Dealing with the devil

(Illustration: Executive Magazine/Karim al-Dahdah)

by Sami Halabi

Summer in the Middle East is typically a time when life slows down;  business deals are put off until everyone has finished their vacations and the weather has cooled off. So in August when Credit Suisse issued a statement that it was embarking on a $1 billion-plus fund “with a small group of Credit Suisse’s key shareholders,” it perhaps thought that no one would notice.

Not so. Almost immediately the Israeli press picked up on the announcement and began to report that the Jewish state’s economic prowess had once again managed to circumvent the Arab boycott. The reason being that Credit Suisse’s largest shareholders are the Qatari government’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) and the Saudi Olayan Group, who own 8.9 percent and 6.6 percent of Credit Suisse respectively, alongside Koor Industries (3.24 percent owners) — part of influential Israeli businessman Nochi Dankner’s empire.

Then it was the Western press’ turn to jump on the bandwagon with Reuters reporting that Koor’s parent company, Dankner’s IDB Group, would put up $250 million through its subsidiaries Koor and Cal Insurance — each contributing $125 million — to be matched by an equal contributions from “Credit Suisse and two of the bank’s largest shareholders.”

A sensitive issue

The QIA and the Olayan Group did not respond to Executive’s repeated requests for comment, while Credit Suisse said that they “don’t disclose or comment on the parties.” The query apparently raised some eyebrows, as several days after the request was made Executive was contacted by Credit Suisse’s Middle Eastern Public Relations contractor to confirm if it intended to cover the story.

“At a time when Israel is not exactly popular around the world, particularly the Arab world, the agreement by two large investment companies from the Gulf states to cooperate with an Israeli group is no trivial matter. It can even be assumed that they will come under fire for it,” wrote Israeli columnist Irit Avissar in business newspaper Globes on the day the announcement was made. “For the Saudis this is less worrying. There it’s a matter of a private body that can always use the Qatar government as a fig leaf for the approval of an investment alongside an Israeli company. The participation of Qatar, however, has real significance, because that is a matter of a sovereign fund of a very rich and important Arab country.”

The fact that the announcement came at a time when Israel and the Palestinian Authority were debating whether to re-engage in direct peace negotiations has prompted some to suggest that the impetus for the deal was a political sweetener for the Israeli’s via the Qataris.  “[Qatar’s] role in the peace process is to lubricate and the only thing they have to lubricate with is money and increasing normalization by trying to incentivize the Israelis,” said Karim Makdisi, professor of political studies and associate director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy at the American University of Beirut. “It’s like a woman lifting her skirt and showing you her leg saying: ‘Come on board, and you are going to get a lot of pleasure out of this.’”

It is difficult to gauge whether the move is in line with the QIA’s previous investment strategy because, given that the fund is considered one of the world’s less transparent SWFs, few people are really sure what that strategy is. According to the Linaburg-Maduell Transparency Index developed by the United States-based think tank the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, the QIA features on the lower half of the index with a score of 5 out of 10.

“The exact execution of the investment strategy of the QIA is very opaque,” said Sven Behrendt, Associate Scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. “There is no information about the strategic asset allocation, like other SWFs publish. Therefore one can only refer to anecdotal evidence.”

Profits over politics

According to Ashby Monk, co-director of the Oxford SWF Project, what that anecdotal evidence suggests is that pure economics rather than political considerations were the impetus for the deal. “I think the QIA saw a unique and compelling investment opportunity, and they took it,” he said. “I really doubt that the QIA is being used as a pawn in some sort of financial diplomacy.”

Monk explained that because the QIA, Olayan and IDB are all major stakeholders in Credit Suisse, it would most likely mean they received better terms and will sit on any investment committee that will make decisions regarding where to place capital.

That would mean that representatives of a Qatari state-owned agency, a Saudi company (albeit based in Greece), and representatives of an Israeli conglomerate will be sitting around the same table mulling investments. It’s not hard to imagine this not going over well with the Arab public, given the ongoing occupation of Palestinian lands.

At the same time, a number of non-Arab SWFs, such as the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, have excluded Israeli companies from their portfolios in response to their actions in the occupied territories.

“What is ironic is that you have an increasingly active global society that is just beginning [to boycott the occupation],” said Makdisi. “This [deal] is the opposite. The Arabs are saying to the Israelis: ‘Come join us in the middle and we will be your main markets, your main buyers of technology and at the same time we will have a common initiative to fight terrorism and the whole Iran/Hezbollah/Shia issue.’”

First published in Executive Magazine’s October 2011 issue.

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