An Israeli diamond billionaire was granted the rights in 2008 to explore half the iron ore deposits in Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world with one of the world’s largest unexplored reserves of iron ore, according to a report in the New Yorker.
The tiny West African republic of Guinea has a wealth of minerals including bauxite, the ore that makes aluminum, and significant quantities of diamonds, gold, uranium, and, off the coast, oil.
But Guinea has little industry, not much electricity and few navigable roads. Public institutions are barely functional and more than half the citizens are illiterate. “The level of development is equivalent to Liberia or Sierra Leone,” a government adviser in Conakry, Guinea’s ramshackle seaside capital, told the New Yorker.
One of the world’s largest known deposits of untapped iron ore is buried inside Guinea’s Simandou Mountains, which stretch for 70 miles.
In 1997, Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, one of the world’s biggest iron-ore producers, acquired exclusive rights to explore and develop Simandou. In 2008, Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese told shareholders that Simandou was the No. 1 undeveloped tier-one iron-ore asset in the world.
Soon after, the government of Guinea said that Rio Tinto was developing the mine too slowly, implying it was hoarding the Simandou deposit and keeping it from competitors while focusing on mines elsewhere, the New Yorker report said.
Guinean officials then granted exploration permits for half the deposit to Beny Steinmetz Group Resources, or B.S.G.R. – a much smaller company.
Steinmetz may be the richest man in Israel; according to Bloomberg, his personal fortune is around $9 billion. The New Yorker report says Steinmetz made his name in the diamond trade and rarely speaks to the press. The corporate structures of his various enterprises are so convoluted that it is difficult to assess the extent of his holdings.
Simandou is said to hold more than 26 billion tonnes of high grade ore worth more than $50 billion to whoever is granted the licence to mine it, according to a report in Mining.com.
B.S.G.R. spent $160 million on the exploration of Simandou, the report says.
The Simandou contract was a surprising addition to Steinmetz’s portfolio, because B.S.G.R. had no experience exporting iron ore, the New Yorker report says. A mining executive in Guinea told New Yorker, “Diamonds you can carry away from the mine in your pocket. With iron ore, you need infrastructure that can last decades.”