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Two Dubai

 

CHAPTER TWO - DUBAI

 

London, 4 December 2000.

 

I landed at Gatwick well ahead of schedule. Hamid and I had sat apart: there was nothing to discuss. Straight off the plane and onto the Gatwick Express, and I was in the office before lunch. Jill, our child secretary, right out of university, slim tall and blonde, greeted me with a quip about where I could have found the sun in December. I had the feeling she was jealous of my tan, but I did not think she would have accepted an invitation to join me next time. I was not her type, approaching middle age in my early thirties, passable but not striking of appearance, slightly balding. She was more interested in the young guys in computer support. She said she had seen my note about the external meeting this morning (did this surprise me, even though I hadn't left her one?), and now I was at my desk. I called home, but the answer phone was on, so I said "Hi" and hung up. I felt safe, a return of normalcy, but who were these people from the rugby trip?

 

As Zara had bid me farewell last night in Karachi, I had asked, "Zara, what would have happened, if I had done the normal thing and ignored the invitation to join your rugby trip?" She had looked me in the eyes and replied, "Frank, you have blue-grey eyes, like mine, we go well together," turned with an elegant swirl and left.

 

Right. No reminiscing. Let's get on the Internet. Where shall I start? Facts. The screen came up. Heathrow departures. No, it's got arrivals; where are departures? OK, Google search. Let me find the flight I was on. Gradually I worked my way through a few billion artificial synapses, so familiar to us users of the modern electronic world, in one billionth of one second. I don't believe it: when our flight was scheduled to depart we were still in the rugby club bar in Windsor. So the flight was late. But we had tickets for this flight. The timing could never have worked if the plane had left on time. Who were these people? Could they really have delayed a flight? For me? I felt 100% less relaxed about the whole thing than I had been on getting back to the office.

 

How could they have known that I would join the rugby trip? What if they didn't? Let's think. I agreed to join the rugby trip. The bus arrived at that moment and I boarded. What about the missing two players? In fact Hamid had not played, and yet we had been a full team of fifteen. This means that there had been no missing players. Sitting back, thinking this through, it gradually dawned on me that they had never intended me to join the trip.

 

My impromptu decision had nearly scuppered their plans, most likely. Their plan was to intercept me in Tunbridge Wells, and then, somehow or other, to get me on the flight to Karachi. So when I got on the rugby club bus they would have had to rethink their plans. Maybe Hamid was never intended to fly with us, but this became a necessary ruse to get me to accompany them to the point where we boarded the plane. They must have cleared me through security on some other ticket, and then taken me to the Karachi plane. I still could not work out how: it was all so implausible, but it had happened.

 

Then the other mystery: they had had my passport. I keep it in the safe at home, but no, I had sent it last week to the Romanian consular office for a visa. Did I get it back? After all that had happened, I could not remember for the moment. Had they intercepted my passport? Let me think about this. I would have given the passport to my secretary, who would have sent it by internal mail to the in-house travel office. They would have used a courier to send it to the Romanians and to retrieve it with the visa. So that process has three possible weak links: my secretary, internal office mail and the travel office, given that neither the Romanians nor the courier service seemed likely. But then whoever stole my passport would also have needed the information that I was applying for a Romanian visa. If that limits the field, then it had to be the travel office or my secretary, and the latter I really could not believe. I was admiring my talents as a sleuth when Jill popped her head around the door with a secretarial prompt.

"Frank, it's the two o'clock meeting." The Monday afternoon meeting. Great!

 

I was among the first to enter the boardroom, evidencing that to say no one really rushed for these meetings would be an understatement.

A trite: "Hi, Frank. Good weekend?" greeted me.

"Yeah. Got roped into a rugby match actually. Still a bit sore." As always I was telling the truth, at least to the extent required by the circumstances. I sat at the middle of the table, fake mahogany with space for fourteen, or more at a pinch, as others filed in. I looked around: Derek, looking through his notes, getting ready to tell everyone about all the wonderful things he had done, which everyone knew was crap; Jonathan, about to tell us success stories, others' successes, claimed for himself; Jennifer, ready to rap anyone's knuckles, with her sickly smile; Mike, already preparing for next weekend, once the inconvenience of being in the office was out of the way; Bill from compliance acting as if he was everybody's best friend and was there to smooth the bureaucracy for us; and no one was quite sure who was going to try and grab the meeting chairmanship today.

 

I have often wondered, as I sit through all the nefarious little games and stratagems being played, whether the others are sitting back and looking at me in the same way as I am looking at them. I snapped out of my reverie: it was my turn. As I reached the end of my recital about how many millions of dollars I had almost earned last week and how surely the deal flow would translate into hard cash maybe even as early as tomorrow, our Illustrious Leader, as he did not know himself to be known, who had unusually turned up to chair the meeting today, slid a fax across the table to me.

 

"You remember Julian Vermouth. Worked for us, years ago," he said. "Well, obviously he's turned up in the Gulf with a bank out there. Wants you to give them a call. Some kind of joint deal with them. Let me know what happens. And, Frank, cut the crap next time." The meeting exploded into laughter to the satisfaction of our leader. The message was clear: it was my turn to "shape up or ship out", which is the terminology he had used in this very meeting to address the last guy who had "left" the bank. Such a subtle way this buzzard had.

 

 

"Vermouth, hello. I said, hello." I heard on the end of the line I had just dialled.

"Oh, hello. This is Frank Chardonnay. We did meet up once when you worked with us. I was referringâ€"

"Frank. Yes, I certainly do remember. We had a fair bit of correspondence, one way or another. How are things doing over there? Give my regards to everyone. OK. Hang on; I'm just bringing in my colleague. I'll put you on the speaker. Hello, can you hear? Frank? This is Danny Malbeque. Danny, this is Frank Chardonnay. Wants to hear about our deal. So over to you, Danny. Bye, Frank, and do give my regards. Nice to speak to you."

 

"Frank, this is Danny, and by the way before you say it, snap, I mean on the grape varieties. I have your email address, so I shall put a couple of files through to you right away." There was an Australian twang to his voice. "We have a Powerpoint presentation, which is a kind of executive summary of the transaction, and an Excel spreadsheet with the numbers. Take a look at those when you get them. I won't go into detail over the phone, but here's the rationale. We are already mandated to do this deal but we don't have the expertise to carry it out on our own. First call, you might think, would be one of the biggies, a bank or accounting firm, but realistically, they would simply endeavour to take over the mandate to all intents and purposes. Cut us out. We would not look good in the eyes of our client. We think we could work on a much more co-operative basis with someone like you, your bank. We manage the client relationship; you bring product expertise and a window onto the international market out of London. You get it."

 

"Danny, this sounds exactly like the kind of role we can fulfil, especially given the existing relationship between our two banks. What we need to do is go over the scope and identify roles."

"That's right. Are you free to travel? Have you got a bike?"

"Have I got a what, Danny?"

"A bike, a mountain bike."

"Well, yes."

"OK, Frank, here's the deal. You look over the email. I have box loads of documentation here that you will need to see. If it looks like a flier, book yourself a flight to get in on Thursday night. Friday is our day off here, so bring your cycling gear. I'll pick you up at 9 a.m. at the Jamilla Beach Resort - we'll get you a booking there - and we'll head for the hills. If you want to make a weekend of it, bring your wife. Sorry about the short notice, but it's the usual story. It's all happening now. I could have been talking to you three weeks ago and we would have been way down the line, if the client had only signed the mandate, instead of poncing around, like they always do. Get back to me to confirm your flights."

So this was it. Maybe I was going to get a major assignment. It would take my mind off this last crazy weekend in Karachi. Business-wise I could get ship-shape.

 

It is the case that bankers' wives, certainly where international business is concerned, grow accustomed to their husbands disappearing at short notice for a couple of days. Usually this does not carry over into the conduct of their private lives, as was the case with my impromptu weekend in Karachi, but the groundwork is laid, so it's not such a desperately difficult situation. My wife seemed to have been busy anyway that weekend, so after the standard interrogation on how Jeremy was, and I confess that I was probably as well apprised of that as if I had actually seen him, things were back to normal. By Tuesday the whole story was out, suitably modified and edited, and the prospect of a weekend in Dubai laid to rest any thoughts of retribution that she might otherwise have harboured.

 

***

The Jamilla Beach Resort stands on the long sandy beaches which run to the southwest of Dubai. You sweep up to the lobby in your limousine, if you have one, and it seems everyone else does, step out into the balmy evening air, displaying your jewellery if you have any of value, and move through into the atrium. To the back of the hotel, gardens interspersed with pool and bars lead down to the beach and the tranquil waters of the Gulf. It took us all of two and half minutes to see that a posting with the bank here ranked several grades above London in December, except for the cocktail parties perhaps. And standing right there in the sea is the seven star edifice of the New Arabian Tower Hotel, a mecca for Middle Eastern hotel aficionados: one of the few hotels in the world where you have to pay just to go inside, unless you are, to hazard a guess, one of those who turns up with three or four Russian dancers gracing his arm.

 

On the dot of nine I was downstairs in the lobby, wondering how I would recognise Danny. I need not have worried. A tall thin Australian dressed in cut-off denim shorts and a white shirt came up to me. "Frank?"

"Yes, hello. You must be Danny."

"Right. I've got everything we need in the car." He looked me over. "Good, I'm glad you have your helmet with you, what with the stony ground and the sun. Let's go."

We turned left out of the foyer and walked beneath the palms through manicured gardens to a dark green Landcruiser in the hotel car park. The temperature was a beautiful twenty odd degrees and the sky was blue.

 

Once in the vehicle, Danny passed across a notebook computer from the back seat. I opened it, hit the enter button, as he suggested, and it sprang to life.

"It's the route for today. I downloaded it from the GPS last time I did this ride. You have to get to know the rides around here. We did this route as a group. With the GPS I can do it on my own safely. Otherwise you risk getting lost. This time of year that's OK, but I tell you, in the summer, no way Hose, you're a gonner, no chance, vulture fodder."

"You have GPS on your bike!" I exclaimed, having not come across this.

"I sure do. This is it. Mounts on a bracket. Afterwards you download it to the PC." He pointed at a 5 cm black box on the dashboard. "Just check it out. We're going up a wadi, you know, a dry river. But just look at the route out and back. On the computer screen you can see both the way out and the way back, but sometimes the track's just three or four feet wide. Incredible accuracy this GPS has. They have it on cruise missiles, you know, CNN and all that, so why not on my bike?" Sure enough I could see the bicycle's spidery progress up the track with a few loops and deviations which were probably natural obstacles.

 

We drove up north and then across towards the hills which separate Dubai from Oman. Mostly the terrain was undulating desert with scrub, but as we approached the hills, the landscape became rugged and totally dry, I mean, absolutely totally dry.

"OK. Before we get on the bikes, click on the icon that says "mandate.doc". Danny instructed me. This I did and spent a few minutes reading the letter, which set out the relationship to be agreed between our two banks. I looked closely at the paragraph labelled "fees", since this would contain the ridiculously large sums of money payable to my bank for my paltry efforts. This is the most important clause in the letter to any banker worth his salt, and I have always counted myself in that category, even if my Illustrious Leader does not.

"I've reviewed the material," I said, thinking exclusively of the fees, "and it looks good. Also you've been very precise in this letter, right down to fees."

 

"As we ride, I'll flesh it out for you," Danny said, "put some meat on the bones, give you the background about how we come to be where we are and so on. In the meantime, let's get these bikes sorted out. We're here." We parked next to what looked like heaps of natural shale. We unloaded and mounted the bikes. At first the going was tough, as I tried not to slide on the shale and crash ignominiously before we had even started. Danny set the pace riding ahead, twitching the GPS every now and then. We crossed the brow of a hill and descended to a small farming village. The school and mosque were new, everything was bright white, and there seemed to be some sort of minor commercial development with a few new houses. A group of villagers chatted next to a general store, where we stopped for a couple of bottles of water, an additional reserve just in case. From there, we headed up through the Wadi, with a steadily increasing gradient. The track become stonier and the size of the stones increased, suggesting a huge torrent hurling boulders down with it. Round each bend the track rose further to a new horizon and the gradient steepened.

 

"You have to watch out if it starts to rain. It can be very quick. Most years it doesn't, but these wadis can turn into death traps with flash floods. Anyway, let's talk. We're out of range of everything, mobiles included. This is the type of place we like to talk. You know why you're here, don't you?"

I had thought I knew, but this sinister undertone suggested a connection I had not even dreamt of.

"You mean..."

He broke in: "They briefed you, I assume. We went through your boss to make this an institutional contact, rather than your personal contact. That way you work for us in the bank on a bank deal rather than bringing your deal to the bank. You understand? I'm going to fill you in on the detail, or your bit of it."

 

So there I was, back where I had started, just when I thought I was getting out of the mess. Now I was sinking fast in a morass which was dragging me down. Those were my thoughts as I realised I was into my first deal. The generosity of the fees in the mandate letter began to make sense, as well as the rather peculiar invitation to go mountain biking. Where else are you guaranteed freedom from eavesdroppers these days?

 

Danny gave me the works. A holding company was established, which was going to pull together various private power projects, get involved in distribution of electricity, restructure and float various parts on different stock exchanges. The principals, the big guys, behind all this were only mentioned in general terms. My bank's role was to be primarily advisory in nature, which meant they did not have to provide money themselves but raise it from other banks, i.e. earn fees from lending other banks' money. I realised now that there would be no difficulty in getting this kind of deal signed up with my bank. The bank's money would not be at risk and we would simply rake in fees.

 

An hour into the wadi, Danny had brought me up to speed. There, among the rugged hills, we had reached a farm, just a few hundred square metres of date palms surrounded by stone walls and wire, no doubt watered by an underground spring. He suggested we turn round. I was in favour of that: his bike had full suspension, while I had a bone jarring experience which could only become worse at higher speed on the way down. The temperature was rising, and I knew the British winter had not acclimatised me to this kind of heat. Hard exercise dispels gloom, so I quickly accustomed myself to the shock of why I was really there. Looking on the bright side, this was just another sunny weekend, the second in a row, and I still did not know what it was they wanted of me.

 

It was well before midday, but the sun shone high in a clear blue sky above the jagged hills. We drank from the water bottles, which were still cool from ice blocks Danny had packed into them. The reserve water, purchased at the village below, would be hot by now. Setting off back down the wadi, we sped along the rock-strewn track – not the place to take a fall. As I jolted over the rocks, Danny gradually pulled ahead, disappearing around a bend a couple of hundred yards down the track. There was no chance of taking a wrong turn here. There was just one way down the wadi to the plain below, so I slowed the pace, and I took a moment to think this through.

 

Again everything seemed normal despite the circumstances leading up to my being here, and the unusual location. It seemed that I was being offered a transaction that would be good for me, and good for my bank. Why were they doing this? Maybe this was a means of keeping a lucrative piece of business "in-house" from their point of view by creating an informal group of "partners". Certainly, I had not been asked to do anything illegitimate. It was decision time, and so I used standard bank procedure: play it by ear until you know what's going on and then grab it or walk away as the case may be.

 

Danny was waiting round the bend. "Great isn't it, Frank. Less than an hour outside town, and we have this incredible scene. You can't do this in London. I go out on the bike most weekends. We have some amazing rides around here, technically quite tricky. You can meet the other guys next time. They're mostly expats, so we don't get an early start, like we did today, before the heat gets up. Friday is our day off here so they are nursing their Thursday night hangovers and don't want to get up too early. Drink some water. It's heating up."

"Yeah, this is an incredible sight." I said. "These boulders look like they've been thrown down by some raging torrent, but everything's bone dry. How do these thorn bushes survive?" I surveyed the few straggly bushes on the bed of the wadi and scattered across the hills on either side.

"Beats me," he said. "I wouldn't survive this ride without at least two litres of water, and I guess the thorn bushes get nothing like that. We'll need some liquid replacement when we get back. Let's go."

 

As we descended, the stones on the track diminished in size until the ride became relatively smooth. Then we approached the shale, rising before us like dunes. As we rode onto the shale, the temperature rose sharply, the sun's heat radiating from the dark stones. There was no clear path, so you could ride anywhere, but it was getting tricky to stay on the bikes, as they slid over the stones, and it was not easy to choose a route that avoided your sliding down into a hollow. This was not the weather for climbing out carrying your bike. I felt light-headed and was beginning to flag, when the Landcruiser appeared behind a mound of rocks, parked a couple of hundred yards away, a very welcome Landcruiser, an air conditioned Landcruiser with cold water in the back.

 

We loaded the bikes, downed the water remaining on the bikes, refreshed ourselves with supplies in the vehicle and settled into the air-conditioned ride back to the city.

"We'll go to my place," Danny suggested. "Liquid replacement. Priority number one." We took the road back through the sand, dunes and thorn bushes.

 

It was approaching one o'clock when we reached Danny's place. We drove into a square. In the centre were lawns and palm trees that Danny's house overlooked, lying on the east side of the square. Quite a contrast to the desert we have just been through, I thought.

"The women are out in town," Danny said. "Let's get changed and get on with it."

After a refreshing shower, we established ourselves on a patio with a small pool, more of a paddling pool for kids. A maid brought a jug of chilled water, which we swallowed in approximately zero point zero seconds. Danny pulled a couple of beers out of a fridge just inside from the patio door.

"I think we need a couple of cold ones. We've earned it," he said.

We then got into a business discussion on mutual past experiences, during which the pile of empty cans grew. The conversation changed and the pile grew further.

 

"Hey, it's getting on for four," Danny remarked. "I arranged that we would all meet back at the hotel. It's still a bit early. Let's have a couple more cold ones and then hit the road." He laughed and pointed at the pile of empty cans. By five we were ready to go. We went outside and got into his burgundy BMW.

"You don't drink and drive here," he said. "In fact, as a Muslim you take care about even appearing on the street after any alcohol. They sling you in jail for the night. The hotel's just down the road." Clearly, the beers back at the house didn't count, I thought, but he added, "They won't expect us to have had any beers yet, not at this time of day. My wife will drive home."

As he pulled out into the road, the lights at the junction up ahead turned green. We swung left into the main road and hit 100 mph instantly, or so it seemed to me.

"I just got this BM," he said. "Fun isn't it?"

"Well," I said, "you seem to subscribe to the theory that the faster you go, the less time you spend on the road, so the less likely you are to suffer accidents or traffic fines. Has it worked?"

"Yeah, I think that's about right. They don't drive very safely here, so I minimise my time spent on the road. Though I admit, Frank, I'd never thought of it that way until you drew it to my attention just now." Another couple of turns and we were approaching the Jamilla Hotel.

"We've got here in just under three minutes," he told me, and I was glad to have arrived. He pulled into the hotel parking.

"I don't think they'll be here quite yet, the wives. Punctuality isn't known to be a female trait. Why don't you call up to the room and leave a message on the machine to say we'll be in the bar on the roof?"

 

We took the lift up the many storeys to the top of the hotel. From there, you look down into an atrium with an amazing modernistic display, which would qualify for the Tate Modern. We passed through into the bar, and then out to the open-air roof terrace overlooking the sea to the west and Dubai to the north. We took a table at the edge and ordered a couple of beers in the continued interests of avoiding dehydration from our bike ride, by now some five to six hours before. With Danny suitably softened by the liquid replacement therapy we had assiduously followed, I thought it an opportunity to probe a little.

"How long have you worked with these guys, Danny."

"You might not know this, Frank. I was with your guys originally, but that was before your time. A lot of us here in Dubai are from that stable including Vermouth. As for me, banking's my hobby now. My main thing is mountain biking, every Friday, with training sessions first thing in the morning during the week. I wouldn't take this banking stuff too seriously, Frank."

"And what we're working on now?" I pressed.

"Cheers, Frank." He raised his beer glass. "Don't take it too seriously. Everything we do is above board. Keep it that way. No one expects anything else from you."

 

"But who's behind all this?" I continued to probe.

"Frank, I'll let you into a secret. I know a little more about your introduction to the group, but that's only because that's the way it is in Karachi, where I do business. We talk to our friends. So the group does have a couple of, what you might call "executives", who may from your point of view appear a little unconventional in their methods, but they're just getting the job done. Take your old prime minister: she may sink South American battleships, but if she had so much as pointed a Derringer at the leader of the opposition, she'd have been put away. Well, she was put away in the end, anyway, wasn't she, out to pasture, a bloodless coup? It's different with them. Out in the countryside a feudal lord still has serfs who prostrate themselves before him. He has power of life and death over his serfs, when he presides over the tribal court, and guess who they vote for in the elections, none other than their feudal lord. In Karachi he may behave like a businessman, while in the national or local assembly he has more arrows in his quiver than your Tony does: some of them have been known to kidnap or torture opposing factions; others roam town with bands of Kalashnikov toting thugs, loaded on trucks. What I am saying is don't bother to understand it: just do deals for your bank within the terms of your mandate - and go mountain biking. Let's get a couple more beers."

Clearly this was it from Danny for the time being, but I was intrigued by what he meant with "unconventional methods".

 

On Saturday morning Danny picked me up at the hotel to go to the office, the first day of the working week in Dubai. They gave me a meeting room, to go through the information on the energy projects. I would need to draft a full presentation to explain what the project was and the benefits of the mandate available to my bank, but this looked little more than a formality - we had not had an opportunity like this either this year or last at the bank.

 

I plagiarised information on the floppy disks and within an hour had put together a package which, as far as I could see, covered just about everything, from the rationale to the timescale of implementation and the financial benefits, together with detailed cash flow analyses. The only skimpy area was the project sponsors, but I guessed we would get by on what we had and, anyway, bank references were available.

 

At eleven they called me in to speak to Vermouth on the phone. It was a perfunctory call. He seemed somewhat preoccupied, and excused himself for not lining anything up on the social front, but he was in London and heading back to Dubai tonight and on to Singapore the next day on a business trip.

Contents

The Beginning

One Frank

Two Dubai

Three The Board

Four Nathan

Five Energy

Six Brewster

Seven Bangalore

Eight Lannington

Nine Economy Class

Ten Afghanistan

Eleven Meribel

Author's Comment on Means to an End

Publisher's Review of Means to an End

Author's Foreword

Czar Rising