Nicolas Pelham

1843 Magazine, The Economist

Nicolas Pelham has spent three decades reporting on the Middle East. His skill and rigour have enabled him to repeatedly produce truly remarkable pieces of journalism, including a profile of Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, which broke new details about the prince’s ruthless behaviour towards associates and political rivals. This year, for 1843 magazine, Pelham has written two more brilliant investigations on corruption in the Middle East.

The first took Pelham to Morocco, whose population is facing the same problems that have roiled so much of the Arab world over the past decade: mass unemployment, soaring inflation and oppressive security services. Addressing these issues would require King Mohammed VI’s full attention. Yet after meeting a German-Moroccan kickboxer and his family in 2018, he seemed to vanish.

Drawing on a deep network of contacts in the Maghreb, Pelham, a fluent Arabic speaker, unfurled a compelling tale of court intrigue, privilege and psychological conflict. Through interviews with court insiders and those close to the king he exposed the kickboxers’ Rasputin-like influence over the monarch, the lavish lifestyle they lead, and its impact on Moroccan politics.

As the Financial Times noted, the piece proved explosive within the Moroccan elite. Privately, court insiders credited it with forcing the King back to his duties. Deep dives into North African politics don’t usually go viral but this one was read by more than half a million people – a testament to the depth of Pelham’s reporting and the flair of his storytelling.

The other feature took Pelham to Iraq, where last year, investigators discovered that $2.5 billion had gone missing from a bank account belonging to the government. The money – equivalent to Iraq’s entire health-care budget – had been withdrawn in cash with the full support of officials and driven through Baghdad in trucks. Why did nobody stop the trucks? And why did officials seem to be so blasé about where the money went?

To answer these questions Pelham went to Iraq, trawled through hundreds of unpublished documents and interviewed dozens of officials, including the prime minister and the head of the judiciary. The result is an extraordinary investigation that recreates the details of the heist for the first time as vividly as a Hollywood screenplay. No mere caper, the piece takes the reader on a journey through the dark world of Iraqi politics, in which foes use official investigations to undermine each other – and the truth gets lost along the way.

Shortly after the piece came out the Iraqi authorities – apparently stung – asked Interpol to help track down suspects abroad. A film accompanying the piece uploaded by The Economist has been viewed more than a million times, and has been circulated widely in the region.

Pelham’s reporting will help ensure that public demands for justice don’t fade away. The real-world impact of his work this year has reaffirmed the importance of the free press in holding power to account across the world.