x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Qatar deals leave Barclays squirming with embarrassment

Think back to the summer of 2008. What were you doing? Enjoying the Olympic Games in Beijing, perhaps? Or watching with concern as military conflict ignited between Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus? We know now what the board of Barclays bank was doing.

Think back to the summer of 2008. What were you doing?

Enjoying the Olympic Games in Beijing, perhaps? Or watching with concern as military conflict ignited between Russia and Georgia in the Caucasus? Or perhaps pondering the on-rushing meltdown in the global financial system?

We know now what the board of Barclays bank was doing.

Then under the leadership of the bank's patrician chairman Marcus Agius and "master of the universe" chief executive Bob Diamond, the 300-year-old institution was desperately trying to avoid the fate of its British rivals, which were on the verge of collapse and considering appeals to the government for rescue.

Barclays was different, at least on the face of it, from Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds TSB, both of which ended up being taken over by the British government in one of the biggest interventions by the state in private business. The Russian communist leader Lenin would have been proud of the then British prime minister, Gordon Brown.

Mr Agius and Mr Diamond were scurrying around the Middle East, to Abu Dhabi and Doha in particular, trying to drum up financial support for their creaking bank.

They got it. Investors in Qatar and the UAE put up US$18 billion (Dh66.11bn) of new capital for Barclays and in exchange got a large chunk of shares in the bank. Barclays was saved from the fate of a Soviet-style expropriation.

At the time, commentators applauded Mr Agius and Mr Diamond's perspicacity. Barclays' balance sheet was shored up by new and supportive shareholders who looked to be in for the long term and whose cash was solid.

Now those deals have come back to haunt them. Not so much the Abu Dhabi investment, which was shrewdly sold some 18 months later at a profit of $1.5bn - although UAE investors retain a small residual interest in Barclays - but the Qatar deals have recently become a source of acute embarrassment to Barclays for two reasons.

First, it became apparent in the course of investigations into the fixing of London interbank offered rates (known as Libor, the crucial yardstick that determines global interest rates) that Barclays was manipulating the rate with one eye on the Arabian Gulf.

Here is how it worked. Libor is a measure of a bank's creditworthiness and general financial health. If a bank can borrow at the same rate as its rivals, or even a tad lower, it proves it is well regarded in the international financial world.

In the summer of 2008, Barclays set its rate deliberately low just as it was negotiating with Qatar and Abu Dhabi to impress those potential financial investors and to show they would get a good return on their investment.

The second phase of Barclays' Middle East nemesis emerged just last week, as the bank announced its financial results for the first half of this year, which has proved to be a terrible one for the bank.

Roger Jenkins, a Barclays executive and tax expert, was deeply involved in two deals involving the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA). He negotiated terms that included Barclays paying the QIA for "advisory services by QIA to Barclays in the Middle East".

Paying for advisory services is one thing but questions have been raised over whether the payments were to coax investors to provide funds.

British authorities, already burning the midnight oil over the Libor scandal, will be scrutinising all transactions involving the QIA and Barclays over the past four years.

In these days of money laundering, rogue trading and interest-rate fixing, any allegations regarding advisory services payments might seem a small, victimless matter.

But the reputation of the world's banks is so low and the political pressure on governments to be seen to wreak vengeance on them so high, the authorities will take advantage of any opportunity to purge the sector.

The Middle East deals that seemingly "saved" Barclays could prove to be the bank's ultimate undoing.