With regime change taking place in Tunisia and Egypt, and Libya potentially going the same way, international corporate investigators are preparing for a bumper crop of business opportunities.
Asset hunters spy big game
It is their job to track down and, where possible, recover assets stolen by former dictators, and they have a track record of successful "hits": Saddam Hussein of Iraq; Manuel Noriega of Panama; and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, as well as several politicians in Africa, are all regarded as "scalps".
But parts of the Mena region promise a bumper crop of asset-hunting mandates for the investigators, with estimates of fraudulent assets running into the many billions, and bolt-holes around the world to be identified and secured.
Perhaps the template for such investigations was the one undertaken by the government of Kuwait, at the request of the US authorities, to locate and seize assets belonging to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein after he invaded the country in 1990.
Patrick Grayson was managing director of the London office of Kroll, the best-known firm in the corporate investigations business, charged with overseeing the asset hunt.
Now running his own company, GPW, he recently undertook an appraisal visit to the Middle East, and is impressed by the potential. "There are very good prospects for asset recovery in the North African turmoil, and much work for our business there. Libya more than the others will create a 'feeding frenzy' of asset fraud investigations," he says.
Ambrose Carey, who was the executive in charge of the Saddam hunt and is now running Alaco, an investigation firm based in London, agrees.
"All the current potential searches will be big ones," he says.
Between them, Mr Grayson and Mr Carey uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of assets syphoned abroad by the Iraqi dictator, held in cash, bank accounts, property and even equity investments.
Today, Kroll executives are also optimistic about the business opportunities from North African turmoil.
"There is a high potential for new regimes across the region to recover money stolen by the old regimes. There is clearly an appetite for redress among new power structures and the appearance of corruption that would indicate good cause," says Tommy Helsby, the chairman of Kroll Eurasia.
The starting point for any investigation is an order to freeze assets of the previous regime, as has occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and last week, in Libya.
The International Centre for Asset Recovery (Icar) is a not-for-profit organisation based in Basel, Switzerland, and funded by European governments.
"The crucial question is the length of time it takes to freeze assets once a case has been identified," says Daniel Thelesklaf, the director of Icar. "Otherwise they can be dispersed and made much more difficult to locate."
Icar is believed to be advising the new Tunisian government on asset tracing procedure.
Mr Grayson agrees time is of the essence. "In asset hunting speed and decisiveness backed by sound legal process is crucial: like a no-fly zone, it has to be effectively implemented or it is just a bluff," he says.
The US recently identified and froze US$30 billion (Dh110.19bn) worth of Libyan assets, while the UK and other European governments have also issued freezing orders covering billions of dollars' worth of investments, liquid assets and property.
Once a freeze is in place, the next step for the investigators is to secure a mandate from a recognised authority to track down the assets, not least because the firm wants to ensure it will be paid for its work. Investigators rarely work pro bono, or in the expectation of finding assets and then selling on the information.
"The mandate point is key, because someone has to have a beneficial interest and pick up the bill for all the legal and investigations work that goes into an asset search," says Ralph Stobwasser, who heads the Middle East business of Control Risks, an investigations company. The mandate will usually come via a law firm, but the ultimate client will be the new government of the country involved, or an international organisation such as a UN tribunal or the International Criminal Court.
"Mandates often come via Washington lobbyists acting for the new regime," says Mr Carey.
With the mandate secure, the real investigation work begins. Different investigators use different methods.
The old image of the industry - surveillance, phone-tapping and sorting through rubbish bins - was never really accurate, and high-tech methods dominate today. But some believe there is still value in early "shock" tactics.
"It makes sense to go after low-hanging fruit at the early stages; slapping a seizure order on the nose of a jet can be quite effective and certainly makes their eyes water. But nothing beats painstaking research and analysis," says Mr Grayson.
Kroll has a slightly different slant. "The old-fashioned way of approaching regime asset tracing is to run round to gather intelligence on villas, yachts, planes and bank accounts. The first three don't add up to much and the fourth is illegal," says Mr Helsby.
Mr Carey takes a similar view. "The good old fashioned techniques are the best - public records, sources and opposition figures based outside the country," he says.
Former business partners of the deposed regimes are often the most effective sources.
Western companies, such as the oil giants, that have been doing business with the regime in Libya will know the contact points and procedures used by the old regime and have accurate records of payments made to individuals through particular accounts.
But they have to beware of the possible repercussions. "Western business partners cannot really say 'well, we bribed them in good faith and want our money back'," says one investigator.
In the end, once a tyrant's loot has been found, much comes down to the will of international agencies, foreign governments and the new regime to enforce action on the investigators' findings.
"We can provide genuine assistance to governments, even when they'd rather not know the findings. I recall some weren't too happy to have their links to Saddam exposed in 1991," says Mr Carey.
How much further foreign governments will be embarrassed by their contacts with Tunisian, Egyptian and Libyan dictatorships remains to be seen.