Writes my husband in an email to me this morning, with the scanned feature article written on Mr Khalaf Al Habtoor published in the latest Gulf Business magazine attached.
It is my father’s birthday today (83 and seriously ill) and, we are half a world away from him – and from each other, technically homeless with two teenage daughters out of school and in someone else’s care…but my husband’s primary interests are in synch with mine.
I bought the same magazine 2 days ago in transit at the airport in Dubai – lured to it by its cover, hopeful to finally find the answer to the question that has bothered me for the last 3 years:
Has the Grand Mr Habtoor fallen into and does he continue to be the a victim of a ‘massive and evil’ manipulation scammed by the Leighton management or is he the shrewd businessmen that he likes to portray, that will indeed come out of this affair unscathed?
Personally, I am still in favour of scenario 1 – to the extent that I can publicly promise to ’eat one of my shoes’ if the second theory turns out to be correct – not that anyone seem to care much about my dietary habits or even what the truth is in this case.
The big boys on the two sides are fighting BIG with their PR machines all fired up – small ‘barking fish’ like me are just a minor nuisance, if anything at all.
It would be a self-contained ‘little’ culturally-charged affair, if the game I’m referring to was purely between Leighton Holdings and Mr Habtoor, one side trying to save face of the Wall King empire under the attack of allegedly deeply set-in, globally spread corruption and the other working on conserving his, when confronted by dozens of large scale building-projects turning rapidly into financial disasters impacting on numerous big name co-patriots.
This is no game of two halves.
For whatever reason, the many others involved and impacted by it are still and ‘by and large’ staying quiet, waiting for the ‘rope’ to swing a bit more decisively onto one side or the other.
For a start, there are many-many big name and themselves very powerful clients of HLG operating in the region that have been sold a ‘lemon’ and are scrambling to get their projects finished and save what is saveable while being fed empty promises by Habtoor’s favourite schmoozers, quite often the quietly humble and understated Mr confidante Riad Tawfik Al Sadik himself.
Then, there are the armies of subcontractors, from relatively small to very large corporations caught up working on mismanaged, negligently and amateurishly run sites, themselves paid late, if ever, intimidated into walking away empty handed, bitter and cheated.
At the bottom of the pile of marginalized are the ‘honest’ employees of the old Habtoor Engineering Enterprise, often dropped by arrogant Leighton-faithful managers after decades of steady and loyal work or the few good western-bred professionals left within the ranks that the Habtoor flavoured HR can no longer stomach because they know too much.
Bizarrely though and for me most amazing is the silence that ‘comes’ from those that are in ‘reality’ the owners of this ‘naughty child’ that HLG has turned into almost immediately after its birth, neither Hochtief, nor ACS appear to have the ability or willingness to put their foot down and sort the mess out before it takes their own share prices down on its way of inevitable self-destruction.
I will not even try to put a number to the people (including ‘everyday mom-and-dad shareholders’) that will be negatively impacted by the domino effect triggered, if the truth of inability of HLG to complete even one project on time to the promised quality and price really comes to surface?
Or when someone financially literate does a proper audit of its books and is game enough to faithfully report on the sorts of moneys that had been spent on chasing projects in the region the company realistically never had the slightest chance to land?
Or count the number of highly paid employees that are still occupying its expensive offices to produce meaningless reports as phantom bids and work overtime to keep the floodgates of disaster from opening?
Because, if markets did work as they are supposed to and publicly listed companies did abide by the rules then the risk of domino effect that will sweep over shareholders big and small, private and institutional that invested in this trio of companies (Leighton, Hochtief , ASC) would be hardly there. They could all sleep easy without the worry of HLG blowing up and taking them down any time soon and I would not need to guess the number of financially aggrieved that will be very large once this company does hit the wall.
As I look at the measuredly cheerful image of the confident Mr Habtoor on the cover of the Gulf Business I can be fooled that all is well and rosy in his empire and this bleak destiny of a company that is so closely associated with his name I am predicting will never happen.
Still, I’m vary of the manicured smile and I cannot agree with my husband’s presumption from the title that Mr Habtoor could, even if wanted to under any circumstance, just walk away from HLG – it is far too late for that.