Controversy in Hong Kong involving a Dubai prince-turned-pop star, highlights due diligence missteps

UAE singer Alira. Screenshot from GMA Pinoy TV‘s YouTube Channel. Fair Use

Hong Kong has been drawn into a messy situation worthy of a K-drama involving a mysterious Dubai Prince, Sheikh Ali Rashed Ali Saeed Al Maktoum, his USD 500 million investment in the city, and officials’ failure to do due diligence in ascertaining who seeks to invest in Hong Kong. 

The Sheikh, presented as a Dubai Prince, emerged as a celebrity in Hong Kong in December 2023 upon signing a business partnership MoU with the Hong Kong Middle East Business Chamber. Only recently, Hongkongers found out that outside the city, he is better known as Alira, an Emirati Pop Star.

According to Muslim tradition, Sheikh is a title denoting a political or spiritual leader of a community. Sheikh Ali does share the same family name, “Al Maktoum”, as UAE's prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. However, it does not necessarily mean that Sheikh Ali has a close tie with the Dubai ruling family.

This has raised questions about the Sheikh's true identity and the credibility of his investment.

The Dubai prince's identity puzzle

The Dubai Prince came under the local media spotlight in the middle of March after he told Bloomberg that he would open an office in the city to manage and invest his family's USD 500 million portfolio into start-ups, construction, and energy investments in Hong Kong.

The Sheikh received a warm welcome. He was invited by InvestHK, a government department responsible for foreign direct investment, to speak on a panel alongside the director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation at the city’s annual “Wealth for Good” summit on March 27. The government press release referred to him as “His Highness” and a “member of the Ruling Family, Dubai”. 

On March 26, he was received by Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee, among other guests, at the opening of the high-profile summit. On the same day, the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong appointed the Sheikh as an honorary professor. 

After the summit, the Dubai prince invited the local press to attend the inauguration ceremony of his family's Hong Kong office on March 28. However, a few hours later, the event was called off. The Sheikh's office said the inauguration would be postponed to May. 

The news drew some speculation on social media. Some wondered if the prince had changed his mind regarding the investment, while others smelled something fishy after reporters from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) revealed that the address of the Prince's Office also belongs to an investment firm linked to Macau’s casino operators. Many began to doubt if he was really in control of the USD 500 million family fund. 

Then SCMP published an explosive exclusive report on April 2 revealing that the Dubai Prince has a double identity as Emirati pop star Alira, who is very popular in the Philippines as he sings very well in Tagalog. In 2021, the singer told a Filippino media outlet that he was “an internal auditor at a government agency” at that time. 

SCMP’s investigation also revealed that key staffers of the Sheikh's family office came from Here4U, an entertainment company associated with Alira.   

The public was appalled at how the singer's company suddenly transformed into a “prince” family office.

Conspiracy theories abound

On social media, more and more believe that the incident may be a scam, and there are a number of conspiracy theories circulating. One pointed to the Sheikh's family office CEO Eleanor Mak, who, under the name Mak Hoi Yan, was on the director list of multiple mainland Chinese companies associated with Zhongtang Air Railway Group (中唐空鐵), a company that was caught in multiple legal disputes in mainland China due to its incompleted sky train construction project in Sichuan. 

Eleanor Mak has been lobbying the Hong Kong government to construct a sky train in east Kowloon since 2023, and now she has become the CEO of the Sheikh's family office.

Another key figure surrounding the incident is Aaron Shum Wan Lung, who is the founding president of the Hong Kong-Middle East Business Chamber and has strong ties with the city's pro-establishment sector. He introduced the Sheikh to Hong Kong by signing the MoU with “The Private Office of His Highness Sheikh Ali Rashed Ali Saeed Al Maktoum”. In response to the circulating conspiracy, he recently told the media that the inauguration ceremony of the Sheikh's private office was halted because quite a number of government officials called off their attendance and probably offended the prince. 

Thus far, the Hong Kong government has not commented on the Dubai Prince’s identity puzzle, deflecting criticism over its failure to conduct due diligence before inviting speakers to its high-level summit. Its spokesperson just stressed:

The government has not made any investments in family offices established in Hong Kong, nor will it provide any additional policy benefits or financial support.

A lack of due diligence

The Sheikh's office repeatedly stressed that it would fulfil the USD 500 million investment promise and that the money came from his  “own initiatives”.

A family office, by definition, is a privately held company that handles investment and wealth management for a wealthy family. 

The city’s Chief Executive has set the target to attract 200 new family offices by 2025, and his Legislative Council passed the Hong Kong Family Tax Regime Bill on May 10, 2023, to provide profits tax exemption for certain investments for Single Family Offices registered in Hong Kong. Under the new law, there is no pre-approval process, and a self-declaration is sufficient to obtain the benefit.

While the public was worried that the Dubai Prince incident was a scam or a tax evasion tactic, government sources told local media that background checks on investors like the Dubai Prince might offend the investors and undermine Hong Kong’s reputation as a financial hub. 

Former Apple Daily columnist Kevin Carrico thus made fun of the city’s lack of due diligence in attracting investment:

Warning by the US Securities and Exchange Commission

Meanwhile, on April 7, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a warning against the Dubai Prince’s Hong Kong office, citing concerns of untrustworthiness regarding their involvement in cryptocurrencies. 

Despite the Hong Kong government's rigorous efforts in attracting private family funds to settle in the city, many rich families prefer Singapore to handle wealth management and investments:

Some critics, hence, see the Dubai Prince incident as a reflection of the city’s desperation to maintain its financial hub status. Luckily, no real harm has been done yet, and citizens are having a good laugh at the bizarre drama. 

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