Mohammed bin Zayed. Picture: REUTERS
Mohammed bin Zayed. Picture: REUTERS

London — Financier David Rowland, who used Britain’s Prince Andrew as an unofficial door opener, has another close relationship with a member of royalty. This one lives in the Middle East, and executives at Rowland’s Banque Havilland referred to him as “the Boss”.

A trove of e-mails, documents and legal filings reviewed by Bloomberg News, as well as interviews with former insiders, reveal the extent of the services Rowland and his private bank provided to one of its biggest customers, Mohammed bin Zayed, better known as MBZ, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and de facto ruler of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Some of the work went beyond financial advice. It included scouting for deals in Zimbabwe, setting up a company to buy the image rights of players on the Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City Football Club and helping place the bank’s chair at the time on the board of Human Rights Watch after it published reports critical of the Persian Gulf country.

None was as brazen, though, as a 2017 plan devised by the bank for an assault on the financial markets of Qatar, a country that had just been blockaded by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain for allegedly sponsoring terrorism. “Control the yield curve, decide the future,” read one of five mission statements featured in a presentation prepared by a former Banque Havilland analyst that called for a co-ordinated attack to deplete Qatar’s foreign-exchange reserves and beggar its government.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Picture: REUTERS/HAMAD MOHAMMED
Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Picture: REUTERS/HAMAD MOHAMMED

One of Rowland’s sons, a senior executive at the Luxembourg-based bank, e-mailed the plan to Will Tricks, who had swapped a career in the UK’s foreign intelligence service MI6 for a job advising MBZ. Tricks, who acted as a go-between for the Rowlands, was paid as a contractor by Banque Havilland. The presentation found its way to the UAE’s ambassador to the US, who stored it on his computer under “Rowland Banque Havilland”.

That’s where hackers found it. They leaked the document to the Intercept, which wrote about it in November 2017. In 2019, Qatar sued Banque Havilland in London, accusing it of orchestrating a campaign that cost the country more than $40bn to shore up its banks and defend its currency peg against the US dollar. While the lawsuit has received attention in the media, the extent of other work Banque Havilland did on behalf of MBZ hasn’t been previously reported. Nor has the role of Tricks.

Bloomberg BusinessWeek reported in November that Banque Havilland is facing a criminal investigation in Luxembourg for, among other things, its dealings with the family of another head of state, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. It has also had communications with regulators in Luxembourg and the UK about the Qatar plan, one of its lawyers told Bloomberg earlier this year.

The bank has said in court filings that the presentation wasn’t a war plan but a risk-management strategy to protect UAE holdings of Qatari bonds, drawn up after an August 2017 meeting in London between David Rowland and the CEO of Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment. The bank said it created the scenario months after the start of what Qatar alleges was an attack on its financial system and that it didn’t carry out any of the proposed steps or do anything illegal.

“Banque Havilland firmly denies any allegations of wrongdoing or improper conduct made by the state of Qatar,” a spokesperson for the bank said in an e-mailed statement. “The bank was not part of any conspiracy against Qatar and rejects all of Qatar’s claims.”

The crown prince is one of the Arab world’s most powerful leaders.

Devising a plan for economic sabotage, whether implemented or not, is beyond the remit of most private banks. But Banque Havilland is no ordinary financial institution. The firm specialised in doing things others might balk at, the documents and e-mails show. Its clients included kleptocrats and alleged criminals in corruption hotspots including Nigeria and Azerbaijan. Its owners solicited business in sanctioned countries such as North Korea and Zimbabwe.

Not all of its clients were pariahs, and none was as important as MBZ, people with knowledge of the matter say. The crown prince is one of the Arab world’s most powerful leaders. A graduate of Britain’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he commands one of the best-equipped armies in the region and has waged wars in Yemen, Libya and Somalia. He’s not as well known as his protégé and neighbour, Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. And he isn’t president of the UAE, a title held by a half-brother.

But leaked US diplomatic cables describe MBZ as a “key decisionmaker.” He helped broker talks in the Seychelles between incoming President Donald Trump’s team and an envoy of Russian President Vladimir Putin after the 2016 election, according to former special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report. He played a role in getting Trump to back the Qatar blockade, and he made headlines this year by establishing diplomatic ties with Israel.

Rowland, 75, got to know MBZ in the 1990s, according to court filings, but how their paths first crossed isn’t clear. The son of a scrap-metal dealer from South London, Rowland left school at 16. He made a fortune buying and selling real estate before moving on to shipping, timber and chemical companies and establishing a family office to manage his wealth and investments for his friends.

After Rowland bought the Luxembourg arm of collapsed Icelandic bank Kaupthing in 2009, renaming it Banque Havilland, MBZ became one of its biggest clients. He had $38m on account in 2012, according to an internal document seen by Bloomberg News that described his family as “key to the bank and its shareholder’s network”.

Tricks also got special treatment. When he wanted to buy a £1.1m house in southwest England in 2010, Banque Havilland gave him a £1.2m mortgage — an unusual move for a bank that rarely provided financing greater than the value of what it was secured against, according to two former insiders.

“Although this is not in the scope of our credit guidelines this is something we would like to do,” Jonathan Rowland, another son of David Rowland and the bank’s co-CEO at the time, wrote in an e-mail to a senior executive. “Will is the right-hand man of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and an important person for the family and business in general.”

The Banque Havilland spokesperson said he couldn’t comment on whether specific individuals held accounts or received loans, citing confidentiality laws. Jonathan Rowland didn’t answer questions put to him by Bloomberg News. David Rowland and Tricks didn’t respond to e-mails and texts. The Abu Dhabi government media office didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment, and calls and texts to a representative there weren’t answered.

Zimbabwe  hub

When MBZ wanted to develop a foothold in Southern Africa’s commodities market in 2011, Tricks worked with the Rowlands on sourcing potential investments, documents and e-mails show. They picked Zimbabwe as a hub for the region, but there was a problem. The country was subject to US and EU sanctions that banned dealings with the then-president Robert Mugabe’s inner circle and many of its state-owned companies. Tricks passed on advice about setting up a trust in Abu Dhabi for any Zimbabwe deals to hide the identities of investors from the US Treasury department, which oversees sanctions enforcement, the e-mails show.

Still, Jonathan Rowland was concerned about keeping the family’s involvement under wraps. “We should be ultra careful about any media reporting of our visit,” he wrote to Tricks that July, before travelling with his father to Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital. “Can this be dealt with beforehand?”

In Harare, the Rowlands discussed investing as much as $200m with the country’s then mining minister, Obert Mpofu, documents show, even though he was subject to an EU asset freeze and visa ban. A briefing note written by Tricks referred to rumours that he was “corrupt”. After the trip, David Rowland wrote a note to Mpofu saying he was “very encouraged by the investment opportunities available in Zimbabwe and the potential the UAE and the Rowland family have to form solid government-to-government bilateral agreements in the mining sector.”

The Rowlands returned to Zimbabwe at least one more time to look at possible investments, including one in state-owned gold refiner Fidelity Printers & Refiners. It’s not clear what, if anything, became of those deals, but the UAE is now a major trading partner with the country despite continuing US sanctions, and it opened an embassy there in 2019.

David Rowland and former Banque Havilland chair Graham Robeson both have ties to Britain’s Conservative Party. Rowland was one of then-prime minister David Cameron’s biggest backers in the 2010 election and has given his party more than £6m.

Robeson, who stepped down as chair in 2018, has been a fundraiser for the Tories, and the queen honoured him for his political work with a 2015 Order of the British Empire award. The month after he was elected, on his way back from Afghanistan, Cameron stopped in Abu Dhabi and met the crown prince and other UAE leaders.

Rowland has donated £465,000 since 2010 to the Conservative Middle East Council, a group that sends delegations of MPs to the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries to meet government leaders, public records show. A person who went on one of the trips said the UAE visit was overseen by Tricks. The group’s former director, Leo Docherty, got a £10,000 contribution from Rowland when he ran for parliament in 2017. Since he was elected, Docherty has been a vocal supporter of the UAE and Saudi Arabia and visited those countries three times in his first nine months in office, according to parliamentary records. A spokesperson for the council declined to comment, and Docherty didn’t respond to e-mails and phone calls.

Human Rights Watch

Rowland also gave $2m to Human Rights Watch after the group criticised the UAE in 2011 for the arrest and harassment of activists — including Ahmed Mansoor, one of its own members — during the Arab Spring uprisings. The gift was made through Rowland’s newly established 66 Humanitarian Foundation, which said it was committed to defending human rights in the Middle East.

Robeson, the foundation’s chair, was elected to the Human Rights Watch board a few months later, in April 2012. He was named to the advocacy group’s Middle East and North Africa advisory committee. “We have been given the complete list of projects now being undertaken by Human Rights Watch in the Middle East and North Africa,” Robeson wrote soon after joining the board, in a memo he e-mailed to Jonathan Rowland that he asked him to share with his father. Robeson also said he’d been given detailed notes of a meeting between the group and Britain’s then-secretary of state for international development Andrew Mitchell, along with other private briefings.

Just how important this information was to MBZ was highlighted that August when David Rowland e-mailed Jonathan, referring to Robeson by his initials: “GJR is very important in the HRW and Tory thing for the Boss and it is in our interests for it to work.” The following month Rowland’s foundation pledged an additional $930,000 to the watchdog group to be spent on projects in the Middle East.

The foundation appears to have had no other purpose than making the Human Rights Watch donations. It was registered in Guernsey after the first gift and wound down when Robeson left the board in 2016. Its website contained spelling mistakes and had an “under construction” banner as late as that year, when it was shut down. It listed no other partnerships beyond the one with Human Rights Watch, and internet searches show no trace of any other charitable activity.

Emma Daly, a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch in New York, said the organisation vetted Robeson at the time he was being considered for the board and couldn’t find any conflicts. She said the group didn’t know about Rowland’s or the bank’s connections to MBZ. Its most recent report on the country noted that, “Despite declaring 2019 the ‘Year of Tolerance,’ United Arab Emirates rulers showed no tolerance for any manner of peaceful dissent.”

Daly said that Robeson “had no role in the planning, design or execution of our work, and we pulled no punches in condemning the UAE’s appalling human rights record before, during or after his tenure with us”. She said Robeson, who had remained a member of the group’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights committee, was asked to step down from that role in November after Bloomberg BusinessWeek published an article about the bank. Robeson declined to comment.

The Rowlands were on hand again in 2012 offering some financial footwork to the Abu Dhabi owners of Britain’s Manchester City Football Club. The Union of European Football Associations had banned clubs from spending more than they earned, which threatened to derail Manchester City’s expansion plans. The club, bought by a half-brother of MBZ in 2008, had spent about £390m  on new players since then and lost £300m in the two years before the cap went into effect.

Working with Tricks, the Rowlands set up a company that paid the club a one-time fee of £24.5m for the players’ image rights and assumed the £12m cost of compensating them for their marketing appearances. Behind the scenes, Abu Dhabi reimbursed the Rowlands.

But the plan didn’t pass muster with Uefa, which in 2015 wrote to the club asking it to take back more than £10m in image-rights payments a year, Reuters reported in 2018 after reviewing documents known as the “Football Leaks”. Uefa didn’t say in the letter that Manchester City had intended to evade its rules or deceive it, according to Reuters, and the governing body didn’t accuse the club of wrongdoing. Spokespersons for Manchester City and Uefa declined to comment.

Robeson was in court in London in March when lawyers representing Qatar accused the bank of leading a financial attack on the country. Dressed in a smartly tailored suit and tie, with a battered Louis Vuitton attaché case on the floor by his chair, Robeson sat at the back of the room as the lawyers said Banque Havilland executives had been “caught with their pants down” when the existence of the plan was revealed.

The presentation is now a key part of the case in which Qatar accuses the bank of orchestrating an illegal UAE-backed campaign to create false impressions about the country’s stability. The UAE is not a defendant. The plan called for setting up an offshore vehicle into which the UAE would transfer its holdings of Qatari debt before buying more of the securities. The fund would also purchase foreign-exchange derivatives linked to the Qatari riyal and buy enough insurance on its bonds — a barometer of a country’s creditworthiness — to “move the price sufficiently to make it newsworthy”. Working with an affiliated party, it would then flood the market with the bonds to create the impression of panicked selling. The presentation also described a public relations drive to “add more fuel to the fire” and suggest Qatar might be struggling to access US dollars.

Within weeks of the plan being sent to Tricks, the riyal — under pressure since the beginning of the blockade in June 2017 — went into free fall and hit a record low. The yield on Qatar’s 10-year bonds also soared, as did the cost of insuring the country’s debt against default. The currency didn’t recover until November of that year, after the Intercept reported on the Banque Havilland plan.

The bank’s lawyers said in an April filing that the presentation was sent to Tricks, a paid consultant to the bank at the time, that he hadn’t forwarded it to anyone and that the plan was never implemented. They didn’t address how it ended up in the UAE ambassador’s inbox. Another court hearing is scheduled for next year.

Meanwhile, the Rowlands still have friends in Abu Dhabi. In April, they transferred ownership of Blackfish Capital, their family office in the UK, to an investment company based in the emirate run by Barclay Rowland, another son of David’s. The family’s private jet, flight records show, flew to Abu Dhabi at least 10 times in 2019, one of its most frequent destinations.

Bloomberg

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