PARIS – For sale: A palatial pleasure yacht with swimming pools, opulent salons and, should the winds of war blow, a rocket launcher and mini-submarine.
The sale of the 269-foot Ocean Breeze, built for Saddam Hussein and docked on the French Riviera, could be thwarted, however, if Iraq can prove it belongs to someone in the late dictator's entourage — and now, therefore, to the government in Baghdad.
A court hearing will likely be held in March to determine the rightful owner.
The government in Baghdad suspects the yacht, which French authorities seized on Jan. 31, is still Iraqi. But the posh yacht brokerage firm Nigel Burgess says other owners, whom it will not name, have asked it to sell the vessel. The price has reportedly been set at $35 million.
Viewing is strictly forbidden, but several photos of the interior 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.
A desert fox more than a sailor, Saddam never used the boat he had built in 1981, according to a lawyer representing the Iraqi government, Ardavan Amir-Aslani.
In fact, it barely spent time in Iraqi waters. As war with Iran raged, the vessel was moved to the safety of Saudi Arabia's Red Sea port of Jiddah in 1986.
The vessel was originally called "Qadisiyah Saddam." The name appears to have been an attempt by Saddam to cast his war against Iran in Quranic context, drawing on an epic battle against the Sassanian Persian army that was part of the conquest of the region by the Arab Muslim army around A.D. 630.
Saddam often tried to cast the 8-year-long Iran-Iraq war in religious context, a push to shore up his image as the new Arab and Muslim leader staving off the onslaught of Shiite Persians.
The vessel reportedly remained at Jiddah until last fall, when it showed up in Nice with a new name, "Ocean Breeze," embossed on its streamlined white hulk, Amir-Aslani said.
Its ownership is now as uncertain as Iraq's shifting sands, shrouded in mystery and perhaps intrigue. A cohort of Saddam? A Saudi royal? Or a jet-setter 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 by telephone. 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.
The vessel, however, has a Caribbean connection. A "legal entity" incorporated in the Cayman Islands claims to own the boat, the lawyer said, but it is hiding the "beneficial owner." Whom that may be "is what we need to discover."
This is not the first time Iraq has sought the return from France of Saddam's treasures. Just months ago, it successfully reclaimed a villa in Cannes, Amir-Aslani said. Other cases are pending, but he refused to give details.
When it hears of assets that may belong to Saddam or his entourage, the lawyer said, "Iraq immediately reacts."
The vessel now bobs majestically in the port of Nice, an "extremely luxurious" gem, said Amir-Aslani, who paid a visit.
According to an account 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.
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-submarine for escape if the vessel comes under attack. It was unclear whether the mini-submarine is still part of the yacht, but the Le Figaro account implied that it is.
There have been other floating pleasure fortresses. 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," Alev Karagulle of Nigel Burgess Yachts said of the Ocean Breeze. But its owners have ordered that "absolutely no information" be given to the media, she said.
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."
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, renamed Al-Yamamah and then passed on to the Jordanian monarch.
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.
The Persian Gulf region "is a very aggressive environment for a boat" so costly refitting might be needed. But if the reported price of $35 million is accurate, it could be a bargain. Building the vessel today from scratch could cost upward of $150 million, Draper said.