Canada and the World

ALL THAT GLITTERS

Alastair Ralston-Saul is looking to strike it rich in the republic of Tajikistan

ARAM ROSTON February 18 2002
Canada and the World

ALL THAT GLITTERS

Alastair Ralston-Saul is looking to strike it rich in the republic of Tajikistan

ARAM ROSTON February 18 2002

ALL THAT GLITTERS

Canada and the World

Alastair Ralston-Saul is looking to strike it rich in the republic of Tajikistan

ARAM ROSTON

The Oybek border crossing from Uzbekistan to northern Tajikistan is a lonely place, just a few shacks and barbed wire surrounded by barren, rustcoloured steppes. This is where busloads of peasants are forced to wait for days to get clearance, and grim-faced customs officials, paid less than $ 15 a month, often expect bribes before they let world-weary reporters and photographers continue their journey south toward the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

But Alastair Ralston-Saul puts his hands on his hips and towers above the group of unshaven men huddled in the chill near the dilapidated customs hut. “I’m here to kill Osama bin Laden,” the 57-year-old Canadian mining developer announces, loudly and deliberately. Then he starts

laughing, and the Tajik customs officers join in, gold teeth flashing and howling like a cadre of pirates when they hear the translation. The grizzled head of customs, a man with the muscled shoulders of a fighter, then guides Ralston-Saul off to a private room for vodka and toasts to friendship.

Such is the welcome back for RalstonSaul to this impoverished nation of six million people. It is not a prime destination: one of the poorest countries in the world, Tajikistan is a major conduit for heroin. It is run by an old-fashioned dictatorship and Soviet-style bureaucracy— here, the police practice an in-your-face style of bribery. Burned-out Soviet factories dot the landscape; gasoline is sold in jars at roadsides. “Canadians should not travel to Tajikistan,” warns a travel advisory from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. “And those

in the country should consider leaving.” Ever the adventurer, Ralston-Saul dismisses the government’s concerns. He is looking for gold in northern Tajikistan— and he thinks he already has control of a treasure trove worth almost $300 million. A broad-shouldered man, with a face as jolly as W.C. Fields’s, Ralston-Saul has ties to the top in Canada: his brother, John Ralston Saul, is one of the country’s best-known writers and the husband of the Queen’s representative in Ottawa, Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson. In Tajikistan, a country where visiting foreigners must still register at the decrepit offices of the former KGB, that sort of cachet may help open doors. But RalstonSaul, who unlike his brother hyphenates his name, says he doesn’t need to flaunt his links to Ottawa because “the Tajiks know—they all know.”

Ralston-Saul acquired his stake in Tajikistan after he took control of Vancouverbased Gulf International Minerals in 1998. The rough-and-tumble takeover battle turned ugly, but Ralston-Saul finally emerged victorious. Now, he predicts his company will soon pour its first gold bar. When he’s not in Vancouver or at his home in London, he operates out of Kairakkum, a windswept city in northern Tajikistan located about six kilometres from his main mine (the company is exploring some 10 sites in Tajikistan). His four-bedroom home inside a gated compound is built around an interior courtyard that boasts a lush green lawn grown from seed he brought in from England. It is a little oasis of Western culture, with satellite television, modern kitchen appliances, wall-to-wall carpeting and a bathroom that features a rare luxury in this rugged country: a shower with hot water.

The compound is also home to RalstonSaul’s son, William, a gangly blond-haired 20-year-old who runs the operation while his father is away. His title, William says, is basically “in charge,” and he and a handful of other expatriates of varying nationalities oversee a Tajik workforce of more than 200. “He was at Eton,” interrupts his

father, who spells out E-T-O-N for emphasis, before adding, “William has that tremendous confidence of the boys that graduate from Eton.” But when reminded that William later dropped out of college, he says, “degrees are irrelevant to being able to run things—you either have it or you don’t.”

Ralston-Saul lost his eldest daughter Arabella in a riding accident in 1992 (Clarissa, 25, his other daughter, and his wife, Lavender, live in London). But he doesn’t seem worried about having his son operate in such a dangerous place. In fact, he even seems to miss the civil war that was raging when he arrived in Tajikistan in 1996. “I remember you had to be frightfully careful going out to dinner,” he says, laughing. “You could look out your window and see bombs going off in the distance. Bullets flying all around. Brilliant! I loved it!”

Half an hour up a dirt road from RalstonSaul’s compound lies one of Gulf International’s sites. Called Aprelevka, it is a massive, tiered pit half a kilometre wide and about 70 m deep, where poisonous spiders and cobras like to congregate in summer. The digging started in 1986—

according to Ralston-Saul, the Soviets took out 30,000 ounces of gold—but was abandoned when Moscow’s empire collapsed. Enter Gulf International: Under the terms of a deal reached with the Tajik government in 1994, the company will operate the mine and nine other sites, and take 49 percent of any profits with the government getting the remainder. RalstonSaul claims that, according to company tests and previous Soviet calculations, up to a million ounces of gold are buried in the area. “We know how much gold we’ve got,” he said, gazing over the giant hole. “What we don’t know is how much more we’ve got.”

Ralston-Saul, who was raised in Calgary and Toronto, moved to Britain as a young man. There, he attended military college and then served as an officer in Britain’s parachute regiment, seeing combat in the Aden War in the late 1960s. In his quest to raise money to keep the mine open, the role of the swashbuckling former officer has served him well, not just as he eats rice and blackened chunks of greasy lamb in the rug-bedecked homes of the Tajik offi-

dais he does business with, but also as he negotiates in wainscotted halls thousands of miles away in places like Toronto, Vancouver and London.

And nothing, says Ralston-Saul, will stand in his way. “We’ve turned this company around,” he says, standing at the edge of the pit. In it are piles of rock that will soon be crushed into sand, then poured into vats containing a cyanide mixture. The highly poisonous brew turns gold into a liquid; the precious metal is then removed before the deadly cyanide sludge is drained into a huge tailing pond. “There’s nothing dangerous about it at all,” Ralston-Saul says with his usual exuberance, claiming that even flash flooding which might wash away the noxious tailings is nothing to worry about. “Oh yeah, yeah—so a few sheep might die,” he jokes.

“They do have some environmental rules, but they’re minimal.”

Later, as he drives past boys sitting atop their mules, urging them on with little switches, RalstonSaul again insists his company will soon be pouring gold bars.

But getting gold out of the ground is only part of the challenge. Tajikistan is a volatile place: The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, one of the terrorist groups condemned by George W Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, allegedly operates in parts of the country. “We take the necessary precautions,” Ralston-Saul says.

One such precaution is Richie Clark, a 25-year-old, sharp-faced ex-parachute regiment corporal from England. A sniper by training, Clark saw action in Sierra Leone, Kosovo and Northern Ireland; he’s left blood marks on the heavy bag in the company’s workout room from punching without gloves. He provides security for Ralston-Saul’s operation and oversees a force of 80 guards, some of them former members of the Tajik military. Life in Tajikistan suits him, Clark says sardonically. “I’ve been living in swamps and ditches so long,” he laughs, “so here it’s great.”

While Tajikistan can be chaotic, the struggle for control of Gulf International

was also turbulent. In the early 1990s, the company was run by Reginald Davis, a veteran Vancouver mining promoter. Davis inked the original agreement with the Tajik government and does not deny that he had to grease a few palms to get a deal signed. “They’ll say, ‘Gee, the other company gave me a Mercedes,”’ he remembers of the negotiations. “You don’t have to be shy about it.” The company began to attract investor interest after a 1995 press release touted Tajikistan gold deposits worth $1.6 billion and predicted gold bars aplenty by the end of the year.

In 1996 Ralston-Saul, who had already dabbled in diamond exploration in the Arctic Circle, was shopping around for another bit of mining excitement when he stumbled across Gulf’s plan to mine gold in Tajikistan. He and a group of other businessmen put several million dollars into the company. The problem, he complains, was that development of the mine was not moving ahead.

So, just as the civil war in Tajikistan was winding down, a war over the control of Gulf International began. By 1998, a battered Davis was out. Along the way, Ralston-Saul brought some big-time names onto Gulf’s board of directors, including his brother. “I wanted thinkers, not a board of stooges,” Ralston-Saul explains. Davis has a different take: “I think Alastair got him in on the deal because he thought he’d help him raise money.” But when Clarkson was named Governor General, her husband had to step down.

Back at the compound, Alastair Ralston-Saul says the takeover battle is ancient history. Now, he adds—again—he is looking forward to minting his first gold bar. Then he stirs some Moldovan wine into a batch of spaghetti sauce huge enough to last a week, and says that despite the dangers he faces in Tajikistan he wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’re not normal,” he says. “You can’t get things done if you’re normal here.” With a little luck, that attitude may make him very rich. E3