* Alabbar departure talk persists despite denial
* Chairman’s role in Egypt mega-project raises eyebrows
* Senior Emaar executives head to new rivals
* Emaar has no link to property startups - spokeswoman
By Hadeel Al Sayegh
DUBAI, April 2 (Reuters) - As chairman of Emaar Properties , Mohamed Alabbar has shaped much of Dubai’s skyline, but rapid growth in his outside real estate interests is raising the possibility of a rarity in the Gulf - open shareholder dissent.
Speculation persists that Alabbar and Emaar, the company he founded in 1997, could soon part ways despite a categorical denial from the firm last month.
His involvement in other firms’ projects, such as a planned $45 billion city in Egypt and developments from west Africa to the Balkans, has raised eyebrows.
“This is something that is a concern for us,” said one Emaar shareholder,” who declined to be named. “There is a conflict of interest. The chairman owns a company in the same field.”
A spokeswoman representing Alabbar did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the shareholder’s remarks. Emaar directors are not currently barred from involvement with other property groups.
Emaar has also lost a string of senior executives to rivals, including one that is handling some of Alabbar’s extramural projects, raising further concerns that industry sources say may come up at the group’s annual shareholders’ meeting on April 15.
The fortunes of Alabbar and Emaar - which developed Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building - are intertwined. “We’re in a region where who is running the show is as important as a proper strategy, if not more,” said Fathi Ben Grira, chief executive of Abu Dhabi-based investment firm MENACORP.
Emaar’s shares have recovered to around 7 dirhams from 6.25 immediately before the denial on March 19 that Alabbar was leaving, but remain well below levels above 10 last September.
Born in 1956, Alabbar rose up through the state ranks by working at the United Arab Emirates’ central bank and the Dubai government office in Singapore, before returning to the emirate with a job at the Department of Economic Development.
In this period he became close to Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, before founding Emaar.
Emaar, in which the state Investment Corporation of Dubai holds a 29 percent stake, has experienced shareholder unrest before - notably in 2011 over its failure to pay dividends after the global financial crisis and subsequent property crash in Dubai. It yielded to the investors’ demands and paid up.
Nevertheless, any open questioning of Alabbar’s position would be unusual for the Gulf, where business disputes are normally settled beyond public view.
Speculation about Alabbar has grown since last month when he signed an agreement to develop the Egyptian mega city on behalf of Capital City Partners (CCP), of which he is a founding partner. He is also a board member at Abu Dhabi’s Eagle Hills, which plans developments in Serbia, Nigeria and Bahrain.
Emaar has developed some of the best sites in Dubai and beyond, but now has to compete with start up firms. The fact that some have links to Alabbar perplexes investors in Emaar.
“Why wasn’t the Egypt project given to Emaar Egypt, if you think it’s a good buy?” asked the shareholder.
“We see Emaar is not a priority for Dubai. There is no new land being allocated, it’s going to other companies,” the shareholder added. “It is clear that Emaar is not in a growth mode, it is on autopilot.”
Emaar’s brain drain is another worry. Former chief executive Low Ping now holds the same position at Eagle Hills. Salman Sajid, previously chief financial officer of several Emaar units, is Eagle Hills’ CFO.
In an earlier email exchange with Reuters, the spokeswoman explained Alabbar’s relationship with the companies. “Mr. Alabbar provides advice and counsel to CCP and Eagle Hills in his official capacity,” she said, without elaborating.
Emaar directors are allowed to sit on the boards of competing firms by a resolution that must be approved annually at the shareholders’ meeting. So far, this has been a formality, but a Dubai broker said this might not happen this time. “These kinds of activities - high-level executives involved with (other) big real estate companies (that) demand more of their time - it definitely becomes a question mark,” the broker said.
Nshama, a Dubai developer launched in September, has also recruited heavily from Emaar.
Its chief executive, Fred Durie, was CEO of Emaar International until November 2014 while chief operations officer Abubakr Sidahmed was Emaar’s senior director for projects until September 2014. About this time, Nshama’s CFO Raghuraj Balakrishna also quit as Emaar’s finance head.
Alabbar’s spokeswoman said Nshama, along with CCP and Eagle Hills, was not linked to Emaar. “All three are independent companies and have no relationship with Emaar,” she said. “Each company hires talent from the real estate sector in the UAE and across the globe.”
Under Alabbar, Emaar made ill-fated expansions into the United States and India, but it remains Dubai’s property market leader and operated in 10 other countries. It was the first property group to pay dividends after the crash from 2009, when prices slumped about 50 percent.
Emaar paid a $2.45 billion special dividend in November after spinning off its shopping malls businesses and similar payouts are expected this year. However, Dubai’s housing market is softening again after rebounding in 2012-2014.
Emaar and Dubai have joined the MSCI Emerging Markets index and international investors, who hold 21 percent of the group, and local institutions expect higher governance standards.
“It raises a lot of questions over corporate governance, not just for Emaar but for Dubai too,” said one senior official at a foreign institution that holds no stake in Emaar. “It all depends on how quickly they can sort it out and if minority shareholders suffer.” (additional reporting and writing by David French; editing by Matt Smith and David Stamp)