The pursuit of Khater Massaad, the tile tycoon of RAK

How a businessman with a mineral Midas touch was hunted across three continents and ended up arrested this week in a Jeddah airport.

Khater Massaad, pictured in July 2008 in Ras Al Khaimah. Mr Massaad is being pursued by his former employer as part of a $1.5bn embezzlement probe. He denies the charges. Paulo Vecina / The National
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He was the golden boy of business in the Northern Emirates. He transformed a small tile factory into a global manufacturing name and was recruited to run the Ras Al Khaimah Investment Authority (Rakia) in 2007 to achieve the same kind of transformation across the wider economy.

But four years after leaving the UAE, Khater Massaad is being pursued by his former employers from Africa to the Caucasus.

On Tuesday they caught up with him at Jeddah’s airport when he was detained by Saudi police on an arrest warrant issued from the northernmost emirate. It related to his conviction in his absence last year in a Ras Al Khaimah court on fraud charges.

Khater Massaad was once lauded for extracting wealth from the barren rocks of the Ras Al Khaimah mountains, helping transform the emirate into an unlikely manufacturing hub and picking up numerous business awards along the way.

But at some point between the boom years of 2007 and 2008 and his departure from the emirate in 2012, his relationship with his former employer changed dramatically for the worse.

Ever since, he has been relentlessly followed by lawyers engaged by Rakia around the world.

Yet other than his conviction last year in Ras Al Khaimah when he was not present to defend himself, he has not been found guilty of any crimes in other legal jurisdictions.

Before his arrest in Saudi Arabia this week, the 63 year-old Lebanese-Swiss tycoon agreed to speak exclusively to The National after a series of allegations relating to his tenure at Rakia were made by his former employer.

The government of the emirate has been investigating the executive and some of his associates for the past five years as part of what they claim to be a wider US$1.5 billion fraud probe.

He is accused of investing hundreds of millions of dollars of the emirate’s funds with no legal due diligence

He in turn vehemently denies the claims made against him and says he is simply a fall guy.

“I made a lot of money for them and created a lot of wealth,” he says during an August 7 telephone interview from Lebanon, where he now runs his own ceramics business called Star Industrial Holdings.

Earlier that month the London office of Bell Pottinger, the international communications company retained by Rakia, sent a release to journalists with a judgment from a court in the emirate dated October 28, 2015.

The case had not been previously reported and was based on claims that land owned by Rakia had been leased at an artificially low price, and which in turn had been sublet at a vast profit by his associates.

It is referred to as the “lease case”.

The judgment translation was accompanied by a document detailing a number of other allegations relating to Mr Massaad and his business activities in countries that included Armenia, Georgia, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Perhaps more interesting than the extraordinary allegations contained in the document was the equally extraordinary approach taken by the authority in publicising them at all.

Yet despite the apparent candour, subsequent requests made by the newspaper to meet Rakia officials to discuss the many allegations made by the authority against Mr Massaad have at the time of publication been unsuccessful.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Ras Al Khaimah’s mineral wealth comes from rock rather than oil.

The entire RAK economy was worth less than 2 per cent of the country’s overall GDP, according to a 2010 bond prospectus.

But beneath the imposing Al Hajar Al Gharbi mountains was ample rock to form the raw building materials needed for the rapidly expanding skylines of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The walls and floors of the country’s great houses and hotels are covered with tiles made from the ground, glazed and reconstituted rock of Ras Al Khaimah.

The country’s first cement plant was opened here in the 1970s, but it was RAK Ceramics, founded in the 1980s, that really established the emirate’s manufacturing base.

Khater Massaad was the key figure in what was a remarkable economic transformation.

Under his control, RAK Ceramics would later become the world’s biggest tile maker – a hugely significant manufacturing addition to the economy of a country still driven by oil and gas extraction.

The government of Ras Al Khaimah today owns about 9 per cent of the company, according to Bloomberg.

Mr Massaad roundly rejects any involvement in the many allegations made against him. He says he was not aware of any case brought against him until his conviction in his absence emerged.

“I did not know I was charged – nobody called me, nobody informed me,” he says.

In addition to the “lease case”, Rakia also claims that Mr Massaad was at the centre of another scandal involving a port deal in Georgia.

Rakia alleges that in 2007 and 2008, when he was chief executive of the authority, Mr Massaad was responsible for acquiring the Poti Sea Port Corporation in Georgia.

Three years later, when Rakia was preparing to sell the port, it is alleged he and two associates fraudulently procured a sham joint venture company for the development of a car terminal with a company called Raystar Trade – created just four months earlier with no history of conducting any business whatsoever and without a bank account.

Rakia alleges that an associate of Mr Massaad then drafted a termination agreement to end the sham joint venture ahead of the sale.

As part of that termination, it is alleged that more than $17 million was transferred to a Swiss bank account held by an associate of Mr Massaad and that the payment was authorised by him.

Mr Massaad denies all the allegations made against him in relation to the Georgia port deal.

“I was not involved in that joint venture,” he says. “There was a board of directors and they were running the company. I could not follow each and every company where Rakia was invested.”

After leaving Ras Al Khaimah for Lebanon in 2012, Mr Massaad has since successfully built up a new venture based around ceramics. He runs Beirut-based Star Industrial Holdings, which includes Forsan Ceramics, a $186m joint venture with local Saudi investors that is already one of the largest ceramics producers in Saudi Arabia.

After being detained in Saudi Arabia this week, Mr Massaad’s advisers acted swiftly to issue a statement publicising his arrest and again denying the allegations made against him by Rakia.

It said: “Dr Massaad strongly denies all of the trumped-up charges brought against him. These were based on an improperly motivated 2015 RAK court decision itself unsupported by any true evidence, in a trial held in absentia and without the basic legal right of being notified before or after the trial of the purported investigation conducted against him.”

Ras Al Khaimah was equally swift in issuing its own statement, again through the London office of the Bell Pottinger communications firm.

It said: “We are aware that Saudi Arabia have executed a GCC arrest warrant ... in respect of Khater Massaad’s conviction in the United Arab Emirates for a number of frauds and criminal activity, for which he was tried and convicted by the UAE criminal court in October 2015. His conviction was in absentia after he fled the country. We will work with the Saudi authorities to ensure Khater Massaad returns to the UAE to stand trial.”

For the man who once had a Midas touch in making riches from rocks, everything now depends on what the Saudi authorities do next and whether the next plane he boards is to Lebanon or the UAE.

Interviewed before his arrest this week, Mr Massaad sounded more dejected than angry, more fatalistic than fearful.

“It is all absolutely untrue. It’s a shame to reach this situation,” he said. “Unfortunately what happened, happened.”

He was speaking on his mobile phone while passing through airport immigration in Lebanon.

He wrapped up by emphasising he was, at that point at least, free to travel wherever he desired.

“I am not a fugitive. I am a free man. I can travel where I want,” he said.

On Tuesday, in Jeddah, that changed.