KPMG UAE holds meetings with clients after governance row

The chief executive of KPMG’s business in the United Arab Emirates has held face-to-face meetings with key clients in an attempt to shore up confidence in the firm following weeks of unrest relating to his leadership and complaints about governance.

Nader Haffar, head of KPMG Lower Gulf since 2018, and other senior leaders at the firm have held the meetings and sent letters to major clients after the Financial Times revealed that senior partners had left the business after raising concerns about internal governance.

The client meetings were flagged in an internal memo sent to staff, seen by the FT, which also advised the firm’s 1,300 workers on how to address “talking points” with clients if they raised questions about the recent ructions at the business.

The memo was sent last week by Talal Cheikh Elard, head of clients and markets, to all staff at KPMG Lower Gulf.

Cheikh Elard is Haffar’s brother-in-law and some senior partners have expressed concern about the chief executive’s recent attempt to give his relative a more powerful role. These senior partners were later forced out of the business.

Haffar has also been accused of taking advantage of weak governance at KPMG Lower Gulf to extend his tenure by another five years through an election at short notice and with no opposition candidate. Meanwhile, whistleblowers have complained to KPMG International about the intemperate behaviour of both Haffar and Cheikh Elard.

Last week, KPMG Lower Gulf said it would hire a law firm to conduct a review of its governance and oversee a new election for the role of chief executive and chair. Haffar has confirmed that he will stand in this election.

KPMG Lower Gulf declined to confirm whether it would publish the findings from the governance review.

KPMG Lower Gulf serves 3,400 clients, according to figures cited by Haffar to staff. They include Dubai World, an investment company that acts for the Dubai government, and Majid Al Futtaim Group, an Emirati real estate and retail conglomerate. The firm also advises sovereign wealth funds ADQ and Mubadala Investment Company, as well as the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

Some current and former partners said the rerun election risks being a farce. The concern is that any individual who stands against Haffar might quickly be ousted if they lose and that credible potential challengers have already left.

Haffar told staff at KPMG Lower Gulf that “eligible candidates” from the current partnership would be invited to run against him. The firm declined to answer questions about which partners would be deemed eligible or who would decide on the names to be included on the ballot. It did not disclose the timing of the election.

“Our governance and values are a critical part of who we are, and we take any questions raised about their rigour extremely seriously,” said KPMG Lower Gulf, adding that it would “embrace any changes we need to ensure our firm offers the best for our people, our clients and wider society”.

It said its board had agreed to a request from Haffar to run a new election and that Haffar had the board’s “full backing” as leader in the meantime.

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