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Investigations business flourishes in Dubai’s safe haven

Sanctions and disputes are driving a surge in professional services

Dubai International Financial Centre celebrated two decades of business and its growth is attracting investigations companies Alamy via Reuters
DIFC celebrated two decades of business and its growth is attracting investigations companies

At lunch at a classy beachside restaurant in Madinat Jumeirah last week, I met a senior representative of a Russian mining company visiting the Dubai office on a brief stopover during an “international networking” tour.

Some aspects of the miner’s business are under EU and US sanctions, she explained, but there is still a global appetite for the strategic metals the business produces, and sales to the West are ongoing.

“But how about payment? Doesn’t that raise issues if you’re paid in dollars or euros?” I asked.

“Well, we have Dubai,” she responded.

I did not press her for details of how Dubai can help in those circumstances, and I am not suggesting her company, nor Dubai, has broken any laws or is circumventing Western sanctions, of course.

But her response illustrates the extent to which the emirate has become the go-to solution for traders who find their business impeded by the punitive Western measures imposed after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and indeed for all types of work at the sharp end of the law – disputes, litigation and arbitration.

Oil and commodities traders have mushroomed in Dubai since then, as has an army of professionals – bankers, lawyers, accounting firms and others – to service them.

The traders tend to gravitate towards the Dubai Multi-Commodities Centre and the professionals to the Dubai International Financial Centre, and business at both has surged.

The DIFC, for example, recently celebrated two decades of business with the announcement of its best-ever performance, including a 26 per cent increase in new companies basing themselves there.

At a swanky evening reception the same day in DIFC’s Gate Village, I met some of the professionals who have seen their business flourish over the past couple of years.

Over canapes and champagne, a select group gathered at the invitation of Raedas, a company that “provides investigative support in high-stakes international litigation, arbitration, internal investigations and other contentious scenarios”, according to its website, as it has opened a new Dubai office.

Raedas is the latest investigative firm to open up in Dubai, or beef up existing operations, in response to increased demand for specialist skills.

I’ve known some of the Raedas executives for many years, notably Andrew Wordsworth, a founder, who was once summed up thus by the Daily Mail: “The 61-year-old is a distant relative of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth and was once voted by society magazine Tatler as London’s most eligible bachelor.”

Also present was Nick Bortman, a convivial American who spent a long time in the UAE with another investigations firm before heading off to co-found Raedas. Nick was – and still is – especially skilled at operating in the delicate space where media and investigations intersect.

I wish them luck in their Dubai venture, under the stewardship of Matt Walker, an affable Australian who learned the investigations business – and fluent Russian – working for the Russian business of KPMG and others.

Judging by the turnout at their drinks do, they will have no shortage of clients in the region.

There was the patrician counsel for a big American multinational law firm; a chatty lawyer from a well-known London litigator; the blunt American adviser to a boutique legal practice with vast Middle East and Russia experience; and a legal duo from a Swiss firm with eastern European connections that sees big opportunities in the region.

I must emphasise that none of these professionals is wholly focused on Russian business.

“Our decision to open up here shows just how far Dubai has advanced as a centre for disputes resolution and investigation of all kinds. It really has become one of the world leaders in this type of work, and naturally we need a more visible presence here,” said Wordsworth.

Casual chat over glasses of bubbly centred on relief that the UAE is off the “grey list” drawn up by the Financial Action Task Force, and hopes that it will also be removed soon from the EU’s “blacklist” of global tax havens.

There was also an air of apprehension about the regional geo-political situation, in so far as it may affect personal safety and logistics, just as much as it may impact business.

“Dubai has a well-earned reputation as a safe haven in times of trouble, and that has been key to the success it has today,” said a former diplomat well-versed in the art of investigations.

“We just have to hope that it continues, even as regional tensions escalate.”

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia and is a media adviser to First Abu Dhabi Bank of the UAE

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