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Within a few minutes of arriving at Scott’s, and before we glance at the menu, I’ve heard about Amanda Staveley’s wedding dress (made by Sarah Burton, who designed the Duchess of Cambridge’s dress), her latest dealmaking in Dubai, from where she has arrived this morning, and – most intriguingly – her big parallel pursuit of advising an opposition tribal leader in Yemen.
Yes, Yemen. The occasional former model, one-time girlfriend of Prince Andrew and now financial fixer to sheikhs is embracing the Arab spring and hoping that her client, Sheikh Hamid al-Ahmar, a major businessman in Yemen, will emerge as a beneficiary of an eventual, and inevitable, political transition in the region’s poorest country.
Staveley, known by everyone in Gulf circles as Amanda, is 38, very tall and slim, with short blonde hair and wearing a simple black dress; her background and style would not seem to fit with the conservatism of the Gulf, let alone clients such as Sheikh Hamid, known for his (moderate) Islamist political views. Indeed, many of the relationships she has developed in the oil-rich Gulf in the past decade have puzzled the crowds of bankers competing for a slice of its wealth. How, they wonder, does this glamorous young British woman make inroads into the region’s royal families and bring them deals that elude the legions of bankers and investment managers who have flocked to the area in recent years?
Though Staveley has been associated with a slew of transactions, from property to telecoms, her main claim to fame occurred in the autumn of 2008, when she helped rescue Barclays from a government bail-out by bringing Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi to the table with a £3.5bn cheque. She was said to have made $40m along the way – a figure some think is a wild exaggeration and others describe as an underestimate. She neither confirms nor denies the amount, brushing off the question with a dismissive hand gesture. The Barclays deal came just after the £210m sale of Manchester City football club to the same royal (she was acting on behalf of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra), though another deal to deliver Liverpool FC to Dubai, an acquisition she had assiduously chased, ended in frustrating failure.
The combination of headline-catching transactions at a time of extraordinary financial boom in the Gulf, just before the global financial crisis struck, raised her profile massively, earning her envy in some quarters and controversy in others. Within Abu Dhabi, a traditional conservative purchaser of foreign assets, the type of acquisitions she brokered, particularly the foray into British football, was a source of unease that clashed with the emirate’s image.
Staveley talks rapidly, telling one story after another, sometimes switching subjects within the same sentence. She has a way of making you feel as if you’d known her for years, a remarkably quick familiarity that surely serves her well in the Middle East, where the personal touch is key and advisers have to do a lot of tea-drinking and praising before talking business.
20 Mount Street, Mayfair, London W1
Still water £4.50
Diet Coke £3.25
Herb salad £6.75
Tomato salad £8.50
Red mullet £25.00
Sea bass £28.00
Filter coffee £3.25
Cover charge x 2 £4.00
Total (including service) £97.03
I am not sure about an appetiser but want to make sure that she feels free to order one, while she worries about whether I will be eating enough. So we go through this awkward moment – “Are you sure? Are you sure?” – then settle on the very boring choices of a green salad for me and a tomato salad for her. I choose the red mullet as a main course, while she picks sea bass. She says no to a glass of wine – “Oh God, it ends up in the papers that she’s having a drink on Monday,” she laughs. She’s sleepy, having travelled all night from Dubai, where she now lives, so orders a Diet Coke.
She is clearly a regular at Scott’s, dropping casually in the middle of our conversation that she had been there recently with her friends Simon Cowell and Sir Philip Green. I ask her about her upcoming wedding in October, a source of gossip among those convinced that she turned her back on a marriage proposal from Prince Andrew in 2003. She will only say that Andrew was a “very considerate boyfriend” and a “very special man” in her life.
I had met her fiancé, Mehrdad Ghodoussi, a handsome Iranian who works with her, a few weeks earlier at her Park Lane townhouse and was struck by his passionate interest in Yemen. “I’m more explosive and he’s very calm, very laid back, nothing’s too much of a problem,” she says. She tells me that her clients are very protective of her and were insistent on doing due diligence about her future husband.
The daughter of a Yorkshire landowner – the family wealth dates back to the 16th century, when Cardinal Wolsey handed them a plot near Ripon – Staveley modelled part-time while studying at Cambridge, before opening a restaurant at 23 near Newmarket. How, I ask, as we nibble at our salads (I notice I am eating much faster than her), did she end up as financial adviser to rich Middle Eastern clients? It began, she tells me, during the dotcom boom in 2000 when she started Q.Ton, a high-tech conference centre, at the Cambridge Science Park, which attracted the attention of Abu Dhabi officials, including some of the royals. “They were interested in seeing how we were taking commercial property out of Cambridge University and how we could capitalise on it,” she says. “I flew to the United Arab Emirates and I looked out at all the desert and I just felt ... that this is just a place that was going to be important to me.”
Her foray into the dotcom world ended after EuroTelecom, an IT services and broadband telephone supplier that had bought a 49 per cent stake in Q.Ton, collapsed in 2001. “It was a great baptism of fire because I went on the board of a publicly listed company [EuroTelecom] in my mid-twenties ... I was very young.”
But by 2005, she had set up Dubai-based private equity company PCP Capital Partners, which keeps such a low profile it doesn’t even have a website. She tells me the company started with a non-Arab paying client, Itochu Corporation of Japan, which was seeking to buy assets in the UK.
Since then, though, PCP has grown on the back of dealmaking for Emirati and Qatari clients, and a structure that was more nimble than big investment banks. She explains that she can make decisions faster because her company has less bureaucracy and her focus is entirely on the Gulf countries, with her attention never diverted from this.
What does PCP do? Anything the client needs, sometimes providing services for free. “We provide an A to Z solution,” Staveley says. “Whether it’s on a wealth management basis, advice, structuring transactions, doing the typical M&A, managing assets, we’ll look after certain political issues. We’ll lobby, we will develop, manage on the site, spec apartments, book furniture and choose, you know.”
That she is willing to “do anything for a client”, as she puts it, reflects a remarkable drive to succeed and make money. “It’s partly because of my own background. I came away from home early, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about being a girl in a family where the boy inherits ... My mother and father always told me your brother will inherit and your job is to marry well ... And it was almost like a child wanting [to hear] a parent’s ‘Well done.’” When I observe that this experience must have made her feel at home in the socially conservative Gulf, she says her family might actually have been even more conformist than Gulf society.
Though she seems to talk a lot more about Qatar than Abu Dhabi these days – her latest deal was arranging the £250m sale of Land Securities’ West End development to Qatar’s Barwa Real Estate – there is one man, she says, that she owes most to: Sheikh Mansour.
So can she tell me about the sheikh, brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and more brash than most of the members of the royal family? Not a chance, she says. There is nothing she can say about the relationship or other deals she might be arranging.
After the main dishes arrive, the conversation takes a less comfortable turn. Staveley may be celebrated in the British media for her dealmaking prowess but I’ve heard more critical talk back in her adopted hometown. I ask her about reports that she had a huge falling out with Abu Dhabi after the Barclays deal (some critics said she made too much money for little effort); that Dubai’s ruler, too proud to sell assets during the emirate’s financial meltdown in 2008, least of all to his richer Abu Dhabi neighbours, was furious about rumours that she had been arranging a bail-out.
Staveley seems visibly shocked by the criticism, as if she is hearing it for the first time, and dismisses it as ridiculous gossip. “A lot of people were very jealous because it [the Barclays transaction] did exceptionally well, and when you do very, very well, a lot of people will try and knock you off your perch.”
People were very jealous about the Barclays deal. When you do very, very well, they try and knock you off your perch
She’s as welcome as ever in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, she goes on, and all she had tried to accomplish during the financial turmoil was to sell Dubai bonds to Gulf states interested in helping the emirate manage the crisis. “You need strong skin,” in the region, she says.
As the waiters hover around us offering dessert – we order only coffee – our conversation returns to the Arab uprising. I suggest that the explosion of frustrations with authoritarianism and corruption has surely had an effect on her business.
Many bankers have been terrified, she says, as relationships they’ve had for years have disappeared. But she considers herself lucky to have chosen the right clients; she says you can only “embrace” the change in the region. She makes no secret that she knew Libya’s Seif al-Islam, son of Muammer Gaddafi, who was closely involved in Tripoli’s foreign asset purchases in recent years. Unlike many western banks, however, she never worked with the Libya Investment Authority, whose badly judged dealmaking has been exposed since its assets were frozen this year.
What about the UAE and Qatar? Both are too rich for revolution and still looking for deals abroad, but Abu Dhabi has cracked down on dissent and Qatar no doubt would if any sign of opposition to the ruling family emerges. For now, I suggest, the strategy of Gulf governments has been to lavish social handouts and hope that people remain satisfied.
Staveley is careful not to offend anyone with her response. “I’m not living in a society where I see people particularly suppressed or hungry,” she says of the UAE, then adds, “It’s good that the leaders, all leaders, should be held to account; all leaders, whether it’s a democratic society or one where there’s an absolute monarchy.”
And Yemen, despite its impoverished state, does have a few rich people, one of the wealthiest being her client Sheikh Hamid, and it may offer one of the Arab uprising’s most lucrative opportunities.
If Ali Abdallah Saleh, the president who has been undergoing treatment in a Saudi hospital since an attack on his palace in June, never returns to Yemen (and many officials in the Gulf and in the west are hoping he doesn’t), then Sheikh Hamid, an arch rival of Saleh’s, will be a main beneficiary in a political transition. “He’s a very very religious man,” says Staveley. “He’s a very quiet, studied, educated, humble man. I read today a newspaper in Yemen saying we need a humble leader – that is him.”
I tell her that the young Yemeni protesters who have been camped out in the capital Sana’a to call for the fall of the Saleh regime look at Sheikh Hamid and his al-Ahmar family as part of the same corrupt elite who have mismanaged the country. The problem, she says, is that the president’s people are briefing against her client.
Even as Yemen is paralysed by the stand-off, its economy falling into deeper ruin, Staveley is working on deals, looking for acquisitions for Sabafon, a telecoms operator with which her company has a management contract. With a taste for adventure, she has her eyes on Iraq, which is still emerging from years of sectarian strife but where the telecoms sector could be hugely promising. “Very interested in Iraq, love Iraq.”
Roula Khalaf is the FT’s Middle East editor
Middle Eastern money: A brief guide to the Gulf’s big spenders
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan
Who? Deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and son of the late Sheikh Zayed, founder of the UAE. Among his many roles he is a board director of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the emirate’s largest sovereign wealth fund, and chairman of the International Petroleum Investment Company, writes Camilla Hall.
How rich? Forbes estimated his personal net worth at $4.9bn in 2009, in addition to a share of the family’s $150bn. ADIA’s assets total about $627bn while IPIC’s equal $58bn, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
Owns? Helped Barclays avoid a government bail-out in 2008 when he invested alongside Qatar in a deal brokered by Amanda Staveley. He shot to fame when he bought Manchester City Football Club the same year. IPIC acquired Spanish refiner Cepsa in a €3.7bn deal earlier this year.
Style? Elusive but canny, he tries to stay out of the headlines.
Most likely to be found? Watching his favourite football team.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani
Who? Prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar and chief executive of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the country’s sovereign wealth fund. Board member of numerous Qatari government companies.
How rich? Personal wealth is unknown. As chief executive of the QIA he oversees assets of about $85bn, according to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute.
Owns? Qatar Holding, the direct investment arm of the QIA, bought a stake in Iberdrola, Spain’s biggest power utility as well as Hochtief, the German construction group, earlier this year. Its other investments include London’s luxury department store Harrods. Sheikh Hamad is said to have invested personally in high-end London property, including One Hyde Park Place.
Style? Will take time to discuss his investment plans if you can catch him.
Most likely to be found? On a luxury jet.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal al-Saud
How rich? Estimated wealth of $19.6bn last year, ranked 26th richest man by Forbes.
Owns? Substantial stakes in News Corp, Citigroup and Apple, as well as several luxury hotels. He parks his money at home and abroad, recently announcing plans to build the world’s tallest tower near the Saudi Arabian sea port of Jeddah.
Style? Prince Alwaleed never minds the spotlight. A loyal investor, he can be called upon publicly to support the companies he owns stakes in in times of need. He backed Citigroup’s Vikram Pandit through the financial crisis and more recently came to the aid of News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch.
Most likely to be found? At his farm in the desert or in his office above the Four Seasons in Riyadh’s glitziest building, Kingdom Tower.
Camilla Hall is the FT’s Gulf correspondent
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