Company broke pledge to businessman over Dubai open-top buses

Asif Mahmood pitched idea for sightseeing tours but was later cut out of the business

The Big Bus tours in Dubai was the London-based operator's first expansion outside of the UK. Alamy
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The world’s largest open-top tourist bus company broke a deal with a Pakistani businessman who came to them with a proposal to start a venture in Dubai, a judge in London has ruled.

Asif Mahmood pitched the idea of an open-topped bus tour in Dubai to the London-based Big Bus Company and the two sides signed a preliminary agreement in 2001 to share profits of any future project.

The agreement resulted in the establishment of a Dubai venture to launch the company’s first operation outside of London. The project was overseen by Mr Mahmood but relations with the parent company rapidly soured, with disputes over pay, performance and responsibilities.

Mr Mahmood was “cut out” of the Dubai business in 2004 when it was wound up and replaced with a new company that kept the Big Bus-branded tours running without his involvement.

The new business immediately proved profitable and provided a template for a rapid and successful expansion worldwide for the Big Bus Company. The company subsequently set up a second open-top bus tour in Abu Dhabi, the court was told.

Mr Mahmood launched legal action in London against the company in 2015, claiming that the company had breached the terms of the 2001 agreement that had been drawn up without the involvement of lawyers.

After four days of hearings in October, a judge ruled on Wednesday that the company had breached the terms of the agreement that had pledged not to “circumvent Asif Mahmood …. following cessation of the contract between them”.

“It is hard to conclude other than that the defendant’s actions were an attempt to circumvent the claimant,” said Mrs Justice Eady in her ruling. Damages have not yet been settled.

The company had run double-decker tour buses in London for more than a decade and was looking to expand internationally when it was approached by Mr Mahmood.

Mr Mahmood, who described himself as an international businessman with 40 years of experience in the Middle East and Asia, had no experience of running tourist buses but persuaded the company to sign a preliminary agreement before it launched a fact-finding tour of Dubai.

Mr Mahmood had told the company that he had high-level connections in Dubai and would be able to obtain the necessary permission to operate – but would not invest and the company would have to supply all the vehicles.

He moved to the UAE and was also given a £60,000 salary.

But company officials came to believe that he had overstated his level of influence and grew frustrated about delays in starting operations.

Mr Mahmood and company executives disputed who eventually did the work that allowed the company to start operating in May 2002. The judge found that Mr Mahmood was “not a reliable or helpful witness” but had not been “dishonest” as the bus company had claimed.

She dismissed the bus company’s claims that time had run out for Mr Mahmood to issue a claim against them.

Big Bus was bought by a private equity firm in 2015. It provides sightseeing tours in 18 cities across three continents, according to its website.

The Big Bus Company said it was "surprised and disappointed" by the outcome.

“Mr Mahmood has not had any involvement with the Big Bus business since 2004, some 17 years ago," it said.

“While we are surprised and disappointed by the court’s decision, the court has not yet assessed what it considers to be an appropriate level of compensation.

“The court’s decision is subject to a possible appeal, which we are considering and discussing with our lawyers.”

Mr Mahmood declined to comment.

Updated: December 17, 2021, 3:47 PM