Sowing green shoots at Dubai Inc

Baroness Shriti Vadera has been advising the emirate on how to best deal with the debt challenges at some of its leading firms based on her achievement in business and politics in the UK, where she was known for giving candid opinions with utter conviction.

Powered by automated translation

Her name figured briefly in news reports in March, when Dubai World was presenting plans to bankers to deal with its debt problem, but not much has been heard since of Baroness Shriti Vadera of Holland Park in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The grandiloquent title - her friends call her Shriti - was given to her by the former British prime minister Gordon Brown when he elevated her to the House of Lords after eight years as confidant and then government minister. But since March she has been working in a relatively quiet and low-profile kind of way at senior levels within Dubai Inc. Baroness Vadera, 48, has been giving policymakers the benefit of her views on the burning economic issue of the day, for Dubai as it is for the rest of the world: how to deal with the debt that has been built up during the boom years and that have now come back to haunt.

Judging by her reputation from the Brown days her advice to Dubai, and to the small armies of bankers and financiers involved in the Dubai World restructuring, will be delivered forthrightly, candidly and with the utter conviction that her view is the correct one. "She tells it like it is, knocks heads together and gets things done," says senior executive involved in the Dubai World restructuring. "But she does not suffer fools gladly."

This view of Baroness Vadera is echoed by virtually everybody who has had dealings with her. One journalist recalls a meeting with her in 2005 where he asked her a question about some aspect of British government economic policy. "I don't recall the answer, but the implication was that only a fool would ask that question and I was that fool," he recalls. Others have had worse things to say about her. Civil servants from the UK treasury, in a series of leaks to the British press, called her overbearing, arrogant and prone to explosions of anger against people she judged of inferior intellect. On one occasion she was said to have lambasted Tony Blair, then the prime minister, over a policy issue.

Asked in a newspaper interview whether she had really laid into the British leader, Baroness Vadera replied: "I was an adviser and there is not much point in having an adviser who is not going to tell you want they think. My job is not to be sycophantic." In the irreverent cut and thrust of British politics that attitude is acceptable, even welcome, from a senior adviser. But how would it run in the more conservative atmosphere of the majlis of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai? Or in meetings with his senior executives in the Executive Office?

"She has been very careful to avoid anything that could be seen as aggressive or superior in her dealings with Dubai people," says one financier who has worked with her on Dubai World. "It would just be taken the wrong way and could be totally counterproductive." Baroness Vadera's first contact with Dubai officials came late last year, after the shock of November 25 when Dubai World stunned world markets with its restructuring plans. Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the head of the emirate's Supreme Fiscal Committee, and Mohammed al Shaibani, the Ruler's closest adviser, embarked on series of meetings with senior bankers and editors in London, Washington and New York in a bid to calm the storm over Dubai World.

In London, they met Baroness Vadera and were impressed by what they saw: a woman from their part of the world who understood finance and knew how to operate at the highest levels of politics. She began work as an adviser to Dubai in early March. Her background appeared to make her uniquely qualified to give counsel on the emirate's problems. Born in Uganda to a prominent business family of Indian origin, she had left Africa with her family when the Ugandan government expelled Asians in 1972, and returned to India before moving to the UK.

In Britain, she received a top-notch education that culminated in an Oxford degree in politics, philosophy and economics - the academic qualification of choice for politicians, business leaders and economic strategists. From Oxford, she joined the investment bank Warburg, the City of London's leading "blue blood" bank, then just recently taken over by the Swiss finance house UBS. In 14 years with the bank Baroness Vadera advised governments round the world on how to deal with their debt problems, restructuring and privatisation.

She came to the attention of Mr Brown, then the chancellor of the exchequer. He had an interest in developing countries' debt problems and appointed her his special adviser on such matters. When Mr Brown became prime minister in 2007, she was made undersecretary of state for international development. It was in this period that the tales of her fractious relationship with senior British officials arose. Perhaps the upper levels of the Whitehall civil service had problems being told what to do by a woman of Asian descent who was confident of her grasp of complex issues and prepared to stand her ground; perhaps on occasion she let her self-confidence get the better of her in exchanges with officialdom.

Whatever the explanation, it was said: "No permanent secretary could stand her." Lord Mandelson, then the British business minister, advised her to spend some time on her image and "do more interviews". But Baroness Vadera generally kept a low profile, apart from one occasion when she provoked a political storm by claiming to detect early "green shoots" of recovery in the languishing British economy.

Mr Brown retained faith in her and moved her to the business department in 2008, just as the financial crisis was brewing. When it broke on Britain and the rest of the world in September that year, she was given the task of masterminding the strategy to rescue the British banking system, which was on the verge of collapse. She advised a radical plan of public ownership of two banks and the investment of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money to support them through the crisis.

With that kind of curriculum, Dubai was keen to get her on board to deal with its own financial troubles. A spokeswoman for the Government of Dubai says: "Shriti Vadera is one of a number of strategic advisers from different parts of the world that the government uses as a sounding board regarding different issues and plans. "The Dubai World restructuring is one example of a situation where the government used Shriti. It carefully selects people who have relevant experience to bounce ideas off. She was not directly involved with negotiations with [Dubai World] banks."

That fairly clearly defines her role for Dubai. Her job is to give strategic advice on the macro-economic situation of the emirate, how the financial burdens of the boom years will affect its geopolitical outlook, and its relationship with the rest of the Gulf region and the international financial community. Her main points of contact in the Dubai establishment are Sheikh Ahmed, Mr al Shaibani, and Ahmed Humaid al Tayer, the Governor of the Dubai International Financial Centre.

These three have emerged as the leading strategists in rebuilding Dubai's financial position and restoring its reputation round the world. Baroness Vadera is said to enjoy a good relationship with them. The experience with the British banking sector will stand her in good stead. If two of the biggest British banks had collapsed in late 2008, it would have had serious implications for the rest of the British economy.

Likewise, Dubai World, because of its role as a contractor, employer and financial force in the emirate's economy, would have had a significant negative impact on the whole region if it had not been restructured. That process, masterminded by the corporate restructuring expert Aidan Birkett, has been regarded as a success with acceptance of its proposals coming from the vast majority of financial and trade creditors.

Other corporate aspects of Dubai have also been subjected to Baroness Vadera's analysis, such as the financial positions of Dubai International Capital, Dubai Holding and the Investment Corporation of Dubai, but none is as potentially serious as Dubai World before restructuring. Her colleagues say she has brought insightful analysis, strategic thinking and, above all, the ability to "get things done" to the Dubai situation, and will continue to do so as long as the situation requires her talents.

Baroness Vadera also advises the Group of 20 developed and emerging economies, which is under the chairmanship for the rest of the year of South Korea. The value of this connection with a major trading partner in the resilient Asian region will not be overlooked by the emirate's leaders. Baroness Vadera appears to have landed at the right place at exactly the right time. Her skill set gives her unique ability to understand and tackle the leading economic issue in the world today: debt and its consequences.

Her advice will be of crucial importance to the emirate.