x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Money man who held nation's purse strings

A discreet and loyal adviser, John Butter maintained a respectful relationship with Abu Dhabi's Ruler as a senior figure in the Abu Dhabi Finance Department.

Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan, the founder of the UAE, once said of John Butter: "If he had given me his thumb, I would have given him my arm." A discreet and loyal adviser, Mr Butter maintained a respectful and professional relationship with Abu Dhabi's Ruler over the course of a 13-year tenure as a senior figure in the Abu Dhabi Finance Department, during which he was a founder of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (Adia), the world's largest sovereign wealth fund.

An expected career as the laird of a Scottish estate thwarted by his great-uncle failing to sign his will, Butter made his living abroad instead. He was a district commissioner in the employ of Britain in India and Pakistan, before moving to Kenya where he was closely involved in preparations for the country's independence, ultimately as adviser in the finance ministry. Though he could have remained in Kenya as a citizen - and did retain a strong connection with the country - he left for Abu Dhabi in 1970 to run the finance department where he stayed until 1983.

His immediate task was to balance the budget and curb the tendency towards a disparity between expenditure and revenue, which he did successfully. Although his contract listed his duties as including the preparation of the emirate's budget and the allocation of funds for development projects, Butter was warned that Sheikh Zayed had never agreed to such duties in writing. Cautious that he would not last long in the job, Butter advised his wife, Joyce, to bring only one suitcase when she joined him. He declined to study Arabic, imagining a short period in office and thinking himself too old to learn a new language. He later professed to be glad of the excuse not to become too deeply involved in palace politics.

Butter's arrival in Abu Dhabi coincided with a period of political tumult during Britain's withdrawal from its former protectorates, the Trucial States. On Dec 2 1971, the United Arab Emirates was formed. The dirham was set as the currency, Abu Dhabi's first cabinet and the National Consultative Council were formed, and Butter oversaw the gradual transition of the Finance Ministry to a proper Treasury.

Advising Sheikh Zayed on the investment of Abu Dhabi's increasing oil revenues, Butter identified Japan as a promising developing market and began to build up a highly successful portfolio there and elsewhere. When the predicted budget deficit in 1974 was negated by the decision of Opec to drive up the price of oil in response to the Yom Kippur War, a horde of bankers arrived in Abu Dhabi offering their services. Butter rationed himself to meeting no more than four a day, while continuing to explore Abu Dhabi's own avenues of investment at home and abroad. This led to the foundation of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority in 1976 under the chairmanship of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, now President of the UAE and Ruler of Abu Dhabi.

Butter expressed his admiration for the nationals with whom he worked, as his self-published memoir Uncivil Servant attests. When offered a pay rise in 1973, he reacted with surprise, as he thought himself already very well paid. Of all the senior officials in the Government he was the only one who did not ask for an increase. In his spare time he enjoyed birdwatching and golf, and his villa on the Corniche was a focal point for the British expatriate community. With several others he founded the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. Always dressed in a suit and tie, known for his modesty and humour, he remained an exemplary civil servant to the end.

John Butter was born on April 20 1916. He died on Oct 28 2008, aged 92. He is survived by his wife and their three sons. * The National