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Qatar asks US to investigate UAE bank for 'financial warfare'

March 18, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Qatar has asked US regulators to investigate the US subsidiary of the largest bank in the United Arab Emirates, accusing it of “bogus” foreign exchange deals designed to harm its economy as part of a blockade by Gulf neighbours.

The Central Bank of Qatar’s law firm has written a letter to the US Treasury asking it to investigate NBAD Americas, the US subsidiary of First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB), which is majority state-owned.

In a second letter, the lawyers – Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison – asked the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to investigate possible manipulation of Qatar’s currency, the riyal.

The request for an investigation deepens the diplomatic crisis that erupted in June when Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain imposed an economic boycott on Qatar, accusing it of supporting Islamist militants and Iran.

“We believe NBAD has participated in an extraordinary and unlawful scheme to wage financial warfare against Qatar, including through the manipulation of Qatari currency and securities markets,” said the letter to the US Treasury dated 26 February, which has been seen by Reuters.

“These actions should be halted immediately, and we ask that you investigate whether NBAD has directly or indirectly supported the manipulation of Qatar’s markets, including through NBAD America’s dollar-clearing or correspondent banking services in the United States,” the letter said.

FAB, which was created from the merger of First Gulf Bank and National Bank of Abu Dhabi last year, did not respond to questions about details of the allegations.

“As the UAE’s largest bank and one of the world’s largest and safest financial institutions, First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB) works closely with all of its regulators in the markets in which it operates, to sustain and uphold the high standards of governance and regulatory compliance across the group,” it said.

The UAE government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Qatari government spokesman confirmed the letters had been sent to US regulators but declined to comment on their content. New York-based law firm Paul, Weiss declined to comment.

The US Treasury and CFTC did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Diplomatic push

Qatar’s central bank said in December it had launched an investigation into possible manipulation of its markets by the countries that had imposed the economic blockade.

Qatar, a small Gulf state and major gas exporter, denies the allegations that it has financed terrorism and says the blockade is an attempt to punish Doha for independent policies.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have refused to soften their demands – which include Qatar cutting ties with Iran and shutting down state-funded broadcaster Al Jazeera.

Qatar, which is also home to the largest US military base in the region, has repeatedly reached out to Washington to mediate in the crisis but the attempts have failed so far.

Last week, US President Donald Trump, who has previously accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism, sacked US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who had publicly defended Qatar and pressured Trump to moderate his stance.

Tillerson’s sacking came ahead of a new diplomatic push to help mediate the dispute among America’s Gulf allies.

The United States is due to host a Gulf Cooperation Council summit later this year and before that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani are all due in Washington for separate state visits.

‘Bogus quotes’

The Qatari central bank has previously accused unnamed banks of trying to manipulate the riyal by trading it between themselves offshore at artificially weak levels – to create an illusion Qatar’s economy was crumbling.

The riyal has been pegged to the US dollar at a rate of 3.64 for more than a decade, but in the initial months of the boycott, it traded as low as 3.8950 offshore.

In the letter to the US Treasury, Qatar’s lawyers said they suspected NBAD was driving the riyal lower during illiquid periods, such as Islam’s Eid al-Adha holidays last year, “reinforcing the manufactured narrative that Qatar’s currency was increasingly volatile and its economy was too unstable for investment”.

“NBAD’s quotes – and those of other banks involved in the manipulation – were likely all bogus,” the letter said without naming the banks and referring to foreign exchange quotes posted by NBAD.

“There is evidence that at the same time NBAD was providing quotes with great frequency and at rates lower than the official rate of 3.64, its traders were unwilling to actually transact at those prices,” the letter said.

It cited one example on 22 November 2017: when a counterparty reached out to NBAD to execute a deal, it was told by a representative of NBAD that it had no riyal to trade.

FAB declined to comment when asked about the specific allegation.

The letter did not name the counterparty but said the central bank’s lawyers were ready to provide regulators with a recorded chat between the two sides, on a confidential basis. It said NBAD stopped quoting the riyal in December after Qatar vowed to investigate.

The central bank also pledged on 23 November to satisfy any market demand for dollars and the riyal has since rebounded in offshore transactions to trade close to its peg.

Many bankers in the region say that with more than $300 billion in central bank reserves and sovereign wealth fund assets, Qatar has more than enough financial firepower to block any attack on its currency.