x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Saudis wash their hands of the al Gosaibi affair

The attitude of Saudi authorities towards the Gosaibi and al Sanea conflict puzzles observers.

Observers of the Middle East's longest-running financial scandal, the confrontation between the al Gosaibi family and Maan al Sanea in Saudi Arabia, have been puzzled by one thing above all others: the attitude of the Saudi authorities.

The affair involves allegations of financial crime in two of the kingdom's biggest and most venerable trading groups. The sums involved are eye-watering: up to US$10 billion (Dh36.73bn) was allegedly stolen by Mr al Sanea - a charge he has rigorously denied. The liabilities of the two groups to more than 100 local, regional and international banks amount to about $20bn.

The affair, which has dragged on for more than two years, has undoubtedly damaged Saudi Arabia's reputation in the business world.

A committee was appointed by King Abdullah a few months after the scandal broke in 2009, but by all accounts it met infrequently, and appeared to have made little progress in resolving the dispute between the two sides, which has raged in courtrooms in New York, the Cayman Islands, London and elsewhere.

While all this legal action was going on, there was silence from Riyadh. Hopes that the authorities there would knock heads together and resolve the affair were seemingly dashed.

Now, thanks to another set of legal filings, some light can be thrown on the working of what became known as the Kings Committee.

In Los Angeles, al Gosaibi lawyers recently launched an action against Glenn Stewart, the former chief executive of The International Banking Corporation, one of the Bahraini banks the collapse of which triggered the scandal in May 2009. They accuse Mr Stewart of direct involvement in what they allege was a huge Ponzi scheme, which he denies, and are claiming billions of dollars from him.

Papers filed by both sides of the case in response to this action make detailed reference to the actions of the Kings Committee for the first time. Its membership included the Saudi attorney general, judges, high-ranking officials and representatives of the central bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency and the financial regulator, the Capital Market Authority. There were also representatives of the ministries of the interior, commerce and justice.

So, a powerful body, but it was never entirely clear exactly what its purpose was. Was it intended to investigate the al Gosaibi claims against Mr al Sanea and prosecute if it found evidence to support them? Or was it simply an arbitration body in search of a resolution to the whole damaging affair. We were never told.

The filings in Los Angeles, however, contain another document which sheds further light on the King's Committee. In Arabic and English translation, the paper seems to contain the final recommendations of the committee.

It says al Gosaibi and Mr al Sanea should settle all their liabilities with Saudi banks; it allows creditors "operating in the kingdom" the right to bring legal action against both parties to get their money back; and says the dispute between the two parties is a private affair that must be settled according to Saudi law.

A couple of facts are immediately notable. First, the recommendations make no specific mention of the foreign creditors to al Gosaibi and al Sanea, which are owed the lion's share of the $20bn or so outstanding. But the mention of banks "operating in the kingdom" might allow some of the bigger internationals, with Saudi businesses, to take action.

Second, the committee seems to have reached no resolution as to who is culpable in the affair. By stating that the dispute is a private affair, it effectively washed its hands of the matter.

The document also keeps in place the sanctions against al Gosaibi family members and Mr al Sanea that were imposed two years ago: all "movable and immovable" property remains frozen; and "no acts shall be committed to harm the financial position of the [al Gosaibi's] company and all acts shall be limited to the daily requirements of managing the company".

That suggests the al Gosaibis will not be able to sell assets to help repay debts, at least as long as they remain in dispute with Mr al Sanea. The travel bans imposed on both parties remain in place.

For Mr al Sanea, there is the further requirement that the committee expects him to complete the repayment process he has already begun with Saudi creditors but, again, no mention of international creditors.

After almost two years of deliberation, it seems the King's Committee has decided the two parties must "sort it out among yourselves".

fkane@thenational.ae