x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'An Agent of Deceit' brings thrills to the audit trail

His first spy novel is set in Moscow, Berlin and London. Now Chris Morgan Jones has his sights set on Dubai and "other places in the Middle East" for his next literary adventure.

Author Chris Morgan Jones in his office near his home in North London. Stephen Lock for The National
Author Chris Morgan Jones in his office near his home in North London. Stephen Lock for The National

"Ah, Mr Bond, I have been expecting you. As you can see we have set out for your inspection our complete accounts for the past three financial years. Please don't hesitate to let my chief financial officer know if you need anything ... calculator, pencil-sharpener, a large dose of caffeine tablets ..."

Let's face it. When it comes to finding a premise for a thriller, dodgy double-entry accounting is always going to seem a little dull set against global domination. After all, when we do finally get to see Tom Cruise abseiling down the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, it's a great deal more likely that his backpack will contain a Magnum Desert Eagle and a block of C4 than a calculator and a copy of Michael C Knapp's Contemporary Auditing: Real Issues and Cases.

All of which probably explains why tyro British author Chris Morgan Jones can fairly lay claim to having invented an entirely new subgenre of thriller with his new book, An Agent of Deceit. Let us call it the Manila thriller - as in the buff-coloured office envelope.

Yes, as advertised, the action takes place "against a background of Moscow, London and Berlin" and, yes, it comes wrapped in an appropriately Cold War-era jacket.

But no matter how hard the publisher, Mantle, tries to invite comparison with the most famous of all spy novelists (and the claim that this is "A gripping and sophisticated modern thriller in the vein of Le Carré" makes it sound more like a lethal injection for the great man and his entire oeuvre), in reality this is an insight into the mechanics of business intelligence agencies - work that largely involves dull audit trails, carried out on behalf of faceless corporations and governments.

Dull, that is, until the unravelling is taking place in one's own backyard.

King of the companies that does precisely this sort of work is Kroll and it is the 11 years that Jones worked for the "world's leading risk consulting company" - time spent advising "Middle Eastern governments, Russian oligarchs, New York banks, London hedge funds and African mining companies" - that have informed this book. Kroll has offices in Dubai and, for the past six months or so, in Bahrain too.

Happily for Jones, his thriller has caught the imagination of the publishing world. So much so that he is already at work on his second novel, "about the financial transactions between London and Dubai and other places in the Middle East". Inevitably, he is writing with one eye on the news and the tumultuous events unfolding in the region.

"I have to be careful what I say about Bahrain," he says. "The work that we were doing, while public, was very delicate. But what I can say is that it was part of a much broader and as far as I could tell very genuine, energetic anti-corruption campaign ordered up by the Crown Prince."

It is public knowledge that Kroll was hired in 2007 by Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa, Bahrain's heir apparent, to launch Operation Clean Hands, to "touch up the emirate's image and to bring private money into some of its state-run companies", in the words of a 2008 report by Intelligence Online.

Its first target was the national airline, Gulf Air, where its investigation led to the sacking of a senior executive. Next in the firing line was Alba, the majority state-owned aluminium company. Here, Kroll investigators found that two executives had taken backhanders from an American ore supplier and, according to Intelligence Online, unearthed a complex network of payments "through shell companies ... in Switzerland and in the Channel Islands". The prices that Alba was paying for ore "were inflated to conceal the cost of the bribes".

Even before the current protests began in Bahrain, the analysts were linking the corruption issue and the potential for political disruption.

"Certain quarters in Bahrain's ruling circles worry about the eventual impact of the Crown Prince's campaign on the local political situation," Intelligence Online reported presciently in January last year. "The Shiite opposition is already using cases of corruption at Alba as ammunition against the Sunni monarchy."

In Dubai, much more of Kroll's work was, and is, on behalf of financial institutions ("We were advising banks and private equity firms on the reputations of the business that they were planning to commit money to") and he quickly learnt that the typical Western perception of business life here was skewed. "I think we probably went in with a slightly Anglocentric business view and got very pleasantly surprised."

Not that there wasn't room for some improvement. According to Kroll's own Global Fraud Report for 2010-11, "the liquidity crunch did jolt the region's business culture". In the Gulf, the quality of corporate governance had "not grown as rapidly as the regional footprints of international corporations or the balance sheets of regional businesses; and the regional response to white-collar crime has shifted from denial to action".

The key change has been "in the attitudes of the regional elites - political, business and regulatory - to fraud. In the past, those with power went to great lengths to keep such issues behind closed doors, or at most to deal with them discreetly in the diwan and majlis. Now, there is an appetite to investigate and to pursue assets across borders and through the courts."

Globally, says Jones, he has handled "hundreds of cases over the years where you check out somebody on a client's behalf, and generally it's rather a heartening process; it's one in 15 cases where you find something quite unpleasant". The same was true of Kroll's work in Dubai and the wider Middle East, which was "interesting in how the region is perceived more broadly in the world".

"What we ended up concentrating on was not typically issues of corruption or terrorist financing, or any of the unpleasantness that people might associate with the Middle East, wrongly, in my view, but on the things you might concentrate on anywhere, [such as] the management team and its ability to manage a crisis."

And talking of crises, it is a testament to the unstoppable juggernaut of international moneymaking that business in Dubai has, so far as he can see, been wholly unaffected by current events throughout the region.

"I was speaking to my colleague not so long ago; I was expecting that everybody would immediately stop signing off on proposals ... but he's never been so busy."

Every book needs a villain, of course, and Jones says he has already cast his next one.

"In the first book the villain is ultimately some dark heart of the Russian state; in the second the equivalent dark force is the Iranian government, and I think they are rather darker than the Russians. In fact I think they could probably lay claim to being the nastiest administration on the planet, and they're up against pretty stiff competition."

Subjects such as politics and democracy are pretty touchy topics right now in the Middle East but, says Jones, "if there was a democratic revolution in Iran I would personally be utterly delighted, because - well, who wouldn't be? - but also because I think it is a very special place in all sorts of ways."

So does he know something the rest of us don't? Well, possibly not. After all, his intelligence has not always proved infallible. He quit Kroll "not to write, but actually to set up a hedge fund. Which was a brilliant idea but we got our timing horribly wrong.

"I resigned in April 2008, and left the company nearly six months later, two weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed ... my colleagues laughed me out of the door."

An Agent of Deceit by Chris Morgan Jones is published on May 6.