Sweett Group to close Middle East offices

The building consultancy Sweett Group is to close its four offices in the Middle East, which in total employ about 90 staff.

The company announced in December that it intended to exit the region, and was said to be reviewing its options, including a potential sale or closure of the business.

However, this week it revealed to the London Stock Exchange that it was closing its Middle East operations, with offices in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Muscat and Riyadh.

The company said that it “intends, wherever possible, to service all existing contracts and, if necessary, will arrange for the orderly handover to local consultancies”.

It did not say when the offices were likely to close, or when staff would leave the business.

A spokesman said that “staff have been told and the process to close the business has commenced”, but declined to comment further.

Sweett Group has had a presence in the Middle East region since 2006, but its past couple of years have been dogged by the fallout from bribery allegations that emerged in a Wall Street Journal article in 2013. It said that a former Dubai director had sought a bribe from a US–based architecture firm in return for a contract to design a US$100 million hospital in Mor­occo. The bribe was allegedly due to be paid to a member of a UAE charitable foundation funding the hospital’s construction.

Following its publication, Sweett Group launched an immediate investigation, but closed this in January 2014, stating that the allegations were “not proven”. However, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) then launched its own probe and in December Sweett Group announced that it had been charged with “failing to prevent an associated person bribing another to obtain or retain business” under the UK Bribery Act. The case is due in court this month, but the company has already admitted the charge.

But it will not be barred from bidding for government contracts either in the UK or the US, the company said.

Jonathan Brogden, a partner at the law firm DAC Beachcroft in London, said that Sweett Group will have been working with the SFO since the investigation was announced to mitigate the fallout from a potential prosecution.

Sweett Group incurred costs of £2.6m (Dh13.8m) during the 18 months to September 30, 2015, in costs relating to the SFO investigation, and had written £500,000 off the value of its Middle East arm. It also replaced its chairman, chief executive and finance director.

“It is likely that these will be things that they ultimately tried to negotiate and agree with the SFO in relation to the outcome,” said Mr Brogden. “What Sweett Group, and any company in its position, would have been particularly keen to avoid is being banned from participating in public tenders. That would have had a significant and serious impact on the company.”

He added that this was one of the first and most high-profile prosecutions of a UK firm under the Bribery Act for acts committed by an overseas subsidiary.

“What is regarded as bribery and corruption in the UK may not be in a foreign jurisdiction. In those jurisdictions where the laws and rules are different, that’s not a defence.”


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