Thursday 21 September 2023

These Were Saddam Hussein’s Crazy Mega Yachts

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

''You Americans, you treat the Third World in the way an Iraqi peasant treats his new bride. Three days of honeymoon, and then it's off to the fields.'' (By Saddam Hussein)

Oligarchs' superyachts have garnered widespread attention due to their large size and lavish interiors. Many of these vessels feature helipads, pools, cinemas, dedicated hangars for speedboats and luxury cars and enough luxurious cabins to accommodate your in-laws. In fact, the largest superyachts are so colossal that they rival frigates in terms of size. In comparison, the yacht depicted in the header image might initially appear more akin to a cruise ship or even a Baltic ferry. However, do not be deceived by the vessel's appearance, for this floating palace stood as the most luxurious of its era. Named the Al-Mansur, it boasted a plethora of marble and gold-plated rooms, an impressive atrium, a dining room that could seat 200, a helipad with hangar and a mini-submarine escape pod. It is rumoured that this yacht was even equipped with two 9K31 Strela-1 SAM launchers concealed in the ship's superstructure.
Unlike Muammar Gaddafi, who at least made some efforts to pretend he disavowed luxury, Saddam Hussein quite openly flaunted his extravagant lifestyle, which included an extensive exotic and luxury car collection, a luxurious private train, a fleet of private helicopters from French, British, German and US manufacturers, and a Boeing 747SP four-engined airliner (which is currently for sale), in addition to several other VIP aircraft. With these many means of transportation, he could effortlessly travel between one palace and another, each the size of an entire city neighbourhood. When not engaged in warfare with Iran or razing entire Iraqi villages to the ground, Saddam and his family could relax aboard one of his three private yachts whose combined tonnage surpassed that of the entire Iraqi Navy. It is suffice to say that Saddam Hussein and his family enjoyed a life of extreme luxury until his downfall in 2003.

Unfortunately for Saddam, if there was one thing he cherished more than indulging in a life of luxury, it was launching invasions. To relish the sea breeze on one of his oceangoing yachts without becoming a target for enemy navies or air forces, Saddam needed to refrain from invading any neighbouring countries, as Iraq's limited 58-kilometre coastline and the absence of substantial territorial waters hindered the operation of yachts as large as his. Nevertheless, just a year after officially assuming power, Saddam launched his first invasion by attacking Iran. Despite anticipating a quick victory in the face of a severely weakened Iran, the Iran-Iraq War ultimately endured for nearly eight years. Throughout this period, Saddam's yachts remained moored safely in Iraqi and foreign ports, as Iran showed no interest in targeting the vessels. Following the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War in 1988, Saddam Hussein could finally use his oceangoing yachts. However, before he stepped aboard one of them, he launched an invasion of Kuwait.
The 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait marked the beginning of the end of Saddam's oppressive rule in Iraq and the extravagant lifestyle he indulged in. Eleven years prior, in 1979, Saddam formally assumed power as the President of Iraq. Alongside orchestrating the 1979 Ba'ath Party Purge, during which he called out the names of rival party members during an assembly meeting and had them escorted outside to be executed, he also ordered two private yachts from Denmark. These consisted of the Qadissiyat Saddam and the Al-Qadisiya, with the latter being a river yacht specifically designed for operations on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Designed by the Danish ship design bureau KNUD E. HANSEN and constructed at Helsingør Shipyard, these vessels were delivered in 1981 and 1982, respectively. [1] [2] Although Saddam couldn't utilise the 80-metre-long Qadissiyat due to the ongoing conflict with Iran, the King of Saudi Arabia would soon provide Saddam with a compelling reason to bring the war to an end.

While the Qadissiyat Saddam may not have matched the grandeur of the Al-Mansur, it was also brimming with luxury.

Apart from providing Iraq with tens of billions of dollars to help it fund the Iran-Iraq War and financing various Iraqi arms deals with France, King Khalid of Saudi Arabia also rewarded Saddam for his efforts in countering the Iranian threat (at least from the perspective of several Gulf countries) by gifting him a brand-new yacht. With an impressive length of 120 meters, the Al-Mansur, which translates to "the victor'', completely overshadowed the Qadissiyat Saddam. Remarkably, the ship was ordered by Saudi Arabia even before Saddam took delivery of the Qadissiyat Saddam. Similarly designed by KNUD E. HANSEN and constructed by the Finnish shipbuilder Wärtsila, the vessel was completed in 1982. The Al-Mansur surpassed the Qadissiyat not just in terms of size but also in its amenities; boasting deck armour, bulletproof windows, defences against swimmer incursions, a hospital, a helipad with hangar, an escape route connecting Saddam's suite to a mini-submarine escape pod and allegedly two 9K31 Strela-1 SAM launchers.

The Al-Mansur undergoing sea trials in the Baltic Sea. Note the helipad at the back and the large atrium amidships.

Following the completion of the Al-Mansur in 1982, the daunting task of sailing it to Iraq amid the ongoing Iran-Iraq War arose. In a 2005 interview with the Captain of the Al-Mansur, he described how bringing the brand-new yacht to Basrah in 1984 was primarily a stroke of luck rather than a result of meticulous planning. [3] The voyage its climax during a tense passage through waters under Iranian control, as the yacht made its way through the narrow Strait of Hormuz and entered the Persian Gulf on a dark February night in 1984. [3] Upon reaching the port of Um Qasr, the Al-Mansur joined the Qadissiyat Saddam already anchored here. The precise reason why Saddam opted to have the vessel undergo a dangerous journey to Iraq, only for it to ultimately become unusable, remains a mystery. What is known however, is that Saddam never even laid eyes on the ship. Whether this was due to his demanding schedule waging war against Iran or out of concern that visiting the ship might make it a target for the Iranians is unknown. Nonetheless, Saddam certainly did not conclude the war with Iran for the sake of using one of his yachts, and there's little debate that the gift from King Khalid, while generous, amounted to little more than a colossal waste of money.

The Al-Mansur still within the secure confines of Finnish territorial waters.

The huge waste of money becomes even more apparent when considering the vessel's opulent interior. Saddam Hussein appointed architect Dinkha Latchin to design the vessel's interior, a schematic of which can be viewed here. With Saudi Arabia covering the costs, Dinkha Latchin effectively enjoyed complete creative control. [4] According to Latchin, Saddam envisioned the Al-Mansur not only as his floating palace but also as a venue for conducting state meetings and accommodating foreign dignitaries. As Latchin called it: ''It was a cruise ship made with many rooms for meeting, and that was it, to meet in the middle of the Gulf States. It had to be central fair and square in meeting in no man's land, that was the whole concept of this ship''. [4] While Latchin's previous work for Saddam primarily revolved around the design of Iraqi embassies and cultural centers worldwide, his new role would entail serving as a ship design consultant in addition to his task of designing the interior of the ship. Nonetheless, the designers at KNUD E. HANSEN reassured Latchin by showing him the design of a ferry as tall as a six-story building, emphasising, "If we can make that float, we can make anything you design float, so don’t worry about it, we'll do it''. [4] Latchin also played a role in shaping the boat's exterior, extending it at the front to evoke the appearance of a dhow. Ultimately, this extension had to be shortened due to concerns that it would be vulnerable to damage from wave impacts. [4]

Several photographs displaying the interior of the Al-Mansur. The vessel remained unused throughout its existence and was eventually stripped bare by looters after 2003.

In Um Qasr, the Al-Mansur was moored adjacent to the Qadissiyat Saddam, named in honour of the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah that occurred in 636 CE, leading to the Arab-Muslim conquest of Iran. As Iranian forces advanced closer to the Iraq-Iran border, and subsequently into Iraq, the Qadissiyat was relocated for safety to Saudi Arabia in 1986. Curiously, the Al-Mansur was not evacuated and remained in Iraq. Even after the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam does not appear to have made any effort to reclaim the Qadissiyat. Instead, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait—triggered by Iraq's refusal to repay Kuwaiti loans from the Iran-Iraq War and the subsequent ill-fated invasion of Saudi Arabia—Saudi Arabia took possession of the Qadissiyat and renamed it Al-Yamamah. [5] However, since the Saudi King and his family had no need for an additional yacht, the ship appears to have remained mostly unused. 
Although Saddam Hussein did not benefit from the acquisition of the Qadissiyat Saddam, his staff in charge of procuring the presidential yacht certainly did. Throughout the negotiations for the vessel, they held firm on a demand for a 5% commission, as well as the provision of ten buses and four Mercedes cars, as a gesture of goodwill, before finally granting Helsingør shipyard the contract. [6] Ultimately, the Danes did not fulfill any of these requests. [5] While the ship was under construction, Iraqi officials meticulously inspected the shipyard to ensure strict adherence to Saddam's instructions. In a notable incident, one official insisted on replacing a bedspread intended for Saddam's suite because a worker had briefly rested on it during a break. [7] Much to the astonishment of the Danes, the worker was allowed to take the bedspread, following its costly replacement, and he used it on his own bed for many years. [5]

The bed of Saddam and the infamous new bedspread aboard the Qassidiyat Saddam.

Little is known about what the Qadissiyat Saddam was used for after Saudi Arabia took ownership of the vessel in the early 1990s. There are indications that the yacht, later renamed to Ocean Breeze, may have been gifted to Abdullah II of Jordan. The formal registration of Ocean Breeze was linked to a company in the Cayman Islands, a common practice in the world of superyachts to conceal the true owner. In the 2000s and 2010s, the new Iraqi government was determined to locate and repatriate Iraqi assets. When the Ocean Breeze docked in Nice in 2007, Iraqi authorities made a request for the vessel's ownership to be transferred to Iraq. [5] After several years of legal disputes, a court ruled in favour of Iraq in 2009, granting ownership of the ship. Following extensive repairs, the vessel returned to Basra in 2010 and was repurposed as a research platform for the University of Basrah's Marine Science Center and renamed Basrah Breeze. [5] In 2018, it was transformed into a floating hotel for Iraqi port pilots in Basrah, a role it continues to serve to this day. Similar to the Al-Mansur, Saddam ultimately never set foot on the Qadissiyat Saddam.

The Qadissiyat Saddam, later known as Ocean Breeze and subsequently renamed Basrah Breeze, can be seen here, once again in Iraqi ownership and serving the University of Basrah's Marine Science Center.

Saddam's choice to evacuate the Qadissiyat Saddam is the reason why the ship still exists today. The decision to keep the larger Al-Mansur in Iraq would ultimately lead to an entirely different destiny for the vessel. Incapable of sailing without the risk of encountering a US carrier strike group positioned off the Iraqi coast, the Al-Mansur remained dormant from 1991 to 2003. In 2003, Saddam issued an order to have the yacht relocated from its mooring in the port of Umm Qasr to Basrah's inner harbour. This move was undertaken with the hope that it might avoid being targeted, reflecting Saddam Hussein's lingering hope that his regime could somehow withstand the imminent invasion. Despite Saddam's intentions, the Coalition seemed to be convinced that the Al-Mansur served as a communications centre or command post for the Iraqi Armed Forces and Republican Guard, prompting the decision to neutralise the vessel. [8]
The initial strike came from a carrier-based US Navy Lockheed S-3 Viking aircraft, which targeted the vessel with a single bomb or missile, but failed to render it inoperative. Next in line were two F/A-18 Hornets, but their guided bombs missed the vessel entirely. [8] Growing likely frustrated by this point, given that their most advanced aircraft and weaponry had failed twice against an undefended private yacht, the U.S. then directed two F-14s to engage the Al-Mansur using 500lb Mark 82 bombs. [8] The first F-14 released its bombs prematurely, resulting in one detonating against the Al-Mansur's front hull armor without penetrating it. The second F-14, however, managed to strike accurately, hitting the midships atrium and causing a blaze on the vessel but still failing to inflict critical damage that could sink it. By this point, the resilience displayed by the Al-Mansur's defenses was starting to emerge as one of the few successes for the Iraqi Navy throughout the entire war, and it seemed that the US had enough. The vessel would ultimately capsize years later, not as a result of the damage inflicted by the US air attacks, but rather due to neglect.

The Al-Mansur, showing signs of damage following the 2003 U.S. air attacks. Pay attention to the bow section, where a Mark 82 bomb was unable to breach the ship's armour.

On the opposite side of the vessel, you can observe the consequences of one of the Mark 82 bombs released during the second attack run. It struck the ship at its most vulnerable point, causing a catastrophic fire.

While in possession of two ocean-going yachts outfitted with every luxury imaginable, the conflict with Iran (and later the US) effectively rendered them unusable for Saddam. Fortunately for him, Iraq boasts two substantial rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, capable of accommodating large vessels. Evidently, deeming it a shame to let these rivers go to waste, Saddam enlisted the services of the Danish KNUD E. HANSEN ship design bureau and Helsingør Shipyard in 1979 to design and construct a luxury rivergoing yacht. [2] The vessel was named Al-Qadisiya—a name shared with Saddam's Boeing 747SP, in honour of the Battle of Al-Qadisiya in 636 CE. Measuring in at a length of 67 metres, the ship was designed with a low profile to allow it to pass beneath the bridges spanning both the Euphrates and Tigris. Furnished with every conceivable luxury, including a hangar for small boats, the Al-Qadisiya was delivered to Saddam in 1982. Little information is available regarding the vessel's service in Iraq, and it has never been photographed within Iraq. Unfortunately for Saddam, the only yacht he could truly enjoy also happened to be the first one to sink, as the vessel was sunk in early 1991 during the Gulf War. [2] Today, it is still believed to lie at the bottom of an Iraqi waterway.

The Al-Qadisiya was intended for use on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Delivered in 1982, she was sunk during the Gulf War.

The aft portion of the Al-Qadisiya featured a dedicated hangar for pleasure craft and jetskis.

Today, what remains of Saddam's once opulent floating palaces is a rusted hulk situated in a waterway, alongside a yacht repurposed into a hotel. One could argue that the return of one of the yachts to the people represents at least one positive outcome. Nevertheless, the memory of the Al-Mansur's former grandeur still lingers in Iraq, as calls are made for the preservation of the wreck. [9] Whether funding will materialise for such an undertaking and whether preserving a looted wreck is truly a worthwhile pursuit remain uncertain. However, it is certain that something must be done with the ship, as the rusted hull poses a threat to the water quality of the river. [10] Regardless of what unfolds, one undeniable fact remains: Saddam's yachts certainly make for an intriguing tale four decades later.
[1] Qadissiyat Saddam - Design of 80 m luxury yacht
[2] Al Quadisiya - Conceptual Design of 67 m river yacht
[4] Saddam’s Love For The Sea — Interview with Architect Dinkha Latchin.
[6] Inside Saddam Hussein’s abandoned gold-encrusted superyacht with missile launcher and secret passage to mini-sub
[7] Grusom diktators vilde danske luksus
[8] March 27, 2003: The U.S. Navy F-14 Tomcats Attack On Saddam's Yacht 
[9] Saddam Hussein's rusting yacht al-Mansur now serves as a picnic spot for Iraqi fishermen
[10] Al-Mansur: How Saddam Hussein’s largest yacht became a local fishing spot in Iraq