Tuesday, 29 November 2011

The dangers of working in Qatar

Wages may be tax free, but employment laws can make leaving the emirate a nightmare.

The British former chief executive of Standard Chartered in Europe is being held against his will in Qatar after losing his job as the head of bank in the Emirate, an investigation has revealed.

David Proctor, an international banker who as a senior Bank of America executive won plaudits for his role in limiting the effects of the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, was dismissed as chief executive of Al-Khaliji Bank, which he helped to establish, last March. His former employer has so far refused to sign his exit visa to allow him to leave the Gulf state, citing opaque investigations, the details of which are yet to be made public.

The case, highlighted by Euromoney magazine, echoes that of a number of other expatriates who have been barred from leaving the resources-rich state after coming into conflict with former employers. Those living in Qatar refer to the practice as "being sent to China" and the Foreign Office considers the situation serious enough to warn those thinking of going to live in Qatar that they risk being prevented from leaving by disgruntled former employers. Under Qatari law, exit visas must be signed by an employer. Those affected are not held under arrest, can receive visitors and are free to travel around Qatar, but they cannot leave the country.

Mr Proctor's case, however, is especially worrying. After being removed by the bank, authorities in Qatar opened a fraud investigation into his time as chief executive. According to the Foreign Office, this investigation was concluded in September last year, without any charges being brought. At the time, two of Mr Proctor's former colleagues – Martin Wright and Guy Noble – who were also under scrutiny, were allowed to leave.

British officials do not know why Mr Proctor is still under investigation, or the nature of any charges he might eventually face. In fact, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office yesterday admitted that the British Government is not aware of any current investigation into Mr Proctor's activities in Qatar.

Charbel Cordahi, a spokesman for Al-Khaliji in Doha, confirmed that a new investigation had been started. However, he added that the bank cannot answer questions on the case because it is still active. He refused to say what the inquiry referred to, how long it would last, or why the company would not sign Mr Proctor's exit visa.

Al-Khaliji, which describes itself as "next generation banking" on its website, is in effect a state-controlled bank. Its chairman, Sheikh Hamad bin Faisal bin Thani al-Thani, a member of Qatar's ruling dynasty, is also the country's Economy Minister and the vice-chairman of the Qatar National Bank. Specifically relating to Mr Proctor's case, the Sheikh is also director of Qatar's Customs department.

Mr Cordahi rejected the idea that Al-Khaliji Bank is state-owned, saying that it has 23,000 shareholders. He did acknowledge, however, that five of the six biggest shareholders, owning 36.8 per cent of the bank, are Qatari state-controlled investors.

Bizarrely, Mr Proctor rejoined the bank after his dismissal, acting as a special adviser to Sheikh al-Thani. He has since left that position too, although Mr Cordahi again refused to comment on why he left, or when.

Qatar's growing influence on the global economy is unquestionable. The emirate is a major producer of natural gas and has attracted scores of highly trained foreigners to help kick-start a dynamic banking industry.

The Qatari embassy in London has no qualms about recommending the country as a place to go and work. "Boasting well-preserved natural and historical sites, coupled with top-calibre business, sports, dining, shopping and accommodation facilities, Qatar is the perfect getaway," it says. The embassy failed to respond to emailed questions yesterday.

The Foreign Office is blunt in its message to Britons thinking of moving to Qatar. "Potential job-seekers should also be aware that under Qatari labour law the employer's permission to leave Qatar is required on every occasion," a spokeswoman said.

She added that the Government has raised the issue of exit permits with the Qatari government in the past, and that it intends to do so again in the future.

'Sent to China': 1001 unwanted nights in the Arabian Gulf

The case involving David Proctor is by no means the first in which when foreigners have been "sent to China" by former employers in Qatar. The most high-profile case is that of a Belgian, Philippe Bogaert, who escaped from the emirate last year after a venture to promote a marine festival failed.

He launched a web campaign about his case, which only came to an end when he boarded a yacht and escaped to India after more than a year in Qatar.

Tracy Edwards, a world champion yachtswoman, was also barred from leaving after a deal to promote a boating festival collapsed. Ms Edwards was kept in the emirate for a month before being allowed to leave. As well as Mr Proctor and his two colleagues – Martin Wright and Guy Noble – Steve Shipley, an American-Australian national and the bank's former head of IT, was subject to the same investigation. He was granted an exit visa in September last year, but only after agreeing to repay a $500,000 signing-on fee from the bank.

(Source: The Independent)

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