Nightmare over for UK banker held in Qatar

(See also, “The Banker Who Couldn’t Get Out of Qatar”)

David Proctor, the prominent British banker held “hostage” for more than a year in Qatar, has finally been able to leave the gas-rich Gulf monarchy. Proctor arrived in Singapore from Qatari capital Doha on Thursday after being suddenly granted an exit visa to leave the emirate by his bank’s chairman Sheikh Hamad Bin Faisal Bin Thani Al-Thani.

Proctor had been unable to leave the emirate more than 14 months after he was ousted as chief executive of local bank Al-Khaliji Commercial Bank. In a fate that has befallen many foreigners who unwittingly fall foul of powerful Qataris, Proctor fell victim to what he says was a “bogus” investigation into his two years running the start-up Al-Khaliji. He likened his plight in Qatar to a powerful cat tormenting a stricken bird because it could.

Proctor says he has never been questioned by police or Qatar’s public prosecutor over his tenure at Al-Khaliji. But no charges were ever filed against Proctor in relation to Al-Khaliji, nor have Qatari legal authorities even confirmed there was an actual investigation. Sheikh Hamad refused to accept Euromoney’s telephoned inquiries this week after Proctor’s release. His secretary advised us to “stop annoying the Sheikh” before hanging up the phone.

Formerly the head of Standard Chartered Bank’s Middle East operation and a personal favorite of StanChart’s former chairman, the UK trade minister Lord Davies, Proctor was headhunted in 2007 from StanChart to run Al-Khaliji. Al-Khaliji was set up by business interests associated with Qatar’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabor Al Thani, a member of Qatar’s long-ruling Al-Thani family.

Under Proctor’s care, Al-Khaliji was quickly profitable and managed to outmanoeuvre the established Qatar National Bank in several significant deals in Doha, Dubai and Paris. But in the wake of the global finance crisis, QNB’s former deputy chairman, Sheikh Hamad Bin Faisal Bin Thani Al-Thani was installed as Al-Khaliji’s new chairman in February last year.

Proctor’s two-year tenure as CEO came quickly to an end but instead of being allowed to leave Qatar with his young family and resume his career elsewhere, Sheikh Hamad refused to issue Proctor with an exit visa and withheld his previously-agreed severance terms. Thus began a 14 month nightmare for Proctor and his family as he was abandoned by his former local allies and sought unsuccessfully in Qatar’s courts to engage the well-connected Sheik Hamad and Al-Khaliji.

Proctor’s plight was first highlighted in a cover story published by Euromoney in January. That article received widespread international attention and embarrassed Qatari authorities, leading to increasing business and media pressure to release Proctor. Proctor says British authorities refused to intervene meaningfully in the matter, which he describes as “pathetic” and “a lesson that British citizens should be prepared to be abandoned by their government.”

With no formal legal proceedings against Proctor, save what he describes as a “contrived” case over a cheque that bounced when Sheikh Hamad closed down his accounts and salary after his ouster, Proctor’s situation became increasingly desperate in Doha, with no clarity when or how he would be able to leave, if at all. Al-Khaliji would only say that Proctor was subject to a vague “external investigation”.

Approval of exit visas to expatriates in Qatar are primarily the responsibility of their employers, an arbitrary practice often abused and which is causing increasing alarm among foreign businesspeople as Qatar and its Shariah-based legal system becomes more integrated into the world economy.

With no official status in Qatar, Proctor was unable to work or earn an income. He lived month-to-month in a spartan one-bedroom flat, drove a borrowed car and communicated by pre-paid SIM cards and Skype. With Qatari and Al-Khaliji refusing to engage him, Proctor was under constant surveillance and was separated from his family, who had fled to Singapore lest they be also caught up in the nightmare.

He has seen his new-born son Sebastian for just two weeks, when his wife Trinh visited him last October in Qatar. But after Euromoney and other media published details of his situation, officials began engaging with Proctor, a process which led to the cheque-kiting charge being dropped and Proctor receiving a surprise call last week from his former deputy at Al-Khaliji, the now acting CEO Robin McCall, that his visa had been finally approved and he would be permitted to leave from Doha airport.

Proctor boarded a Qatar Airways flight to Singapore on April 28 and told Euromoney that “it was only after the wheels had left the tarmac” that he thought the nightmare was over. He will be re-united at the weekend with his wife Trinh, who was in London lobbying reluctant Foreign Office officials to step up pressure on the Al-Thanis when her husband won his unexpected release.

For his part, Proctor hopes to soon resume his banking career but says he has no intention of ever returning to Qatar, and recommends his colleagues in the international banking community follow his advice until Qatar “operates by internationally-accepted legal norms.”

“No-one should ever have to go through what I just did,” he says.