The Good Life
Yogesh Mehta — sometimes known as “Yogi” — presents himself as a modern chief executive, often sporting gray suits and bright ties while serving up inspirational business aphorisms.
“Dreams have to become reality, and the way to make dreams a reality is the endeavor, the enterprise, and the real vision you have,” he said in one interview. “Entrepreneurs are born,” he said in another, “and if you aren’t, then you can never become one.”
Now 62, the Mumbai native often recounts how he came up working at his father’s chemical business after earning a degree in chemistry.
After a series of business failures, he fell into debt and moved to Dubai in 1990 to try for a fresh start. There, he established a small chemical distribution company with another Indian expatriate. In 1995, Mehta broke away and started a new venture, Petrochem.
The business made him a wealthy man. By 2011, Mehta had accumulated nine luxury cars and a summer mansion in London, according to a report that year in Arabian Business. A few years later, he reportedly spent 14 million British pounds (around $21 million at the time) on a three-day celebration for his son’s wedding in Florence, featuring an 1,800-member cast and crew including Indian dancers, Italian sopranos, mimes, and fire throwers.
His family’s villa on Dubai’s “Millionaire’s Row” includes a nightclub, and he has reportedly become close with Bollywood celebrities, including superstar actor and producer Amitabh Bachchan. He is also an enthusiastic wine collector.
“Money is a very important grease to the machinery of a good life,” Mehta told Arabian Business. “Without the good life, why are we even living? We might as well be robotic animals.”
His chemical empire continued to grow. In 2018, Mehta’s business partner decided to sell his Petrochem stake, giving Mehta and his son, Rohan, control of the business.
Today, Petrochem claims to be one of the world’s largest chemical traders, and the top chemical distributor in the Middle East and Africa combined, with operations in over 80 countries and offices in the UAE, India, Singapore, Taiwan, and China. The
concern reported $1.1 billion in revenues in 2017, and Mehta has said that turnover had reached $1.5 billion in 2019.
The following year, a bust at Mumbai’s port would give the first glimpse into one previously unknown aspect of his business’s operations.
Bust of the Chem Trader
When the Marshall Islands-registered MT Chem Trader docked in Mumbai on January 25, 2020, customs officials were waiting.
According to its official papers, issued by a UAE-based marine service provider called Atlantic Global Shipping, the small tanker had been on a circuitous and counterintuitive journey over the previous seven days.
The bills of lading showed that the ship had carried two petrochemicals — toluene, which is commonly used to make paint, and mixed xylene, an industrial solvent — from the Indian port of Mundra to the Emirati port of Jebel Ali. It had then carried different loads of the same two chemicals back to India, this time to Mumbai.
Apart from the exchange’s circular nature, another aspect should have raised eyebrows: India is highly dependent on toluene imports, meaning that exporting significant volumes to the UAE from there would make little commercial sense.
An industry insider with direct knowledge of Petrochem operations told Mumbai customs officials that the route described in the Chem Trader’s documents was fictitious. He reported that the shipment it had just brought to Mumbai had originated not in Jebel Ali, but in the Iranian port of Bandar-e Imam Khomeini, to be delivered to the UAE, China, and India.
The Mumbai officials seized and offloaded the shipment. According to documents from the bust obtained by OCCRP, the ship’s captain admitted under questioning that the paperwork was false and the chemicals had been loaded in Iran. The captain also said he had been instructed to lie. Seizure documents do not say if he identified who gave him those instructions.
The false documents do indicate who was behind the ship’s journey: They show that one of the fraudulent orders it carried had been commissioned by an Indian branch of Petrochem for delivery to its Emirati branch. Five other companies were also involved as shippers and receivers, at least four of which are Petrochem proxies or associates.
Documents obtained by OCCRP and authenticated by a senior Indian customs official show the ship’s real journey to Iran.
The Iran-issued documents showed that the Chem Trader had picked up its cargo in the Iranian port of Bandar-e Imam Khomeini. Unusually, neither document notes the “consignee” or “notify address” — that is, those who are accepting and receiving the cargo.
A bill of lading issued in Iran on January 12, 2020, showed that the Chem Trader picked up a cargo of 5,503 metric tons of mixed xylene from Iran’s Bandar-e Imam Khomeini port, headed for China.
A second bill of lading, dated January 14, shows about 5,000 metric tons of toluene were loaded at the same Iranian port and headed to India.
Chem Trader was soon released. It was not clear how the case was settled, but a customs official said that similar cases are usually resolved out of court through the payment of a fine. The ship has since been renamed several times and is still sailing.
The seizure of the Chem Trader’s cargo represented just a sliver of Iran’s annual petrochemical exports, but it is the only time Petrochem has been caught moving Iranian goods. It also provided a rare glimpse into how such operations are structured.
A Circular Trade
Satellite tracking data gives more insight into Chem Trader’s movements.
Data obtained from MarineTraffic, a real-time shipping tracker, shows Chem Trader left the Indian port of Mundra on January 7, and then apparently disabled its
automatic identification system
in the Arabian Sea on the following day.
Almost all ships used in trade are outfitted with satellite transponders as part of the “AIS” system, used to manage marine traffic. Ships that are smuggling or fishing illegally often turn off their AIS, putting other vessels at risk of collision.
According to its Iranian documents, the ship loaded a cargo of petrochemicals in Bandar-e Imam Khomeini on January 14. By the time it apparently turned on its tracker the following day, it was approaching the Emirati port of Jebel Ali. Once it arrived, additional documents were issued claiming that it had loaded its cargo there.
Use the arrows to follow the voyage of the Chem Trader from India to Iran and back.
Based on the volume of cargo seized by Mumbai authorities, the ship appears in fact to have unloaded part of the Iranian cargo in the UAE, which has a domestic petrochemical market and is also a redistribution hub. It then set sail for Mumbai with its remaining Iranian petrochemicals, where it was apprehended by customs authorities on January 25.
Analysis of ship tracking data from two other vessels hired by the proxy companies linked to Mehta — the MT Patriotic and the MT Taihua Glory — shows that they followed a similar pattern of movements. In both cases, the ships arrived in the UAE before disappearing from AIS screens for multiple days near Iran.
In the case of the Patriotic, the tracking data shows that it was in or around the Emirati ports of Fujairah en route to Al Jubail before disappearing on January 20. It reappeared briefly two days later, displaying what appear to be false coordinates showing it to be near Russia, before vanishing for another 15 hours, reappearing near the UAE, and finally heading to India on January 29.
A map showing the movements of the Patriotic, which disappeared from tracking data on January 20.
The Taihua Glory, leased by the Dubai-based Kriscon, showed a similar pattern, departing India on October 9, anchoring in Dubai, and then disappearing for ten days. It reappeared on October 23 near the Gulf of Oman before heading back to India. OCCRP obtained a bill of lading that shows Taihua Glory, like the Chem Trader, was secretly loaded in Iran at the same port as the Chem Trader with roughly 2,000 metric tons of caustic soda on October 21, just two days before it reappeared.
A map showing the movements of the Taihua Glory, which disappeared from tracking systems for ten days before reappearing near the Gulf of Oman. Shipping documents show it was secretly loaded in Iran.
Jim Curtis, a retired U.S. Navy officer with experience in maritime surveillance, told OCCRP the ships’ movements suggested that they were being used to evade sanctions.
“Based on my observations during at-sea operations between 2004 and 2015, the behavior of these ships fits the profile of ships that are purposely busting sanctions in that area and conducting unsanctioned trade,’’ Curtis said in an email.
Irene Kenyon, a former intelligence officer at the U.S. Treasury Department and now director of risk intelligence at the consultancy FiveBy Solutions, agreed that Petrochem appeared to be evading sanctions.
“This does not look great,” she said. “At best, its leadership does not know what its employees are doing and is completely unaware of these violations, and that’s not a great look.”
In March, another piece of news suggested that further scrutiny may be on the way: The Financial Action Task Force, a global financial crime watchdog, said it was adding the UAE to a list of jurisdictions subject to closer monitoring, known as its “grey” list.
Research on this story was provided by OCCRP ID.
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.