-style decor in blue and gold hues that match the azure sea at sunset.
According to an account of the interior in the French daily Le Figaro, corroborated by Amir-Aslani, the Ocean Breeze, made for a 35-member crew, has about 10 rooms, several salons with large-screen TVs, pools, saunas, gold plumbing fixtures, a prayer room and a portable helicopter pad. In short, it is a floating version of the splendors of "The 1001 Nights."
Less glamorous but more telling of Saddam's real-world concerns are the bulletproof windows, a missile-launching system — disarmed — and a secret passage leading to a mini escape submarine.
This is not the first floating pleasure fortress, though it may be among the most elaborate. A yacht that belonged to the late East German dictator Erich Honecker was built to withstand poison gas attacks.
"We understand the attraction of the history behind this vessel," said Alev Karagulle of Nigel Burgess Yachts, which is representing the "Ocean Breeze" for sale. But its owners have ordered that "absolutely no information" be given to the media, she said by telephone.
Owners ‘haven't commented’
Asked whether the owners contest the Iraqi government claim, she said, "I don't really know. They haven't commented on the situation."
"There have been some (yachts) in the last few decades that have attracted interest, but by and large not a lot of yachts garner this much media attention because of their interesting histories."
Superyachts, as monster luxury yachts are called, are the "ultimate status symbol for billionaires," said Phil Draper, editor of the British quarterly Superyacht Business. There are only about 30 in the world of this size or larger, he said.
Saddam actually had a larger yacht than the one in Nice, the Al-Mansur, named after the caliph who founded Baghdad, but it was bombed into a floating scrap heap by U.S. warplanes in 2003, the year Saddam's regime was toppled. The dictator was hanged in December 2006.
Iraq wants this one back — or the documents proving that someone else owns it.
Some unconfirmed reports claim the yacht was given to the king of Saudi Arabia and renamed Al-Yamamah then passed on to the Jordanian monarch.
Hearing expected in March
The Iraqi government attorney said the Nice commercial court was expected to convene in March, though a date has not been set.
If another owner, or his legal representative, does not show up, "it will make our job easier ... the court will only hear our arguments," the attorney said.
Karagulle said she felt "sure" the owners' representatives would attend.
The yacht's eventual sale should not be too tough if the market is any indication.
The market for superyachts "has gone absolutely crazy" over the last 15 years, said Draper, the expert, and "really accelerated" in the Middle East.
Still, the Gulf region "is a very aggressive environment for a boat" so costly refitting might be needed. But it's a bargain nevertheless. Building the vessel today from scratch could cost upward of 100 million euros (about $146 million), Draper said.