Al Gosaibi vs Maan al Sanea: this one will run and run
I refer, of course, to one of the Middle East's longest-running and most convoluted business disputes, the confrontation between the al Gosaibi family of Saudi Arabia and their erstwhile favourite son-in-law, Maan al Sanea.
It is becoming a saga worthy of a Tolstoyan treatment, with sub-plots and minor characters appearing briefly, flickering for a few weeks and then falling back within the main drama. It certainly requires one of those lists of dramatis personae the Russian novelist went in for, with a cast running into the hundreds. War and Peace, except there is no sign of peace on the horizon.
This week came the latest twist in the saga, with a court in the Cayman Islands ruling that it was, after all, the correct jurisdiction for the case against Mr al Sanea to be heard.
It illustrates the complexity of the affair, as well as its international nature, that a British judge sitting in a Cayman court should be ruling on a Saudi Arabian business dispute. But Sir John Chadwick, who delivered the ruling that effectively reversed the decision of another Cayman court in July, is no dilettante when it comes to Middle East business matters: he is also a judge on the circuit of the Dubai International Financial Centre courts.
His ruling throws the case back to where it was in the summer, with a full-blown trial now likely in the Cayman Islands. This is undoubtedly a blow to Mr al Sanea: he had hoped to have everything heard in Saudi Arabia.
A committee of senior members of the Saudi establishment, due to report personally to King Abdullah, has been considering the case for more than a year but to no apparent effect. The silence from the Saudi committee has been significant and frustrating for the banking creditors sitting on perhaps US$20 billion (Dh73.45bn) of loans to the two parties.
Particularly telling was the judge's reasoning behind his decision. He said "there was no reason to expect the Saudi committee would reach a conclusion" on the competing claims between the al Gosaibi family and Mr al Sanea. "Nor was it possible to be confident that proceedings commenced in Saudi courts would lead to a decision determinative of [Ahmad Hamad Al Gosaibi and Brothers, the family's firm] claims against Mr al Sanea within any measurable period, if at all," he added.
In layman's terms, he was telling the Saudis: "We've given you your chance but we're fed up waiting for you, so we're going to tackle it ourselves."
Word filters out of Riyadh, where the committee sits, only occasionally, and each time it simply adds to the sense of inertia and indecision. The last time I met one of the players directly involved (most of the protagonists on both sides are prevented from travelling outside the kingdom) was in September.
I was told then that even King Abdullah's patience was wearing thin and he had appointed a special "task force" to cut through the interminable deliberations of the committee, which is racked with conflicting loyalties to the protagonists. A final report had been written and was sitting on the royal desk awaiting action, it was said. A decision was due any day.
Since then, nothing, although the king's need for medical treatment outside the country may have slowed things up. Perhaps that, too, was a factor in Mr Chadwick's ruling.
With the apparent lack of progress in Riyadh, the spotlight has shifted outside Saudi Arabia and back on to Bahrain, where the whole thing began. It should be remembered that the scandal was triggered by the collapse of two Bahraini banks, The International Banking Corporation and Awal Bank, connected with the two sides, back in spring last year.
Investigators hired by the Bahraini authorities have examined the events leading to those collapses. The UK accounting firm Ernst & Young and a small British corporate investigator, Hibis, produced reports on the two banks. But the authorities felt they needed another report before they could take any action and hired Kroll, the US investigations firm, to get to the bottom of it.
Kroll's preliminary report is, apparently, completed and being studied by Bahrain's banking and prosecution authorities.
Finally, there is the US dimension to the affair. The al Gosaibis are being advised by a team of US lawyers and lobbyists who have been aggressive in pushing the US authorities to get involved, with some success. Urged on by Peter King, a member of the House of Representatives, the matter has been considered by a congressional committee concerned about the possibility of money laundering implications of the billions of dollars flowing from Saudi Arabia to US bank accounts, with no "red flags" being raised.
After the Republicans' successes in the recent mid-term elections, Mr King is set to become the chairman of the powerful homeland security committee in Washington. He will no doubt use his new position to push the al Gosaibi case even more forcefully in the US.
There are many chapters still to be written in this Saudi saga.
Published: December 4, 2010 04:00 AM