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Sun 26 Jul 2009 07:48 PM

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Bogus late-night calls from Al-Braikan - witness

Phone calls could come at any time, but always had same message: "Hi, Hazem here. I have a major scoop for you."

His phone calls could come at any time - during trading hours, close to midnight or on weekends - but they always had the same message: "Hi, Hazem here. I have a major scoop for you."

And after the third call or so, I managed to track down the mystery Kuwaiti who spoke perfect English and always bragged about his work.

Hazem Khaled al-Braikan, who died from a single gunshot wound to the head on Sunday in what police said was an apparent suicide, was at the centre of a lawsuit the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched against him and other Gulf Arab finance firms. He was 37.

On Thursday the SEC said they earned millions of dollars from trades in Harman International Industries Inc and Textron Inc. All firms have denied the allegations.

Al-Braikan, who was working in senior positions for the country's biggest investment firm, Kuwait Project Co (KIPCO), liked to boast about his job or his investments and discuss market rumours with reporters.

After calling me but never revealing his identity, I tracked him down by dialling the number he was calling from - an extension at KIPCO's fund arm KAMCO - left a message with his secretary and rushed to his office in Kuwait City.

When his secretary opened his door and announced my presence, Hazem, dressed in a white traditional Arab robe, looked a bit baffled but was very calm and polite.

"Hi Ulf, good to meet you," he said, while quickly ordering tea. We discussed Kuwaiti and world politics, but Hazem did not want to reveal any sources for the rumours he had tried to spread with calls to me and other reporters.

"I hear it from the market, and I will always tell you first," was his answer, a phrase he repeated often. He gave me several of his business cards, which came from different firms, but not his mobile number, and his calls never stopped.

Dealing with people like Braikan who openly talked about market rumours is typical of the challenges financial journalists face in the Gulf Arab state.

With 17 newspapers competing for news, the financial pages are full of unsourced reports - the big ones could have up to 15 stories about takeovers, earnings, dividends - sometimes accurate, sometimes wrong, but mostly market moving.

Despite its enormous wealth, Kuwait, which sits on a tenth of global oil reserves, lacks any sort of financial regulator to effectively clamp down on insider trading.

It is the only Gulf Arab state where the market - the second largest Arab bourse - quasi supervises itself, with plans to set up a financial authority stalled for several years.

The bourse, which some locals call a casino, often forces firms to respond to unsourced reports by halting their shares until they issue a statement. But it never managed to stop the corporate gossip mill in Kuwait City.

And Hazem regularly got in touch, sometimes several times a week, boasting about his latest plans, while discussing rumours he wanted Reuters to write about.

He could be very polite, but also firm and even aggressive, telling me once: "Didn't you see that story in the papers? You're missing a big story!"

On that occasion Hazem wanted Reuters to pick up an unsourced report published in a local paper about the supposed bid a US lender was planning for a local Kuwaiti bank he had told us about earlier.

No deal ever materialised.

Ahead of the Textron hoax in April he contacted me several times late in the evening, sending text messages that he urgently needed to talk to me after I had refused to take his calls, sensing just another market rumour.

"There is a major scoop coming," he said when I finally picked up. He gave me the same details of the Textron story which appeared a few days later in a local paper - moving Textron stock by 47 percent.

No deal ever materialised there, either.

It was similar pattern with the Harman saga, which happened after I left Kuwait for Saudi Arabia. Hazem called my colleagues announcing a "takeover scoop" that would be coming, and when it appeared in the local press he urged us to pick it up.

Just a year ago he was at the top of his career, chatting and lunching with the then Chairman of Citigroup Sir Winfried Bischoff, who was visiting Kuwait after buying a 10 percent stake in Islamic firm Al Raya Investment where Hazem was now boss.

Hazem was shaking hands with Bischoff at the reception at the exclusive Chairman's Club in the tower headquarters of Burgan Bank, another KIPCO unit, an in-house restaurant with a bar built in the style of an English pub, but with no drinks on the menu.

But that day Hazem, who had earlier taken Bischoff to meet Kuwait's ruler, joined by one of the emir's sons who heads KIPCO, was not eager to get in touch with the media he had tried to use so often.

Al-Raya had invited reporters to attend the "media event", but then we were told not to speak to anyone after waiting for more than an hour. (Reuters)

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