Financial adviser to rulers of Dubai

Financial adviser to rulers of Dubai

Born: May 13, 1922; Died: February 14, 2014.

Scottish banker William Duff, who has died aged 91, was a financial adviser and in many ways the right-hand-man to the ruling Sheikh of Dubai as the Gulf emirate rose from the desert in the 1960s after the discovery of offshore oil.

He became a key figure in transforming the little emirate into what it is today, a financial power, a glitzy, high-rise, architecturally-state-of-the-art hub of business and travel and a horse-racing venue that threatens Royal Ascot as the place to be seen placing a bet. Celebrities live or visit there, from the Federers, Beckhams, Rooneys and golf champions to Hollywood stars such as George Clooney.

Mr Duff was one of the first to see that potential. As a classical Arabic speaker and a natural linguist, he also helped the rulers of Dubai and their families learn English, starting with hand gesture and drawings, which would become another key to the emirate's emergence as a global player.

When Mr Duff first set eyes on Dubai in 1959, it was little more than a sleepy village by a creek between the sands of Arabia and what was then better known as the Persian Gulf. It relied on fishing, herding and trading along the Gulf coast, much of that trade with Iran.

Few buildings in Dubai were more than two storeys high and they were usually made of mud or coral stone, often mixed with seashells. Many of the locals were nomadic bedouin who lived in tents made from animal hide and got around by camel onland and by dhow (cargo sailing boat) in the creek or the Gulf itself.

Local men wore the traditional dishdasha cotton robe and kaffiyeh headdress, while women wore the black abaya and hijab scarf, initially a major culture shock for Mr Duff and his Polish wife Irenka.

When the ruler of the little emirate, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed al-Maktoum, promised to modernise his nation and put it on the world map, he turned to foreign experts - architects, engineers, financial experts and others - to make his dream a reality. One of these was William Duff, who had come from a Scots family, studied at Oxford University, learnt Arabic and gone into banking.

As Sheikh Rashid's financial adviser from 1960, Mr Duff became a key figure in his circle. When oil was discovered offshore in 1966, Sheikh Rashid had money to burn. Instead, he trusted a single Scottish banker to invest it well and, if you look at Dubai today, the rest is history.

William Robert Duff was born in Singapore, the son of Aberdonian Robert Duff who had set up his own company in what was then a British territory along with his wife Eleanor. The family had originally been MacDuffs but the Mac got dropped along the way. Mr Duff's father Robert spent most of the war in the notorious Changi PoW camp in eastern Singapore.

Young Bill went to Cheltenham College, Gloucestershire, at the time a boys only school, before going up to Oxford and gaining a Masters in Eastern Studies. After graduating, he was hired by what was then the British Bank of the Middle East (BBME), formerly the Imperial Bank of Persia, based in London and Tehran. The bank sent him to Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan and Kuwait before he was headhunted by the royal family of Kuwait as a financial adviser and became a close friend of the future Kuwaiti ruler, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmad al-Sabah.

It was there that Mr Duff's know-how attracted the attention of another Arab ruler, Sheikh Rashid of Dubai, who appointed the Scot as his personal financial adviser on 2 October, 1960. The Arab sheikh and the Scottish banker would become close friends for the next 30 years, a relationship which would eventually help progress Dubai's general bridging between West and East, Christian, Muslim and other religions. While Dubai is a firmly Islamic state, ex-pat Christians freely attend churches.

It was when crude oil was found off the coast of Dubai in 1966 that everything changed. Dubai was going to be rich, at least for a few decades or even centuries. And it was to Mr Duff that Sheikh Rashid, always seen as one of the most benign of Gulf leaders, turned to invest this wealth in the right direction: roads, bridges, water supply, communications, electricity (not least for air conditioning), hospitals, schools, a proper harbour and an international airport

Mr Duff, who had got to know many of the 50,000 Dubai residents by name when he first arrived, watched the population grow to more than two million as workers were imported, mostly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines - and now including at least 100,000 Brit ex-pats. Some say the human rights of those Asian workers are abused.

Mr Duff personally set up Dubai's first department of customs, its department of finance, its first electric utility, the Seafarers' Mission, the first English kindergartens and schools and the Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone which now sits alongside the biggest port in the Middle East.

Such was Mr Duff's closeness to Sheikh Rashid, who died in 1990, that he was often invited to join the Dubai ruler on holidays to Scotland, often based at Gleneagles Hotel, with Mr Duff acting as the sheikh's guide and interpreter around Perth, Stirling, Loch Lomond and other regions of the country Mr Duff continued to love.

He died of natural causes at his home in Jumeirah, Dubai, next to the historic Union House. He is survived by his wife of 68 years, Irenka (née Trachimovic), daughters Diana (now Barnardiston) and Sheila (now Duff-Earles) and grandchildren Michael, Andrew, Nicholas and Caroline.

Sheila Duff-Earles, who has lived in Dubai all of her life, said: "He totally dedicated his life to working with the Arabs here. He treated them as if they were his family."