February 28, 2019 / 3:53 PM / 24 days ago

After Saudi king's letter, EU states move to block dirty-money list

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The adoption of a European Union money-laundering blacklist, which includes Saudi Arabia as well as Puerto Rico and three other U.S. territories, is likely to be blocked by EU states under a procedure launched on Thursday, two EU sources said.

The potential blocking comes after Saudi Arabia’s King Salman sent letters to all EU leaders urging them to reconsider the inclusion of Riyadh on the list, one of the letters seen by Reuters showed.

For the list to be blocked, a majority of 21 states is estimated to be necessary. One EU official said that more than 20 countries, including Britain, France and all the largest members, have already declared their opposition to the listing.

“An overwhelming majority” of EU states oppose the list, another official said. A meeting of national experts in Brussels on Friday is expected to clarify each of the 28 EU states’ positions on the matter, before a decision is formalised in the next two weeks.

The listing of the Saudi kingdom “will damage its reputation on the one hand and it will create difficulties in trade and investment flows between the Kingdom and the European Union on the other,” King Salman wrote.

Oil-exporting Saudi Arabia is a major importer of EU weapons and goods.

One diplomat said Washington has also pressured EU countries to scrap the list.

The U.S. Treasury Department said when the list was approved by the European Commission that the listing process was “flawed” and it rejected the inclusion of the four U.S. territories of American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam.

‘ROLLING OUT BIG GUNS’

The diplomat said the Saudi lobbying had intensified at a summit earlier this week of EU and Arab League leaders in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

At that meeting, British Prime Minister Theresa May discussed the issue with the Saudi king, the diplomat said, adding that Britain and France are leading the group of EU countries opposed to the kingdom’s inclusion on the list. That confirmed a Reuters report earlier in February.

The diplomatic pressure continued on Wednesday when all EU ambassadors in Saudi Arabia were summoned to a meeting at the finance ministry to discuss the matter, the EU diplomat said.

Riyadh has threatened to cut contracts with EU states if the list is approved, one EU official said. “They are really rolling out big guns,” another diplomat said.

The blacklist was first adopted by the EU justice commissioner Vera Jourova on Feb. 13 in line with new EU rules to prevent money laundering and as part of a process agreed with EU states since last summer.

The decision came as Saudi Arabia faces heightened international pressure after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2.

FATF LIST

Twenty-three jurisdictions are on the provisional list, including Nigeria, Panama, Libya, the Bahamas, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Afghanistan.

For the first time, the EU listing used different criteria from those used by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which is the global standard-setter for anti-money laundering.

The FATF list is much smaller and does not include Saudi Arabia and U.S. territories.

Countries are blacklisted by the EU if they “have strategic deficiencies in their anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism regimes that pose significant threats to the financial system of the Union.”

Under the new EU methodology, jurisdictions could also be blacklisted if they do not provide sufficient information on company ownership or if their rules on reporting suspicious transactions or monitoring financial customers are considered too lax.

Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Hugh Lawson, Catherine Evans and Frances Kerry

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