KPMG’s business in UAE split by partner infighting and coup attempt

KPMG’s business in the United Arab Emirates has been split by infighting, with the chief executive surviving an attempted coup after two senior partners raised governance concerns and were subsequently fired.

The accounting group’s Lower Gulf business was pitched into turmoil last week as a group of partners planned a secret ballot to determine whether Nader Haffar, KPMG’s chief in the region since 2018, had lost their support, according to current and former insiders.

Haffar would have faced removal if three-quarters of the firm’s 60 partners had said they had lost confidence in him, the insiders said.

However, the momentum for the uprising had stalled on Friday and the vote was called off, according to one of the people. “It looks like Nader has survived for now,” the person said.

The two senior partners who lost their jobs over the past month sat on KPMG Lower Gulf’s executive committee. Insiders said they had raised governance concerns about perceived conflicts of interest involving Haffar’s brother-in-law, Talal Cheikh Elard, who was appointed to the firm last October as a partner, head of clients and markets and a member of the executive committee. A third senior partner was also fired, causing more shock at the firm.

The three did not respond to requests for comments.

KPMG Lower Gulf works for clients including Dubai World, an investment company that acts in the interests of the Dubai government, and Majid Al Futtaim Group, an Emirati real estate and retail conglomerate. It also advises sovereign wealth fund Mubadala Investment Company and the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, according to people at the firm.

Haffar is described by current and former KPMG insiders as having a “volatile” temperament and has a history of clashing with colleagues in his previous roles at KPMG Saudi Arabia and Deloitte.

Internal documents and emails reviewed by the Financial Times also highlighted similar concerns raised by some KPMG employees about the chief.

“Whilst we are not able to comment further on the specific matter raised, we take any allegations of this nature extremely seriously,” said KPMG International and KPMG Lower Gulf in identical statements. “We encourage all colleagues to speak out if they see or hear anything they consider to be inappropriate, and take action as necessary.”

Haffar and Elard did not respond to requests for comments made through KPMG.

The ructions within KPMG Lower Gulf, which operates across the UAE and Oman, will put a spotlight on the Big Four firm’s international arm, which prides itself on promoting a common set of values ​​and standards across its global network of member firms that collectively employ more than 236,000 people.

While some Big Four firms have moved to centralise control of their businesses in the region, partners at rivals said KPMG’s business in the Gulf was more fragmented. One said KPMG’s Middle East business was made up of “fiefdoms controlled by individual partners”. Another described it as “a disastrous collection of individual firms who argue with each other”.

The upheaval comes shortly after it emerged that one of KPMG Lower Gulf’s highest earners, Ashish Khandelwal, head of deal advisory, was poised to join a rival Big Four firm. His departure would be a big loss as he was responsible for one of KPMG’s most lucrative accounts with the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, ADQ. Khandelwal did not respond to requests for comments.

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