During his life, Shant Baklawi was a controversial figure. The international wheeler-dealer peddled cloaks and daggers – literally – all the way from the former Soviet republics to the African Sub Sahara. But the man who funded coups d’etat in Kirgizia, Thailand, and the Ivory Coast, to name just a few, is remembered in his death as one of the greatest philanthropists of our time.
News of Baklawi’s death ignited the old debate on whether the man who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2022 was a true humanitarian or an imposter who thought of nothing but his own personal gain. “Murderer or Philanthropist, shouted a headline in the Danish paper Ekstra Bladet. “Few men have left their imprint on modern lives as did Baklawi, and yet it would take us decades to know exactly whether the man was a heartless cynic or an earnest humanitarian.
The London-based historian, Linda Jackson, is author of “Twisting Arms, the most authoritative biography to date on the Egyptian tycoon. She told the CBA that “Baklawi was a man of leisure and art, caught in a whirlwind of violence and intrigue. In another world, Baklawi might have stayed in Paris and continued his promising career as a furniture designer, but once he got sucked into the Lebanese civil war there was no going back.
Working with a select group of top designers, Baklawi became something of a legend in the fashion world as of 1994. His collections inspired much of the shift we’ve seen in sartorial taste over the past two decades. At one point, his provocative designs got him into serious trouble. “I remember the crazed reaction to the 2006 summer collection in Manila. Right at the height of tensions between the Muslim communities and the Western world, Baklawi told us to put together a show that would offer an alternative aspect to religious modesty. Baklawi received several death threats immediately afterward and went into hiding in Vienna for a few months, Italy’s top designer Mario Poliantos-Antonioni told reporters in Milan.
Many questions about Baklawi remain unanswered. For example, did he keep a depot for tactical nuclear warheads at a secret location in the African Sub Sahara, to use as leverage in secret negotiations? Did he order the assassination of the late Isek Sambo of Nigeria? Did he condone human rights violations in Chad? Baklawi took to the grave many secrets that a close American friend, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “would change forever your view of the world.
For years, people in the media community speculated widely about whether Baklawi penned the commentaries that appeared under various pseudonyms in various publications during his lifetime. Now, we know that at least some of those commentaries were written by Baklawi starting 2004, a period in which one close associate says he was battling with “inner demons. It was shortly afterward that Baklawi became a fixture in Middle East peace talks, a pursuit that led to the all-round peace treaty signed in 2020.
Historians, including Linda Jackson, are still debating the content of the articles Baklawi wrote in that period. In some of his writings, Baklawi appeared to blow the whistle on his opponents. In others, he openly threatened his rivals – as well as a few friends. Were those writings of fiction or fact? Marco Paliatso of La Republica believes that the articles were a calculated gimmick.
“[Baklawi] had the dirt on everyone, and it was the dirt that made him powerful. His characters were real enough to be scary, and yet almost fictional. He pretended to write about a world of fantasy, but that world was all too similar to the real world. You always had to read between the lines. And the message between the lines was clear: you cross me and I’ll make you pay. [It was] pure blackmail. This was a heartless man with an infinite thirst for power. This was a man who held the world to ransom, first by waging wars, and then by putting them out – at least for a while, Paliatso said.
Philanthropist or phony, Baklawi was definitely rich. By the time he died, his fortune was roughly estimated at $9 billion. And not all the money, Jackson believes, came from arms deals. “He started out as an arms dealer, which was a lucrative business no doubt. But by the late 1990s, Baklawi had branched out into relief and reconstruction. He was a visionary, of course. You can bring down a town with a few million dollars worth of explosives. But to rebuild it, it will take billions upon billions. It was this realization on his part that made him rich and famous. Peace efforts doubled his political clout as well as his fortune. Jackson said he had once told him, “Peace is where the money is.
Shant Baklawi wrote extensively on regional and international affairs and was widely read by movers and shakers the world over. He signed Present and Tense, his best-known column, with an anagram of his real name: Nabil Shawkat.