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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Frank Kane’s working lunch: Mark Beer of DIFC Courts has many titles but one key role

The DIFC Courts executive Mark Beer describes himself as a creature of habit: eat the same meal, stay in the same hotel room. He has also made a habit of dispute resolution in bringing success to the courts since the 2009 crisis.
Illustration by Matthew Kurian and Álvaro Sanmartí / The National
Illustration by Matthew Kurian and Álvaro Sanmartí / The National

The DIFC Courts executive Mark Beer describes himself as a creature of habit: eat the same meal, stay in the same hotel room. He has also made a habit of dispute resolution in bringing success to the courts since the 2009 crisis. First in a new series.

Mark Beer is late. I get a text saying he’d had to go back to the office for his wallet. I make a mental note to remind him of the terms of our lunch meeting.

He will not need his wallet, because lunch is on The National. The choice of venue, however, is his, so as I wait in La Petite Maison in the Dubai International Financial Centre, I have a few minutes to assess his selection.

La Petite Maison is among the best of the up-market restaurants that have made DIFC Gate Village a gourmand destination in the UAE. Others have come along to rival it, but few have quite matched the formula of an excellent menu, painstaking but not obtrusive service and interesting clientele. Probably only Zuma, which has been there longer, is a comparable draw for the fine diners.

As I look around, there is the usual mix of business people and financiers, senior Emirati officials and a couple of tables of glamorous “ladies who lunch”. There are no children today, but often in the past I’ve seen a few lucky youngsters being educated on the finer things in lunch-time life.

An excellent choice then, despite the rather garish shiny reindeer heads and antlers that have been intended to provide festive cheer (this was around Christmas), but which looked incongruous against crisp white tablecloths and perfectly laid cutlery.

I’m at the bar sampling a Virgin Mary, extra bite supplied by fresh horseradish, when in walks Mr Beer, handshakes and greetings all round from the La Petite Maison management and staff. It’s obviously not his first time here.

With the Dubai winter still balmy, I had asked for a table outside, in the little courtyard screened off from the rest of The Gate Village by wooden fencing. It is delightful, but before I could take it all in, off he goes:

“Apologies, I’ve had a busy morning. We’ve just signed a reciprocal arrangement with Ras Al Khaimah, which I think shows the unity of the Emirates. We’re not trying to replicate our legal system there, but it’s a recognition of the fact that what’s worked well for Dubai should also work well for RAK,” Mr Beer says.

The “we” and “our” refer to the DIFC Courts, but are also signifiers of the multiplicity of his roles within Dubai’s financial hub. According to the official tally, Mark Beer is chief executive of the DIFC’s Dispute Resolution Authority; chief executive, registrar and judge at the DIFC’s Small Claims Tribunal; and registrar to the Dubai World Tribunal.

He seems a little embarrassed at the length of the list. “I don’t really like titles. I’m an advocate for getting rid of them. If you can’t persuade people with your own passion, you shouldn’t rely on a title to do it for you. It doesn’t matter what you have on your business card,” he says.

It would have to be a big card to get all that on, but if it simply said “dispute resolution” it would probably suffice, because that is what he has been doing since 2008, when the DIFC Courts became properly functioning under Chief Justice Sir Anthony Evans.

Between them, and with the backing of the DIFC authorities, they have fashioned the courts into a legal system of international repute, recognised as an efficient, and independent dispenser of commercial justice. Dubai might be globally renowned for the Burj Khalifa or Palm Jumeirah, but the legal world knows it for the DIFC Courts.

The menus arrive, but we both know them well. La Petite Maison has been offering the same formula – fresh, beautifully prepared cuisine with Provencale flavour served when the chef deems it ready, rather than in course order – since it opened in Dubai in 2010.

I choose the excellent buratta as a starter followed by canard (duck) a l’orange. Mr Beer goes for a carpaccio of yellowtail tuna and rib-eye entrecôte steak. I have a slight stab of concern when I see the price of the entrecote, but the rules are the rules – The National’s guest can have what he wants.

He explains: “I tend to eat the same things, I’m a creature of routine. We stayed in the same room in the same hotel in the Maldives for the past eight years in a row. Last time we changed rooms and it was a disaster.” The “we” there refers to wife Adriana and four children, of ages between eight and 15.

After an Oxford law degree, he practiced commercial law for a while in Dubai with Clyde & Co, before branching out into corporate finance with hedge fund Man Investments in Switzerland (coincidentally living in the same small Alpine village as the new chief executive of Jumeirah Group, Stefan Leser). But the lure of the Arabian Gulf proved irresistible, and, after a stint with MasterCard in the region, he joined DIFC Courts.

“I went to Switzerland to see if expat life in Dubai was a mirage, or an oasis. I obviously decided it was an oasis, because I came back. The chief justice wanted somebody to take care of all the cogs in the court machine, and I was that person. I do everything necessary to enable the judges to do their jobs properly. The idea is that I take all the hassle away and let the judges take the really important decisions. It’s a bit like the relationship between a chairman and a CEO,” he says.

We finish the first course – the yellowtail is a little too fishy for me but Mr Beer devours my portion – and entrees are served. The entrecôte looks enormous, but he tucks into it with gusto. My duck is also too big – it looks like a double portion – but delicious.

It’s time for some serious talk. Virtually the first thing he had to contend with as effective chief executive of the DIFC Courts was the Dubai World crisis of 2009, which for a while looked as though it could seriously derail the emirate’s economic development. Did he realise at the time how grave the situation was?

“Of course not. Nobody saw it coming. But I noticed there were a lot of expat housewives buying up big portfolios of apartments, and maybe, like the shoeshine boys on Wall Street in 1929, that should have told us something,” he remembers, harking back to the Great Crash stories of profligate share-tipping.

The Dubai World crisis actually turned into the courts’ finest hour, as it pulled together the machinery for dealing with a large-scale bankruptcy and the deluge of legal claims it would provoke. Decree 57 was the UAE’s first attempt at a corporate bankruptcy law, aimed directly at Dubai World; and the small claims tribunal today has one of the highest settlement rates in the world.

About 91 cases worth US$3 billion have been heard under Decree 57. “The idea is that individual creditors should not hijack the restructuring process by holding out against a proposed settlement the majority have already gone for,” he says, carving another slice of steak off the still-huge chunk on his plate.

The crisis coincided with his chairmanship of the British Business Group, which was a fraught time for the British community. Mr Beer estimates that about one third of UK expats left the UAE in that period, yet he managed to nearly triple the business group’s membership, a feat that eventually led to the award of an Order of the British Empire (OBE) medal in 2013, which he remembers with pride.

By now the main course is being cleared away. I have not done my duck justice, which Mr Beer notices with a raised lawyer’s eyebrow that he must have practised in court many times. He orders a sticky, sweet dessert that looks more suited to an English winter’s day than a balmy afternoon in Dubai. With comfort food on board, I decide this is the right moment to broach a tricky subject.

Over the past year, whenever I’ve bumped into him in the DIFC, he has gently ribbed me about the amount I’ve been writing about Abu Dhabi Global Market, the capital’s new financial free zone which, some observers believe, is a rival to Dubai. “Still allowed in the DIFC are you, Frank?” would be a typical jest.

That on its own tells you something, so I probe this delicate subject a bit further, just as coffees are being served. What does he think of ADGM?

“When I first came to Dubai and for quite a long time after that, there was an expectation that business meetings would be held in Dubai. It was almost an arrogance that it was the commercial capital. Now, it’s different. People are not just expected to go to Abu Dhabi, they want to go there. There is a vibrancy, a vision and a passion that wasn’t there before,” he responds diplomatically.

“If there are courts like ours in the capital, that’s brilliant. There is probably still a natural rivalry between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, but that’s a good thing. In the end, I believe ADGM will succeed, and it’s in all our interests for that to happen,” he concludes.

The bill arrives. La Petite Maison is not cheap, but if you want to go where the DIFC in-crowd go, that’s the price you have to pay.

Mr Beer, who turns 45 this year, admits that the original life-plan was to retire at 40, but that has proved impossible. He talks about getting more involved in education, eventually. He’s been a governor of a couple of top Dubai schools, and likes the idea of “a bit of lecturing around the place.”

But, as we leave The Gate Village, he has only some rest and relaxation on his mind. “I’ve not really had a break from some kind of formal activity – school, university, work – since I was five years old. I really need a break to recharge the batteries, and I’m off to do that now,” he says. As 2016 wound down, he was planning to take a break from email until the new year began.

I begin to feel rather festive too. I’m virtually out of the DIFC when I realise I’d forgotten to get the restaurant to stamp my valet parking ticket, so make my way back to La Petite Maison. The shiny reindeer heads look rather appropriate now.

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