The Cambodian royal family has made headlines in France with the news that Prince Norodom Ravichak has made a €100 million ($117 million) offer to purchase top-flight French soccer club Saint-Étienne. The bid may be marred, however, by the prince’s business partners in Phnom Penh and Paris having been linked to an alleged bribe paid to a top official from FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, RFA can reveal.
Ravichak is a nephew of King Norodom Sihamoni. His public image is of a businessman and philanthropist, and French broadcaster France24 reported on Tuesday that the prince's business network straddles Europe, the Middle East and China, including close relationships with state-owned enterprises and investment funds.
In 2015, Ravichak registered Cambodia Consulting Group with the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce along with his brother Norodom Narithipong and two Qatar-based French nationals: brothers Ahmed and Abdelkader Bessedik. The following year, Ravichak and Ahmed also set up shop in Paris with another company named B&N Conseil et Stratégie, seemingly named for the initials of partners’ family names.
Business records in France and Cambodia indicate that the Bessedik brothers are the only co-owners of Ravichak’s companies who are not members of the Cambodian royal family, suggesting that their relationship is a close one.
His transnational ties to the Bessediks may prove problematic in light of his attempt to purchase Saint-Étienne, one of France’s best-known soccer clubs. While Saint-Etienne's glory days were in the 1960s and 70s, when it dominated French soccer, the club continues to play in Ligue 1, the country's top division, and has a sprinkling of international stars on its squad.
RFA has learned that around the time that Cambodia Consulting Group and B&N Conseil et Stratégie were being established, the Bessediks featured in a corruption investigation by Swiss law enforcement into Qatari media tycoon Nasser Al Khelaifi, who has been president of Paris Saint-Germain – another top flight French soccer club -- since it was acquired by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund in 2011.
The investigation examined allegations that former FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke had accepted a bribe from Al Khelaifi in return for the broadcasting rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups. The 2026 World Cup will be held in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The venue for the 2030 has yet to be announced.
The alleged bribe came in the form of 18 months exclusive use of a Sardinian villa, saving Valcke an estimated €1.8 million ($2.1 million) in rent. In return, prosecutors alleged that Valcke had given Al Khelaifi’s BeIn media group (where Ahmed Bessedik was a senior executive) preferential treatment in awarding it the World Cup broadcasting rights.
Both Valcke and Al Khelaifi consistently denied any wrongdoing in connection with the case, and in October 2020, a Swiss court found that neither were guilty of a criminal offense in connection with the villa – a ruling Swiss prosecutors have vowed to appeal. Confusingly, however, the court also found that the pair had nonetheless entered into a “corruptive arrangement” with regard to the villa and that they had “adopted unfair and unlawful behavior.”
According to the written judgement viewed by RFA, the court found that in December 2013, Al Khelaifi had purchased the villa via a Qatari company in which he and Abdelkader were shareholders that has been identified in media reports as Golden Home Real Estate.
Exchange of favors
He had done so, according to the court’s judgement, at the request of Valcke, who had put down a €500,000 ($587,000) deposit to purchase the property earlier in 2013, but had subsequently found himself without the means to complete the purchase. Unless the villa was bought by Dec. 31, 2013, Valcke would forfeit the sizeable deposit.
The court found that in exchange for this favor, and the rent-free use of the villa, Valcke “undertook to [Al Khelaifi] to use his discretion” as secretary general of FIFA to “promote and support the candidacy” of BeIn for the World Cup broadcasting rights.
Described in media reports as a close friend of Al Khelaifi, Abdeldader Bessedik is alleged to have played a key role in the transaction. On Dec. 9, 2013, Al Khelaifi incorporated a Qatari company “for the sole purpose of acquiring” the villa, the court found.
Three days later, he granted Abdelkader a general power of attorney over the company. When the transaction was completed on Dec. 31, 2013, it was Abdelkader that signed on behalf of the Qatari company.
Al Khelaifi and Abdelkader claimed in their statements to the court that Abdelkader had in fact been the intended purchaser of the villa. However, the court concluded that Al Khelaifi had been the true orchestrator of the purchase all along.
The news that Saint-Étienne may soon be owned by someone with extensive business ties to individuals alleged to have played a role in corrupting a top FIFA official will no doubt be troubling for fans of the club. However, fans’ distaste may not be enough to prevent the sale going ahead if management decide the prince’s offer is the best available.
Prince Ravichak is the son of Norodom Chakrapong, the half-brother of Cambodia’s King Sihamoni. Chakrapong was once a member of the ruling Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen, but fell afoul of its leadership and was forced to flee the country during a 1997 coup. He has since returned to Cambodia and quit politics.
Saint-Étienne president Bernard Caiazzo declined an interview request to RFA, citing non-disclosure agreements signed by the club and all parties bidding for it.
Neither Cambodia Consulting Group, Ravichak nor his representatives responded to detailed requests for comment.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Jack Adamović Davies.