"We are not attractive to the ethically challenged"

British Virgin Islands executive director protests against tax haven image.

"We are not attractive to the ethically challenged," protests Elise Donovan, executive director of the British Virgin Islands’ financial centre. Donovan is saying that everything you think you know about the BVI – banking secrecy, half a million companies for under 25,000 residents – is wrong, or at least good.

"People who have strong business acumen know about the BVI. We have to educate the people don’t know the facts. People who know business know that the BVI is a reputable, above-board jurisdiction… There’s a misconception that we are in some sort of illicit activity, when we are part of the wheels of commerce in the global financial world."

Speaking at BVI House in Mayfair, alongside Dr Orlando Smith OBE, premier of the British Virgin Islands, and financial secretary Neil Smith, Donovan seems to chafe at the BVI’s reputation, not enhanced recently by the revelation in The Guardian of high-profile figures who had offshore accounts there.

Mongolia’s former finance minister and François Hollande’s 2012 election campaign co-treasurer were both fingered (not for illegal activity), as were Scot Young (went to jail rather than reveal assets) and Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza (owns her art there).

Perhaps Donovan has a point. As I wrote in April, when the story broke, no-one made the point that there is nothing nefarious about legitimate offshore banking. I also argued that the investigation constitutes invasion of financial confidentiality on an enormous scale – also a point overlooked by many in their fervent tax-haven bashing. (Tax justice campaigner Richard Murphy was one who celebrated the leak.)

How was this information obtained, I ask Premier Smith (pictured left). Given that the BVI pride themselves on their banking confidentiality, the report must have been extremely embarrassing for the island’s IFC as well as off-putting for potential customers.

"[The information] was acquired illegally," Smith says firmly, "but we’re not exactly sure how. We were shocked, but we were comforted by the fact that it did not originate from our regulatory system, from the IFC or from any structures in the BVI."

Just how the data was obtained remains to be discovered, but I wonder if the premier is worried that the BVI will have sustained a reputational hit as a result of its release. He says that customers – both current and potential - needn’t be worried about the IFC’s commitment to confidentiality, despite the report.

People aren’t going to see it like that though. The BVI is not alone here in feeling that it is misunderstood as a "tax haven", in which billions of illegitimately acquired offshore dollars are stored in obscure bank accounts: all IFCs, it seems – and not just those in idyllic, sun-dosed islands – are being tarred with the same brush. As Smith says, "Any jurisdiction that deals with financial services is called a tax haven. That is just a name people use but it’s not what it’s about."

There is a difference, often overlooked, between confidentiality – in which the BVI IFC maintains "very high standards" – and secrecy, which it does not tolerate, says the premier: ‘Secrecy suggests that someone wants to hide something, confidentiality suggests you simply don’t want to have your information public. You wouldn’t want your bank information public, for example.’

I certainly wouldn’t – although I suspect it would be dull enough to avoid serious scrutiny – but some point to other aspects of the BVI to justify their suspicions that a lot of people there are up to no good. They point to the 500,000 active registered companies on the BVI, for example, so I ask financial secretary Neil Smith what they’re actually used for.

His response, at a slight angle to the question, is clearly motivated by frustration with the IFC’s public image: "The biggest misconception for me is that it is not possible to find out who owns a particular company [in the BVI]. Yes, the public won’t know, but if the UK government want to know who owns a particular BVI company then they need only ask, and that information will be provided." The BVI has 24 Tax Information Exchange Agreements in place with other countries, and signed its most recent with Canada on 21 May.

Smith is also annoyed at the idea that billions of dollars are actually stored in the BVI: "We don’t keep money here. It’s true that the BVI owns a lot of assets, but they’re not in the BVI. They may be in London or Hong Kong, but they’re not actually held here."

Even if they were though – assuming they had not been criminally acquired – that would not automatically make the account holders morally suspect. Of course, that’s never going to be the headline.

Neil Smith pleads for a fair go: "It’d be nice if the BVI is recognised for the quality of its IFC. Just put us on a level playing field, and treat us in an objective manner." Whether, in a world where large governments are bullying smaller governments to name names so they can cream off tax (the decimation of banking secrecy is incidental), the BVI will get fairness remains to be seen.

This article first appeared on Spears

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Nayler is a senior researcher at Spear's magazine.

Getty
Show Hide image

Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

0800 7318496