May 20, 2010
Qataris score own goal in banking stoush
Eric Ellis, Doha
WHAT is more important, money or liberty? David Proctor is in no doubt - it is liberty every day of the week.
In 2007, the British banker and his Australian wife Trinh were lured by big salaries and prime ministerial patronage to the tiny, gas-rich Gulf emirate of Qatar, which sucks about $200 million a day in gas revenue from its sand and sea. Hired to start up the PM's new bank, Al-Khaliji, Proctor would leave Doha after a few years a very wealthy man if it went well.
But it didn't, as The Age highlighted in January. Proctor got embroiled in a power struggle among the sheikhs of Qatar's remote and unaccountable royal family.
Fed up, he resigned last year from the bank he had quickly made profitable. But instead of being allowed to leave Doha and get on with his life, a powerful sheikh flexed his muscles to show who was boss.
This is common in the Gulf, where employers wield a quasi-state authority to issue approval for exit visas for unwitting expatriates. Al-Khaliji's chairman, Hamad Bin Faisal Bin Thani Al-Thani, would not issue one to Proctor. And so for 14 months, Proctor was unable to earn an income. He lived month to month in a spartan flat, drove a borrowed car and communicated by prepaid mobile phones and Skype. With Qataris refusing to engage him, and now being deserted by former associates who wanted a quiet life, Proctor was under surveillance and was separated from his family, who had fled to Singapore lest they be also caught up in the nightmare.
Proctor's salary was withdrawn as he desperately tried to engage Sheikh Hamad for approval to leave. Proctor unwittingly wrote a cheque for groceries against an account he had held at the bank, unaware that Hamad had closed the account, bouncing the cheque.
Proctor's own government was no help, Whitehall figuring one man's torment was a small price to pay for keeping Qatar's gas spigots flowing for Britain. Except for his wife and family, Proctor was abandoned.
''There were dark moments when I felt I would be here forever,'' he said.
But as far as muscle-flexing goes, this was a spectacular own goal by the Qataris. Denying exit visas to departing staff is often deployed to avoid making expatriate severance payments.
But if Hamad was trying to make some sort of point over Proctor, whom Al-Khaliji was contractually obliged to pay about $500,000, it backfired big-time.
Proctor generated media interest, and the media were indeed interested in a fabulously wealthy place it knew little about. Since this was aired, the sensitive Qataris have endured a welter of negative publicity internationally, the stuff that its own al-Jazeera would not dare run about its patrons. It also got visits from UN rapporteurs and human rights officials directing them to get their visa house in order and smarten up to international norms.
The matter also focused an unwelcome spotlight on the problems of plenty in a country that last week bought the storied Harrods with a month's gas revenue. The emirate is officially designated by the International Monetary Fund as the world's richest country. About 80 per cent of Qatar's population are non-Qataris, and they have the practical jobs that keep the country ticking, such as banking and extracting all that gas. Untaxed Qataris seethe that they are a minority in their own country.
The one institution run by Qataris - the government - is notoriously inefficient. Departments are often closed. It took six months for the government to respond to an information request by this correspondent, only to reject it. Asked why it took so long, the spokesman (they are always men) said: ''This is government and there are many procedures which need to be done.''
Another issue the Proctor affair exposed was how Qataris' banks are propped up by their government, revealing the very serious matter of moral hazard - that if a banker knows he will be bailed out by the government, why change his practices?
After Proctor left Al-Khaliji, Hamad got the Qatari central bank to support it, where his brother is deputy governor.
Such bailouts were common in the wake of the 2008 crisis, but where Qatar differed from the US or Britain was that aid did not go to the balance sheet or shareholding support as it did with Citibank or Barclays. At Al-Khaliji, it got taken above the line as profit and was sent to shareholders. Regulators did nothing.
The world now knows more of Qatar, partly because Qatari nabobs detain people like Proctor against their will - and in Qatar, the UAE and Bahrain, there are dozens like him, because sheikhs are never wrong.
For Proctor's part, it had the desired effect. On April 29, he was able to leave - he thinks because someone in the Al-Thani hierarchy ''got'' that the matter had gone on long enough and Qatar's image, carefully burnished with expensive PR campaigns, was now being hurt. He flew to Singapore, to the arms of his family. He told me ''it was only after the wheels of the plane had left the tarmac'' that he believed his nightmare was over. He will never return to Qatar, and advises others to do the same.