President Xi Jinping and Djibouti's President Ismail Omar Guelleh in Beijing in November. Photo: Reuters
Quick Take
by James M. Dorsey
Quick Take
by James M. Dorsey

Sovereign wealth funds: just a way for China and Russia to flex muscles?

‘Money and politics make a combustible mix: If you don’t get the formula right, it can blow up in your face’

When the Gulf emirate of Dubai acquired the storied British shipping and logistics firm Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company for US$6.85 billion, it sparked fears that governments could employ cash-rich sovereign wealth funds and state-run companies as political muscle.

Twelve years later, with wars raging across the Middle East and external powers jockeying for influence amid Western allegations that China and Russia are manipulating public opinion and buying influence, those fears have proven justified.

Dubai bought P&O through state-owned DP World, one of the world’s largest port management and terminal operators, although concern in a post-September 11 world that an Arab state would gain control of some of the busiest terminals in US ports forced the company to exclude P&O’s American assets from the deal.

Managing Director of China Merchants Port Holdings Bai Jingtao signs a deal with the Sri Lankan government. Photo: AFP
Those worries also prompted the creation of an international working group – chaired by a senior financial official from the UAE, of which the ruler of Dubai is vice-president, alongside an International Monetary Fund executive – that adopted the Santiago Principles in 2008. The principles were designed to ensure that a sovereign wealth fund “undertakes investments without any intention or obligation to fulfil, directly or indirectly, any geopolitical agenda of the government”.

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Thirty-one funds, including the China Investment Corporation, the Russia Direct Investment Fund, and funds of the oil- and gas-rich Gulf countries – representing 80 per cent of assets managed by sovereign funds globally or US$5.5 trillion – have signed on to the principles.

Enforcing adherence to the principles, however, has proven easier said than done. With the UAE projecting itself as a regional military power in the war in Yemen, and through the establishment of foreign military bases, DP World has been acquiring ports rights globally, including in countries where the UAE military is active.

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China Merchant Holdings, together with DP World, operates the Port of Doraleh in Djibouti, the world’s foremost rent-a-military base state, that is home to China’s first overseas naval facility.

To be sure, DP World’s expansion in the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden often makes economic sense, such as the 30-year management deal it struck in 2008 to operate the Yemeni port of Aden, once the British Empire’s busiest port. The company lost its contract four years later because of its failure to invest in the port.

Chinese troops in Djibouti, where China Merchant Holdings operates a port. Photo: Handout

The port has since taken on even greater significance with the UAE military’s focus on Aden and alleged backing for a secessionist movement in Southern Yemen in the almost three-year-old Saudi-led military intervention there. The conflict has allowed DP World to again enter into negotiations about assisting in rebuilding Yemen’s maritime and trade sector that would probably include a return to Aden.

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DP World’s involvement in Aden is in line with its own expansion, as well as the UAE’s, elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. In 2016, the company won a 30-year concession for the management and development of a multi-purpose deep seaport in Berbera in the breakaway region of Somaliland.

Berbera faces Southern Yemen across the strategic Bab al Mandab Strait, through which some 4 million barrels of oil pass daily. The UAE military is training Somaliland forces and creating an air and naval facility to protect shipping.

DP World’s London Gateway. Photo: AFP

DP World was also developing the port of Bosaso in Puntland, another Somali breakaway region, and was discussing involvement in a third Somali port in Barawe. The Somali ports compliment a UAE military base in Eritrea’s Assab as well as facilities in Yemen.

“Money and politics make a combustible mix: If you don’t get the formula right, it can blow up in your face,” analysts Adam Ereli and Theodore Karasik warned in a recent Foreign Policy article about the role of sovereign wealth funds in relations between Russia and the Gulf.

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In one instance, Kirill Dmitriev, a close associate of President Vladimir Putin and the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), met in early January 2017 in the Seychelles with Blackwater security firm founder Erik Prince, a supporter of US President Donald Trump and the brother of US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, in an alleged effort to create a US-Russian backchannel.

The meeting, days before Trump’s inauguration, was arranged by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, the driving force behind the UAE’s foreign policy.

The meeting occurred as UAE, Saudi and other Gulf sovereign funds as well as DP World earmarked US$20 billion for investments in infrastructure, energy, transport, and military production through RDIF as a way of strengthening relations with Russia. RDIF is one of several Russian entities sanctioned by the US Treasury. The Russian fund denied that a backchannel had been discussed and asserted that the fund did not engage in politics.

Russian Direct Investment Fund CEO Kirill Dmitriev. Photo: Handout

Ereli and Karasik argued that “even if allowances are made for sectorial and geographic diversification, the level of allocations to these markets is out of proportion to their size and viability”.

In a separate article, Karasik went on to say that “the Gulf states are using their economic strength to flex their political muscle, in order to invest in Russia at a time when Moscow’s embattled economy is struggling with low oil prices”.

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Debate about the political role of sovereign wealth funds largely subsided with the adoption of the Santiago Principles. Yet, those principles are being flaunted in an environment of greater economic nationalism, reduced US emphasis on transparency and democratic values, Russian and Chinese focus on economic benefit, and Gulf governments that have become more assertive in flexing their muscles and asserting themselves internationally.

The debate about sovereign funds and state funding has been rekindled by Washington’s focus on not only Russia but also Chinese activity.

Teamsters in Los Angeles rally against DP World’s attempts to operate US ports. Photo: EPA

“We have a lot of discussion of Russian interference in our elections, but the Chinese efforts to influence our public policy and our basic freedoms are much more widespread than most people realise,” Marc Rubio, a Republican senator and former presidential candidate, said in December.

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Most sovereign wealth funds have learned the lessons of DP World’s US experience and are likely to be more cautious in ensuring that potential future investments in the US do not challenge Trump’s America First principle as well as his emphasis on security. Elsewhere, they operate in an environment in which the Santiago Principles fall by the wayside and governments face little criticism of their use of sovereign wealth funds as geopolitical tools.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies