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Thu 19 Jun 2014 01:13 PM

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Where did it all go wrong for Arabtec?

The departure of CEO Hasan Ismaik leaves more questions than answers for the contractor’s shareholders.

Where did it all go wrong for Arabtec?

The fact that Arabtec’s share price immediately started trending back upwards after investors heard that chief executive Hasan Abdullah Ismaik was leaving the company said it all. We didn’t know a great deal about him before he took on the top job, and we still don’t know a great deal about him now.

After spending a year in charge of the UAE’s most important construction firm, Ismaik’s tenure was characterised by plenty of bombast and plenty of grandiose announcements.

There were also a couple of awkward moments, such as a television interview where Ismaik claimed that the company was looking for a merger with two major Gulf construction firms, only for a press statement to be released a day later denying that any talks had taken place. 

There’s no doubt that Arabtec’s backlog has grown substantially, but it remains unclear how the company will be able to take on the massive amount of work it has won. There also doesn’t seem to be any movement on two joint ventures the company signed last year with Samsung Engineering (to bid for energy, utility and infrastructure work) and GS Engineering and Construction Corp (for rail, bridges, ports and tunnels).

Not that any of this will bother Ismaik now. The last 12 months have made him an extremely rich man, mostly due to recent decisions to boost his stake in Arabtec to just over a quarter of the company. According to reports, he is already touting out that stake to “government entities”. 

But the last couple of weeks have been nothing short of a shambles. If there is ever a case study to determine the best way for a company to toss hundreds of millions of dirhams of shareholder value into the dustbin in the shortest time possible, then Arabtec’s recent performance would surely make it a contender. Over just six weeks, the firm’s stock has collapsed by as much as 50 percent at times, with the last nine days of trading — prompted by an extraordinary set of circumstances — proving especially damaging. 

Rumours that Arabtec was planning to delist, or that Aabar was divesting its stake in the company set the slide in motion, and despite an increasingly desperate series of statements on the Dubai bourse claiming that there was no rift between the contractor and its most important shareholder, investors weren’t convinced.

Making matters worse was a “temporary system glitch” (in the words of the Dubai Financial Market) last Sunday, which purported to show that Aabar had cut its stake in Arabtec from 18.85 percent to 14.32 percent. Given the huge focus on Arabtec — and particularly Arabtec’s ownership — the error did absolutely nothing to raise the profile of the bourse in the eyes of the international institutional investors the UAE has been struggling so hard to attract. 

With the stock still heading south, Ismaik announced last Wednesday — via the unusual medium of a newspaper interview, rather than a bourse statement — that he was quitting Arabtec.

But there are still plenty of questions unanswered. The source of funding for Ismaik’s stake purchase and a timeline of events leading to his departure may now never be established.

And why did Arabtec allow this saga to continue for so long, given that there was clearly a problem at boardroom level?

Of far more interest to shareholders right now would be a clear and concise statement, explaining how Arabtec plans to deliver on its ambitious plans, and clarifying the ownership situation.

The statement released last Thursday, which expressed “positive aspirations for a bright future and continuing to make more achievements, which aim to protect the rights of shareholders” doesn’t really cut it. Better communication, at the very least, must be a watchword in the future.

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Cynical 6 years ago

SPOT ON! Probably most insightful article about any Middle Eastern business I have ever read in my 7+ years in the region! Probably also the only critical business article ever published, such a refreshing change from the self-censored propaganda articles of the National and other local/regional newspapers! Too bad this reporter will likely never be invited to interview anyone in the region in the future…

khalid 6 years ago

honestly, there was nothing new in this article that i didn't already know from reading earlier reports in AB or other news outlets. in the end we still don't know the 'truth'

GGG 6 years ago

Congratulations AB and the journalist for actually writing an article with an opinion as opposed to provided "advertisements" or regurgitating press releases. Gives me hope thinks such as corporate governance and investor relations can happen in the region.

GGG

Ronald 6 years ago

As said elsewhere, the minorities are being decimated with absolutely no protection. The questions around the departed CEO's stake funding need to be answered, and immediately, because it is clear it wasn't his money and that he was fronting for a consortium of some description, again, a bit a news the minorities deserve to hear.
This has damaged the febrile reputation of the Dubai financial market because for the stock of such a huge player to yo-yo and, effectively, crash shows there are no mechanisms to ensure stability in place.

stephen 6 years ago

The piece doesn't warrant comment for the same reasons outlined by Khalid but how do you reach the opinion that this is the "most insightful article about any ME business". What do you read- Grazia? Honestly , the place is going to hell in a hand basket if chunks of the population think this way.

Muneer 6 years ago

This smacks of possible collusion and possible misuse of insider information. Should'nt the regulators (DFM?) investigate ?

Simon 6 years ago

My very thoughts maneer...although the words you are most probably looking for are: 'Insider Trading'. A highly illegal state of affairs and regulated against all around the world...except, it seems, in the UAE.

A previous article by this very same author illuded to as much...

Where are the regulators hiding in all of this???

Paul 6 years ago

Why is everybody surprised?
This is the way business is conducted in this region.
We should not forget where we are in spite of the fake illusion that this is a transparent ethical market.

Ron 6 years ago

I maybe saying the obvious but I think we need something here of the nature of the Securities Exchange Commission in the United States to launch an investigation into the Arabtec boardroom fiasco. I'm not an finance guru but this news is tremendously alarming and warrants an objective and detailed enquiry in all fairness to the people who hold equity here.

Chris J 6 years ago

We all need to remember that insider trading is not illegal in this country, unlike most other countries. Second the company has a huge backlog. Given that a lot of business in the construction business in the Gulf is "bought", then the profit margins are probably questionable.
There is a clear need for proper stock exchange, as well as corporate governance in the UAE.