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How to get a meeting with the UAE’s $1.5 trillion man

The sheikh, who’s in his mid-50s, isn’t only his family’s moneyman; he’s one of the deputy rulers of the Abu Dhabi emirate, a brother of the UAE’s president and the son of the country’s founding father. He’s also the national security adviser. In other words, not the sort of person whose front desk you call to ask for an appointment.
Last Updated : 25 April 2024, 04:07 IST
Last Updated : 25 April 2024, 04:07 IST

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By Ben Bartenstein

Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan is one of the most sought‑after people in the Middle East. Money managers and financiers flying into the United Arab Emirates from Hong Kong, London or New York yearn for even a 10-minute meet-and-greet. A lucky few might get to be guests aboard his superyacht, Maryah, where he likes to play chess as the sun glistens on the Persian Gulf. Slim and sporty in his trademark sunglasses, the scion of the world’s richest family oversees state assets and private funds that add up to more than $1.5 trillion. The opportunity to invest even a sliver of that wealth could yield plump fees and returns.

Getting to Sheikh Tahnoon is the rub. Any place in the world where valuable prizes can be won, the right introduction works wonders. In old Chicago ward politics, the line was “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” In Silicon Valley, the path to wealth runs through the Stanford University admissions committee and venture capital incubator cliques. But the concentration of state and financial power in the UAE makes everything more personal. The sheikh, who’s in his mid-50s, isn’t only his family’s moneyman; he’s one of the deputy rulers of the Abu Dhabi emirate, a brother of the UAE’s president and the son of the country’s founding father. He’s also the national security adviser. In other words, not the sort of person whose front desk you call to ask for an appointment.

One well-trod path to Sheikh Tahnoon and the money he controls runs through Al Maryah Island. The skyscraper-­studded community hosts Abu Dhabi’s international financial center, which Sheikh Tahnoon dreamed up two decades ago with guidance from the late US property tycoon Sam Zell. After meeting bankers in the Four Seasons hotel lobby, financiers may be directed to one of the companies the sheikh chairs: the UAE’s largest lender, First Abu Dhabi Bank PJSC; his private investment firm, Royal Group; or the artificial intelligence company G42.

If things go well, you’ll get to meet one of Sheikh Tahnoon’s gatekeepers, people who’ve won his trust and decide which newcomers to allow into the fold. Some don’t appear on any organizational chart, so it’s not only a matter of knowing the right people—you have to know the people who will even tell you the names of the right people. Bankers, lawyers and consultants trade these names in hushed tones at cafes in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. (This story is based on interviews with more than four dozen people familiar with Sheikh Tahnoon’s financial empire, including current and former employees of his companies, as well as foreign dealmakers, bankers and lawyers. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because much of the information they shared is private. Sheikh Tahnoon didn’t respond to requests for comment sent through Royal Group and the UAE government.)

A financier wants to build a relationship with the gatekeeper best able to get deals across the finish line while not tipping off competitors to the smoothest route to the royal. “It’s a very weird social dance,” says Reza Bundy, the chief executive officer of Atlas Capital Team Inc., which helps funds navigate geopolitical shocks. He’s met with Abu Dhabi wealth funds to discuss potential partnerships. “The gatekeeper is just as important as the idea. If you come in with a great idea but a bad gatekeeper, it will rub people the wrong way.”

Zell discovered early on the power of having the right connections. His introduction to the royals began at the dawn of the UAE’s modern gatekeeper era. In 2005, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Sheikh Tahnoon’s younger brother, who’s widely known as ABZ, was visiting New York, Zell recounted in a 2022 interview. The royal family had taken an interest in his ­affordable-housing developments in Mexico, so the two men arranged a meeting. They hit it off, and ABZ, who’d be tapped as UAE minister of foreign affairs the following year, suggested Zell fly to the Arabian Desert to pay a visit.

At the time, Sheikh Tahnoon was the only one among six full brothers—known as the Bani Fatima, or sons of Fatima, for their mother—who didn’t hold an official government job. His father had recently passed away, making the sheikh the ­beneficiary of significant landholdings. His Royal Group also got a large cash injection.

In the evenings, the Bani Fatima would meet at one of the Al Nahyan palaces to compare notes on who they’d encountered that day, what they’d learned and how to factor that information into their strategy. That group included elder brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who’s known as MBZ and has been president since May 2022, along with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who’s now a vice president, Sheikh Tahnoon and ABZ. Some of the family’s brain trust of informal advisers would also attend: Khaldoon Al Mubarak, a diplomat’s son who was groomed as a finance czar, and Yousef Al Otaiba, now the UAE’s top diplomat in Washington.

Zell broke the ice with the Al Nahyans when he and MBZ rode motorcycles at midnight through the streets of Abu Dhabi, Zell says. (Parts of his visit to Abu Dhabi were first reported in a 2007 New Yorker profile of him.) Later, Sheikh Tahnoon turned to Zell for business guidance. The billionaire ripped apart the sheikh’s initial idea for a development. The Abu Dhabi royal appreciated Zell’s honesty, leading the two to cultivate a friendship. Zell hosted Sheikh Tahnoon for lunch in his native Chicago, and his first time touching a gun came on a subsequent hunting trip to Morocco with Sheikh Tahnoon and MBZ. As his relationship with Sheikh Tahnoon deepened, Zell began working closely with a UK-educated Moroccan named Sofia Abdellatif Lasky. She was the main go-­between to coordinate meetings with the sheikh.

In the almost two decades since, Lasky has emerged as a quiet but important power player in UAE finance. She helps steer the day-to-day operations of the roughly $300 billion Royal Group from her ninth-floor office overlooking Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Park. The group’s unassuming blue building is down the street from Al Bateen Executive Airport, which caters to visitors flying in by private jet. In the early days, the team operated from an unmarked villa on a quiet stretch of road. Bankers would get handed slips of paper with the address, according to some who met with the group at the time.

Lasky’s name appears nowhere on the firm’s website, but people familiar with the business say she acts as Royal Group’s de facto CEO and sits on the boards of dozens of its subsidiaries. Two of the more notable ones, International Holding Co. and Alpha Dhabi Holding PJSC, have ballooned to a combined market capitalization of $280 billion under her watch. Lasky didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Locations of interest for financers in Abu Dhabi.

Locations of interest for financers in Abu Dhabi.

Credit: Bloomberg

With hundreds of entities under Royal Group’s umbrella, assets of the company grace every block of Abu Dhabi: fast-food chains, pharmacies, dental clinics, apartments, hotels, schools, malls, gyms, beach clubs, motorcycle shops, factories and telecommunications operators. The parent group employs more than 25,000 people; its IHC unit, some 155,000 more. Teachers might work for Al Rabeeh Academy, movie theater employees for Cine Royal Cinemas LLC and chefs for Ninar Restaurant & Cafeteria LLC.

As the Al Nahyan family’s financial empire has grown, so has the network of intermediaries. Abu Dhabi, home to about 6 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves, has positioned itself as the “capital of capital,” with more than $1.1 trillion ­combined in the sovereign wealth funds Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) and ADQ, both controlled by Sheikh Tahnoon. The Bani Fatima hold dozens of government posts, leaving them little time to meet visiting executives, even as lines get longer. “They have a lot of choices these days,” says Marcelle Wahba, who served as US ambassador to the UAE from 2001 to 2004. “Now the Wall Street crowd is also competing with financiers from China, India and elsewhere.”

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has become an initial port of call for many looking to meet Sheikh Tahnoon. Those who pass the ex-premier’s smell test (often over a cup of Argentine mate) may get an introduction to Lasky for final vetting.

Hariri will often host meetings at the presidential suite of the St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, his main residence in Abu Dhabi, where gazelles frolic outside the window along the pristine Gulf coast. (Abu Dhabi United Hospitality LLC, an IHC unit, owns the five-star hotel.) Hariri made the UAE capital his base in early 2022 after a series of crises ended his premiership. He also holds Saudi citizenship, but his relationship with that country soured after a late 2017 episode in which he suddenly announced his resignation on TV from Riyadh as Lebanese officials accused the kingdom of holding him hostage. With his political career over and family fortune in turmoil—Hariri comes from Lebanon’s most prominent political dynasty—he turned to Abu Dhabi for a chance to rebuild himself. “This is a place investing today with the tools and ideas of tomorrow,” he says.

Bill Murray, a former UK diplomat who had postings in Amman, Muscat and Tunis, is another adviser to the Abu Dhabi royals. People familiar with the situation say Murray and Sheikh Tahnoon forged a bond during the Brit’s ­assignment as political counselor in the UAE capital. He recently helped start Tau Capital, a venture capital firm backed by Sheikh Tahnoon with a focus on startups in so-called deep tech, or companies that drive fundamental scientific advancements.

There are power players for every region of the world where the Emiratis might want to invest. Ajay Bhatia, the CEO of Sirius International Holding, a subsidiary of IHC, has been a key intermediary on India deals, including with ­billionaire Gautam Adani, the world’s 14th-wealthiest person, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Melissa Moncada—former Miss Globe Colombia, who started several fitness ventures and then a holding company backed by Royal Group—has become a trusted fixer on Latin American deals, including an investment alongside Colombian tycoon Jaime Gilinski. IHC board member Mohammed Nasser Al Shamsi has been an important adviser for the sheikh on African mining deals. Murray, Bhatia, and Al Shamsi didn’t respond to requests for comment; Moncada declined to comment.

Deals are often built on years of relationships. Case in point: Rajeev Misra, who leaned on his vast Middle East network to raise billions of dollars, first for SoftBank Group Corp.’s Vision Fund and, more recently, for his One Investment Management. The India-born financier, whose backers include the UAE sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Co. and Royal Group, says he works closely with Lasky and others in Sheikh Tahnoon’s inner circle.

That inner circle also includes Syed Basar Shueb, the CEO of IHC, and G42 CEO Peng Xiao. IHC and G42 are at the heart of the UAE’s ambitions to reshape its oil-dependent economy around finance and technology. In only a few years, IHC has risen from obscurity to become the country’s most valuable listed company. Two years ago it plowed $2 billion into three companies that Adani owned. One of its listed subsidiaries, the tech-focused Multiply Group, has become active in the region’s latest flurry of initial public offerings.

International holding company's stock.

International holding company's stock.

Credit: Bloomberg

G42 has also risen from obscurity, becoming one of the world’s most prominent AI firms. One of its flagship projects is the Emirati Genome Programme, which aims to map the health data of the local population in an effort to prevent and treat chronic illnesses. People familiar with the sheikh’s thinking say the push dovetails with his own interest in longevity medicine, including a dream to live for at least 150 years.

The larger aim is to turn Abu Dhabi into a global contender in finance and also ­geopolitics, punching above its weight as the so-called Little Sparta. This ambition led Sheikh Tahnoon’s companies to consider deals to buy Standard Chartered Plc and Lazard Ltd. last year. It’s prompted partnerships with entrepreneurs such as OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and spurred a slew of billionaires to set up offices in the UAE. That list includes Ray Dalio, founder of hedge fund company Bridgewater Associates; Changpeng Zhao, the crypto exchange founder who’s pleaded guilty to anti-money laundering charges in the US; and Russian steel tycoon Vladimir Lisin. Last year finance firms representing more than $450 billion committed to establishing operations at Abu Dhabi’s international financial center.

Deals can be seen through the prism of UAE national security and how it’s tethered to economics. The tiny country has investments in everything from US tech and Chinese AI firms to Zambian copper mines and Indian solar ­projects, extending its soft power across the globe.

Business connections can become political connections, too. Venture capital executive Rick Gerson, a workout buddy of MBZ’s who’s done business in Abu Dhabi for years, is also on the board of IHC’s Multiply. Gerson is close to Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of former US President Donald Trump, and introduced him to the Abu Dhabi royal family. That paved the way for an amicable relationship between Trump and the UAE. A month after his surprise 2016 election win, the president-elect, Kushner, advisers Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn, MBZ and Sheikh Tahnoon met at the Four Seasons in New York. The sheikh was later central to the UAE’s move to normalize ties with Israel, as well as recent diplomatic detentes with Qatar and Iran. “He wants all the countries in the region working together,” Kushner says.

Kushner’s post-White House career as an investment manager has been closely tied to the Middle East. His Affinity Partners got a $2 billion investment from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and it’s also received investments from sovereign wealth funds in Qatar and the UAE, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the information isn’t public.

Sheikh Tahnoon has leveraged his position as a big capital allocator to obtain market intelligence from Wall Street banks and the world’s largest money managers, which feeds into his own investment strategy. But ambitious dealmakers headed to Abu Dhabi might want to pack workout clothes along with their laptop.

These days, Sheikh Tahnoon will sometimes invite visiting financiers for an intense road bike ride on one of the city’s cycle tracks. The royal also has a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu. His love for the sport grew in his late 20s, when he spent some time training in San Diego under the tutelage of Brazilian ­instructor Nelson Monteiro. He then recruited Monteiro to become his private trainer in the UAE. They’d go on to set up combat gyms across the country, many of which are overseen by Royal Group and have become known as places for financiers to rub shoulders with the sheikh and his entourage.

“Informal meetings provide a conducive environment for building trust and rapport with the Abu Dhabi royals,” says Vinay Kapoor, a veteran banker who’s worked in the UAE for three decades. “Sheikh Tahnoon values ­authenticity and genuine connections.” Of course, as every money raiser knows, sometimes there’s nothing informal about landing a casual ­introduction.

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Published 25 April 2024, 04:07 IST

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