Ahmad Bin Sulayem with President of Ghana John Dramani Mahama. Field trips gave Bin Sulayem insight into the issues facing KP members. Image Credit: Courtesy: Kimberley Process

DUBAI: When Dubai’s chairmanship of the Kimberley Process (KP) was announced, the organisation’s civil societies declared a boycott.

It’s taken Ahmad Bin Sulayem, Executive Chairman of Dubai Multi Commodities Centre (DMCC), much of his year in the hot seat to try to win them over, and Monday’s plenary at the Westin Hotel, Dubai — his second and last at KP chair — will show how successful he’s been.

The civil societies make up one part of the Kimberley Process, the organisation founded to stamp out the trade in conflict diamonds (also known as blood diamonds). The others are industry groups and governments.

Getting the three divergent interests to work more closely together was one of Bin Sulayem’s stated ambitions when he took up the chairmanship, and his frustration with the civil society coalition at his first plenary in spring led to a scathing speech.

“I was aggressive,” he recalled at an interview at the W Hotel. “At that moment it was very necessary to show that we weren’t happy they were not in Dubai for the KP intersessionary meeting, we were not happy that they were not participating.

“The speech and my message had to be aggressive, because I don’t want any questions about ‘you didn’t care they didn’t come’. No, I told them it was unfair, that they needed to get back to work, that it was unfair for the African people.”

In the past months, Bin Sulayem has developed a plan for a new funding method for the civil societies, a group of human rights groups and other watchdogs, which has won favour with some of them. Whether some — or all — of the civil societies will join the plenary remains to be seen, but Bin Sulayem is happy with the steps taking to get them participating again.

Bin Sulayem has spent much of his time visiting KP member states in Africa, Latin America and Europe, meeting government officials and industry figures, and visiting mines and miners as often as he can.

“I could have just sat in DMCC and checked what was on my laptop and just worked with that, but I prefer to work in the field,” he said.

He added, “The advantage that the UAE has over other KP chairs is that we have the trust of the African countries. They do trust us. They don’t feel we’re trying to set them up in any way, or put in policies over whatever their concerns may be. And at the same time we do have an open communication line and a good relationship with the Western countries, so we could bring them together, which wasn’t the case a few years ago.”

The field trips gave him hands-on experience and insight into the issues facing KP members, and made him realise the need for a permanent secretariat at the KP. He will present his proposal at the plenary and its associated closed-door meetings in the next few days.

“The two countries in dire need of assistance are Venezuela and the Central African Republic [CAR]. In the Central African Republic the need to have a [UN] permanent secretary became something that’s important to me. We started developing that idea to present to the KP.”

Following a coup in 2013, the Central African Republic was only ready to start exporting rough diamonds again this year.

“The process of bringing them back is delayed,” said Bin Sulayem. “There’s no structure to bring them back. The bureaucracy and the slow processing of the Kimberley Process I think is pretty hard on the Central African Republic.

“KP is great at stopping countries that are not compliant or have some kind of conflict, but when it comes to bringing it back it could take a year, two years, three years, and during this time it could cause problems. People don’t have any second or third source of revenue. If they go to the alternative … Well, once they become criminals it’s very hard. It makes it a sticky situation.

“I feel having the permanent secretary would keep the [procedure] consistent, and having it headed by the UN I think would be the best choice.”

Peter Meeus, Chairman of Dubai Diamond Exchange, has worked closely with Bin Sulayem. “In a country like the Central African Republic, one out of four households live from diamonds, just to give some perspective,” he said. “To get them back on board requires that they are compliant again. There should be some sort of traceability of these diamonds, and there should be no violence. In CAR, in the western district, there has been no structural violence for two years. The UN has been monitoring.

“What’s the tool, what’s the structure of the Kimberley Process, to bring this country back? If one out of four families live from digging diamonds, do you really think they’ll stop digging because they cannot export them any more? Of course not. It goes underground. It goes to neighbouring countries.

“There is actually no tool. There is only teleconferences once a month when a guy from Canada calls in, and another guy from India, and three guys from Africa. We never know who is on the poll, there is a radio playing, there are children yelling on the back, and then we have to decide once a month if the country is compliant so it can come back.

“It’s not a criticism of the good work that all these people are doing, but in 2016, is this an appropriate structure to mend shortcomings, to help a country coming back to normalisation? The answer is, of course, no. We need a permanent secretary.

“Having this experience made us say this is a direct need. It’s on the agenda, we sent it to all participants, and hopefully next week, Thursday, we will be able to tell you it has been decided, it goes into a UN resolution, and we will help implement it.”

A second major project has been the development of a standardised method of rough diamond valuation, which would help curb any financial improprieties surrounding the extraction and trade in diamonds. While the KP has a process for determining the provenance of a diamond, determining its value is a much tougher proposition. Different producers and sellers use different methods.

Bin Sulayem and Meeus admit their proposed method — reverse engineering the value of a rough diamond by recording the values of polished stones cut from it — is complex, but they believe it is workable if all the KP participants agree it, and agree to fund the training and appointment of specialist valuers.

Bin Sulayem is also keen to explore the use of blockchain technology to create a cloud-based database of diamond transactions to speed up information access, but is concerned it may prove too expensive.

Looking back on his time as KP chair (so far — he continues in the role until December), Bin Sulayem says he is most proud of having put the UAE on the map.

“Looking back to 2014, when we were about to present our candidacy, how viciously we were attacked, trying to scare us out and pressure us from even presenting, seeing how far we’ve come from that moment in Shanghai, I take pride in that.

“I take pride that the team has come together, that the perception of Dubai has changed a lot. That’s a huge one in my book.”