x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Al Sanea discovers the pitfalls of wealth

When F Scott Fitzerald said: "The rich are different from us", his fellow American novelist Ernest Hemingway replied: "Yes, they have more money."

When F Scott Fitzerald said: "The rich are different from us", his fellow American novelist Ernest Hemingway replied: "Yes, they have more money." Nowhere was the truth of this observation more apparent than in London's High Court last week when Maan al Sanea, the Kuwait-born billionaire, applied to have a freezing order lifted on his estimated US$9.2 billion (Dh33.8bn) of assets worldwide. Mr al Sanea had been given US$10,000 a week to cover his personal expenses, but this was clearly not enough. The court heard that he needed US$800,000 a month to pay his electricity, water and mobile bills - the kind of necessities to which we can all relate, even if of a different magnitude.

But then his counsel uttered a statement that has already been added to the lexicon of great courtroom one-liners: "He has a zoo, m'lud." Mr al Sanea, it turns out, has a private zoo in the grounds of his palatial home near Al Khobar, in Saudi Arabia's eastern province. Fodder for lions and giraffes does not come cheap, I am sure, so the judge took pity on him and increased his allowance to US$4 million a year.

Even so, those poor beasts will have to survive on half rations until their owner can get the freeze completely lifted. The hearing was adjourned until December. The next phase in the war between Mr al Sanea and the al Gosaibi family, who have accused him of stealing at least US$10 billion from them in a sustained campaign of fraud and forgery, will be keenly awaited, and not just by the ravenous beasts. The lawyers, too, will wait with trepidation to see how much further the greatest corporate scandal in Saudi history has to run.

The legal eagles have now got used to the rich pickings. It has been played out in courts from the Gulf to the Caribbean, taking in New York, London and Geneva on the way. It would be cruel indeed to cut off their food supply now. I doubt that will happen any time soon. All the signs are that the confrontation will run and run. In fact, the legal and political fallout from the scandal appears to be mushrooming, in Saudi Arabia, Britain and the US.

In Saudi, there are signs that the authorities are finally gearing up to take action on the affair. So far, the kingdom's financial authorities have let the two sides get on with it, almost appearing to wash their hands of the whole business, though acutely conscious of the embarrassment it brings on the Saudi establishment. Last month, the governor of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority (Sama) said there was no evidence of fraud in the kingdom, and he was not proposing any intervention to underwrite bank losses, estimated at some US$5 billion for Saudi banks.

That may still be the public position, but beneath the surface the situation has subtly changed. Saudi sources tell me that Sama has handed investigation of the matter to a "hayat al talqeeq" - a government investigative body that can prepare evidence for prosecution, if it sees fit. Exactly what will be investigated is still open to speculation. Mr al Sanea has reached an agreement with his creditors in the kingdom designed to head off further confrontation with Saudi banks. The international banking system, left out of that deal and still billions out of pocket, is not happy with that.

They may get their revenge in the US and Britain. Most of the legal action has been concentrated in New York and London, with moves by banks from the Gulf, Europe and the US to retrieve funds they claim are owed to them from transactions involving al Sanea and al Gosaibi entities. In the US, the affair could become a very hot political potato. The Patriot Act was passed after the September 11 attacks in 2001, designed in part to monitor and prevent the transmission of large sums from what the Americans consider to be "sensitive" parts of the world.

Now it appears many billions of dollars have been passing between Saudi Arabia and New York in deals designed as foreign exchange or corporate treasury transactions. Bank of America has been prominent on the US side of these transactions. I hear that congressional interest has been sparked by the movement of these huge sums, and that they are also on the radar of London financial regulators. There is no suggestion Mr al Sanea or the al Gosaibis were party to any suspect transaction, but the mere fact that billions of dollars could be moved around the globe in this way, unnoticed in the normal flow of world financial dealings, is bound to raise the Americans' hackles.

The rich are different from us in another way, too. Their actions provoke greater scrutiny. @Email:fkane@thenational.ae