x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

How Sheikh Ahmed championed transparency at ADIA

One of his most visible accomplishments was holding management up to greater public scrutiny.

One of Sheikh Ahmed bin Zayed's most visible accomplishments in 13 years as managing director of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) was holding the fund's management up to greater public scrutiny. Sheikh Ahmed started as a stock analyst at the fund in 1991 and became its managing director in 1997, according to a BusinessWeek profile. When he took over, ADIA was largely closed off from public view, but people also paid little attention to it.

It was only in the middle of the past decade that politicians and investors began to recognise the power wielded by sovereign wealth funds, leading to a drive for more openness. The experience of DP World - which amid political controversy in 2006 had to sell US ports operations obtained when it bought out Peninsular and Oriental (P&O), a British ports company - heightened the urgency of efforts to convince foreign authorities to welcome inbound investment, especially from the Middle East.

Partly as a result of their desire to show the world they sought no political advantage through their investments, a group of sovereign funds, including ADIA, voluntarily agreed in 2008 to a set of guidelines - dubbed the Santiago Principles because they were introduced at a meeting in the Chilean capital. The principles outlined financial disclosures and governance and management procedures for funds to follow, and Sheikh Ahmed led ADIA's move to adopt them.

Though he conducted only two major news interviews in recent years - one in 2008 with the US magazine BusinessWeek and the other in January with the German business daily Handelsblatt - ADIA made a series of disclosures under his watch, including releasing its first annual review this month and relaunching the fund's website. The annual review disclosed returns over the past 30 years and showed how contributions to and withdrawals from ADIA occur: the fund receives excess oil revenues from the Government and gives money back to the Government in case of a budget shortfall or other financial need.

The Government has rarely tapped the fund, according to the review. "ADIA's sole mission, which has not changed in over 30 years, is to secure and maintain the current and future welfare of the emirate of Abu Dhabi," Sheikh Ahmed told Handelsblatt. "This ensures that our investing strategy stays focused on long-term trends rather than the ups and downs of individual cycles." While ADIA made scores of large investments with Sheikh Ahmed in charge - including considerable plays in residential property in the US and UK and a 15 per cent stake in London's Gatwick Airport last month for US$198 million (Dh727.2m) - the fund's $7.5 billion acquisition of 4.9 per cent of the US banking giant Citigroup in 2007 was possibly its highest-profile acquisition to date.

The fund typically limits its investments in public companies to a stake of less than 5 per cent, a level above which it would have to disclose its holdings. "This investment reflects our confidence in Citi's potential to build shareholder value," Sheikh Ahmed said after the purchase. ADIA's investment came at a crucial time for the bank, which was then in desperate need of capital as the global financial downturn set in.

The lifeline helped Citigroup through the first months of the crisis, after which the US government stepped in to provide billions of dollars in stimulus money to shore up the bank. In December, ADIA filed arbitration proceedings in New York over the investment, which stipulated a conversion into Citigroup shares that valued the stock in a range of about $32 to $37 per share. Citigroup shares have dropped from about $33 at the time of the deal to $4.14 on Monday.

In the arbitration claim, Citigroup said ADIA was alleging the bank was guilty of "fraudulent misrepresentations" in negotiations leading to the deal. ADIA has not commented on the arbitration and declined to comment for this article. afitch@thenational.ae