We sat down to speak with Dilip N. Massand, the Chief Executive Officer of Phoenix Advisors, for ABANA’s March 2023 Spotlight. We got the wonderful chance to learn about his professional background, the expansion of the market in the United Arab Emirates, the future of the region, and ABANA. We hope you enjoy!
ABANA: Can you share with us a brief overview of what you do?
DILIP: We are an alternative investment manager with an advisory arm. The advisory arm serves hedge funds and other investors who have gotten themselves involved through investments or buying judgements or awards that need some on the ground resources here in the GCC. If someone invests in a company, we tend to be their eyes and ears. We tend to get very involved with management. If someone else invested an award in England and needs advice on enforcing it in the UAE, we do that. We also like to be settlement counsel and tell people that “you can’t be so litigious or adversarial, there’s a different culture here, let’s work this thing out and preserve relationships.”
On our principal investment side, our thesis is that the law is an asset class. We take that from Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett, where you’re always looking for an industry that has a barrier to entry. Not many people would look at the legal industry as an investment category where you can allocate capital? So, for us, you can allocate capital in disputes, which is now called litigation funding. You can buy judgements or awards. That’s like buying a distressed debt component and then trying to go collect on that. You can invest in law firms in Australia and England. They allow non-lawyers, to own equity in law firms. Law firms went public in both jurisdictions. In the United States, a few states allow non-lawyers to own equity in law firms. We’re going to see certain things start to happen in the legal industry in the US where private equity investors or other investors, may even roll up small law firms and then look to have holding companies in these States.
There’s also legal technology. We’re seeing artificial intelligence and a lot of software applications really help the legal industry and dispute resolution and distressed credit opportunities coming out of bankruptcy and insolvencies. So, everything sits within the law, but there are different strategies for different parts of the world. In the US, we focus on disputes. We think it’s the best market to invest in litigation. It’s transparent. You get big awards, et cetera.
In this part of the world, we really like distressed credit because we have new bankruptcy laws now in Saudi, UAE, Bahrain, and even India. This is a real change in the paradigms here and the ability for investors to recoup money if things don’t go well. It has created a market for secondary investors, and we plan to do other things in Asia eventually.
ABANA: Why would an Indian American be drawn to the Middle East and ABANA?
DILIP: That is interesting if you think about it, right? An Indian American, those are two very sort of juxtaposed cultures. Like many other members of my generation, I struggled with my identity when I was growing up in America. What culture am I comfortable in? Where is the balance? For me, my family would go back to India every summer until I was 15. So that would be a totally different experience. I would be in school in New York, and that was a very different experience too. Then, in 1991 my father’s engineering firm got an opportunity to partake in the rebuilding of Kuwait. Although we aren’t Muslim, I was studying comparative constitutional law and Islamic law. I would talk to my father about the things in Islamic law, how secular law, secular practice and theologies were sort of married. When it came to going to Kuwait, my father encouraged me to go. I was starting law school, went to Kuwait, and the minute I got on the ground in Kuwait, I fell in love with the place. It was the first time in my life where I felt that I blended in. People didn’t know where I was from and didn’t ask me where I was from. I used to go walk around the souk in Kuwait, and I would be walking with people from every part of the world. I felt totally at home, so the Gulf became a very special place for us. We had offices in Dubai and Muscat in the early nineties, so I got to travel from New York to Bahrain, take Gulf Air around the region, and then we had offices in India and the U.S. So, it became the perfect middle ground for me where I didn’t feel the tension that I felt in both the U.S. and India, frankly. Then, one of my friends showed me ABANA, which really piqued my interest. Look at who these people are, look what they’re doing, and I wanted to be part of it. So, I got involved with ABANA in the nineties and it has been a welcoming home ever since.
ABANA: How has the region changed since you’ve been here over the past 10 years?
DILIP: I still try to catch my breath with the pace of change here. One thing I have learned living in Dubai, being a cynical New Yorker coming here, you just can’t bet against Dubai. When I arrived in Dubai, there was civil unrest in Bahrain, Syria, and Egypt and I started seeing all these people coming in. I saw people from the region treating Dubai as a neutral ground, a haven. Even during covid, we probably only had one lockdown for a month. That was about it. We had a great system of vaccines here, so you saw more people come in post covid, and once people came here, they saw that this is not a bad place to live or a bad place to work or to raise kids.
You just saw a sort of engine of growth and diverse culture here. The kind of culture you would find in a place like Brooklyn, where young creative people do their own thing with urban culture, which surprised me. I didn’t think you would see graffiti artists, hip hop artists, comedians, and people coming from all over the world, from Africa, from India, from Eastern Europe. The UAE became a hub, we saw a lot of progressive thought processes in leadership, encouraging people to invest more. We had the World Expo in Dubai and the World Cup in Qatar. It’s just amazing the rate of change that’s going on. I think it’s geopolitically one of the most fascinating parts of the world that is just changing so dynamically. It keeps changing as I look out the window, I look at the metro, I look at the traffic, I look at people walking, and I think this place is just like New York, Hong Kong or London. It’s really happening here.
I will also say, the region is starting to recognize its power as an economic block. They had times when they didn’t work together well. Now the UAE, Qatar, Saudi, Kuwait, Bahrain, amongst other countries recognize their power as an economic block. It’ll be interesting to watch them work in coordination going forward.
ABANA: How has it been like to develop a global alternative investment and advisory firm from the UAE?
DILIP: It’s been phenomenal. I’ll give you a perfect example. I can call someone in Australia at 7AM and they can tell me they will present me an opportunity to invest in class actions in the mining sector in Australia. Then, by noon I’m having the same conversation with someone in South Africa about class actions in the mining sector in South Africa. Then by 4PM I’m talking to someone in Toronto about class actions in the mining sector in Toronto. Suddenly, I now have three data points from all across the world doing something similar. I can reflect and say that the regulators in Australia are probably going to limit the returns because they’re starting to regulate the legal finance industry, which is a good thing. South Africa, I don’t know if I’m comfortable with the currency. Toronto, the currency is stable, and the system is transparent, so let’s make the investment there. In terms of global perspective, it’s tremendous, all the currents, the trends that you can see once you’ve identified what you’re looking for.
ABANA: What does the future hold for the region and for ABANA?
DILIP: The region is at an inflection point where it’s taking off. If you look at the population growth in the UAE it’s been very significant. If you look at the diversity of ethnicities and cultures here now, it’s really become like the Switzerland of the Middle East and it’s drawing in so many more people with the leadership, vision that they have in place, and the sense of a moderate, thoughtful re-approach to growth and their influence in the world. It is going to be one of the centers that help develop world policy or global policy on issues such as climate change. We have the biggest energy producers in the world here. They’re taking the lead on issues concerning the environment now. So, I think the region is now recognizing its ability or its punching power, but doing it in a very thoughtful, moderate way.
It’ll be fascinating to see the integration of ABANA in the region and to see their combined influence. I think ABANA is also at an inflection point, because ABANA has been a US-centric organization and truthfully, a New York centric organization. However, now you look at past and current members of ABANA, you see yourself being part of a global diaspora that is multicultural. Hence, ABANA has moved beyond just the financial institutions. I think ABANA has a great opportunity to start planting its flag in other parts of the world.
I’d love to see an ABANA chapter outside of the United States but starting conservatively with an event here and there. People here talk about ABANA quite often. I think there is a need for ABANA in the region because there’s a need for connectivity. There’s a need for people here to plug into New York and Silicon Valley. That doesn’t mean those people don’t show up here, but there’s always a need for organizations that exchange knowledge, opportunity, and networking.
ABANA: What was it like for your Family to leave Manhattan and move to Dubai?
DILIP: I think it was the best thing we ever did for our kids and for us. My kids were born in Manhattan. They went to private schools from nursery until the time they came here. Here’s the thing, when we’re in New York City, we think everything from the world is in New York, we never have to go anywhere, we are the epicenter of the world. But when you leave the US or New York, you look around, you look at the world and gasp. The world is doing its own thing in a bilateral way. It’s not all just being sucked into New York. You get to really see people in their own cultural milieu. When people come to the US or New York, there is always a degree of assimilation, but when you get out and you see people from so many different ethnicities and cultures interacting, you get a better sense of their native culture.
I’ll tell you this though, my kids would be second generation or third generation Indian Americans. I went to India every summer and I knew my culture. I traveled a lot, but my kids didn’t travel as much as I did. So, by coming to the UAE, they got to learn some of their heritage because it’s only three hours away.
There is a huge Indian diaspora here, just as there are many diasporas. But I’ll give you the best example. My daughter was probably 11 years old. Our first summer back in New York, she and I were standing on the subway, we were going to take the 6-train uptown that summer. There was an odd incident when a woman pushed a Bangladeshi gentleman off a train track. It was on the cover of the New York Post. So, I’m holding my daughter’s hand and she stops at the newsstand. She is staring at that headline and the headline on the New York Post said, “I thought he was a Muslim.” My daughter questioned me about the headline, and I responded, “a crazy lady pushed a guy because she thought he was Muslim.” My daughter looked at me and said, “What’s wrong with Muslims? I have a lot of Muslim friends.” A year before she did not have one Muslim friend. She went to a private school on the Upper East side of Manhattan. We were in a great community, but she had no exposure to the Islamic culture.
Here was an 11-year-old girl, who had met and lived with people from very different cultures in just one year. And that to me is the greatest example I could give my kids. Now they’re back in America, but they really got to know the world. And be “of” the world. It’s been a phenomenal experience for our family. It’s amazing.
Mr. Massand has over 25 years of international experience working with institutional investors, multinational corporations, banks, and family offices in the United States, the Middle East, and India. He is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Phoenix Advisors, Ltd., an Abu Dhabi based firm focused on legal finance, knowledge transfer, and innovation in the legal industry across the globe.
Mr. Massand’s experience extends to complex-cross border litigation, asset recovery, dispute resolution, and advising clients who are seeking to navigate multijurisdictional issues and distressed credit situations. He has in-depth experience in construction litigation, mergers and acquisitions, and advising private equity, hedge funds, and infrastructure services firms on accessing emerging markets in the Middle East and South Asia.
Mr. Massand previously served as Managing Director of a Global Asset Recovery and Special Situations Investment Firm and as Co-Chair of the Emerging Markets Practice for a New York based law firm.
He holds a Juris Doctor in Comparative Constitutional Law from New York Law School and a Bachelor of Science in Economics from Boston University and is a member of the New York State Bar Association, ABANA (formerly the Arab Bankers Association of North America), a Charter Member of TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs) Dubai, and a Founding Member of the Indian Association of Litigation Funders (IALF). Mr. Massand is a qualified Legal Consultant in the UAE, and serves as an Advisory Board Member of New York Law School’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee.