Mike Wolff: Keeping a cool head in heated situations

Focus: The Arab Spring has made this a challenging and busy year for the Control Risks consultancy. One of its top men explains how the company enables its clients to make informed decisions

Mike Wolff, a director of Control Risks. Satish Kumar / The National
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Mike Wolff, a director of Control Risks, the business risk consultancy, was easily spotted when he showed up for our interview at the Park Hyatt Dubai in a pink shirt and with bright blue eyes.

Maybe it is something about being a former British army officer that you spend so much time in camouflage that when you hit civilian life you want to wear something colourful. The only disguise is his beard. More naval than military perhaps.

After leaving the army he went into headhunting, working in both London and Tokyo before moving to Dubai. Here he was headhunted by Control Risks, where he has worked for the past seven years.

With all the excitement of the Arab Spring, business is booming for Control Risks. Clients range from governments, blue-chip companies, high net worth individuals and non-governmental organisations. It has 35 offices around the world and more than 2,000 staff.

Mr Wolff is the head of the global client services team with two core functions: key account management (looking after clients properly) and new business development.

The company does not disclose its list of clients, but they are predominantly in the oil and gas sector, financial services, infrastructure business and government, and semi-government.

He is the chairman of Dubai Exiles, the rugby club, and is looking forward to the Rugby World Cup that starts next week in New Zealand. Who does he think will win? His tip to lift the Webb Ellis trophy is the host nation, probably because his fiancee is a Kiwi.

Where is Muammar Qaddafi or is he irrelevant now?

I don't know, but if I knew I'd be claiming my reward. Is he irrelevant? No, not at all. We are seeing a lot of loyalist activity. Long-term, people hope he will become irrelevant, but he isn't today.

But will it move to peace easily?

We don't think it will be easy for a number of reasons. There are different stakeholders in the rebel alliance, we have seen a massive proliferation of weapons across society, breakdown of law enforcement and all of those are factors that will mean that security will be high on our clients' agenda.

Do you see the potential for a prolonged civil war in Libya?

I don't think it will be another Somalia, there are more opportunities in the oil and gas sector and direct interest from other countries and international corporates. Will it be another Iraq? I don't believe so, we have learnt from the failures of Iraq how to rebuild countries. For example, banning Baath party, disbanding the army and police force was a big mistake. I don't think that will be repeated. But I think everyone is waiting for Qaddafi to be found.

Are you advising your clients to keep away?

We are advising caution, but with the right approach, there are opportunities. Benghazi in the east has been more stable, for example. Given the wealth of Libya, there are companies thinking they should perhaps start to get involved.

Apart from Libya, where else is there client concern?

We have had different waves of interest. We were heavily engaged in evacuating clients from Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, less so from Syria. There are still a lot of clients watching and waiting. Bahrain is an interesting case, I think they have been taken aback by the international response and are now trying to regain the confidence of institutions that had operations there. Everybody has different perceptions of risk. In Egypt and Bahrain we never told our clients to evacuate, but to be careful, for example, don't go and watch the riots. We try to bring cool analysis to situations.

What about the reputational risk in staying on?

That's a concern of course. That's one of the areas we advise our clients on. That will be a factor in Libya, I think, by dint of their previous associations with the Qaddafi regime. Once the new regime comes into power, there will be a desire to know what went on and what those companies were doing. However, those companies will also be crucial in helping Libya get back on its feet. There will need to be sensitivity on both sides.

What will the Arab Spring mean for the region?

It is very difficult to say. We have seen a lot of noise and imagery, and in Libya we have seen real change. But in other places perhaps the change has not been as meaningful yet as the demonstrators desire. It has been a fascinating year, but if we were sat here in 100 years, what would we think? It is hard to say.

What would make you sit up in 100 years' time and say that was the moment the Middle East changed?

Either Israel or Iran, if something significant happened there. And if we see the Arab Spring arrive somewhere like Saudi, that would send shock waves around the world.