PUBLISHED:January 23, 2012

John R. Knight ’83

An open mind yields an international career

One day last spring, as the wave of protest movements swept across the Middle East into Bahrain and troops arrived to restore order, the phone rang in John Knight’s office. The streets were unsettled, the markets were volatile, and Knight, who is chief operating officer for Mumtalakat Holding Company, the investment arm for the Kingdom of Bahrain, was engaged in his first encounter with martial law. Any number of emergencies could have been waiting on the other line.

Instead, it was Mohammed Al-Sheaibi LLM ’90, SJD ’93, checking in on his safety. “I’d met Mohammed, who is the general counsel for the Central Bank in Saudi Arabia, at a Duke alumni event in Munich,” Knight says. “His gesture says something about the Duke Law connection, and also about a certain civility in this region.”

Proper training breeds versatility

It is a region that Knight has grown to admire, one in which he continues to nurture relationships and value connections, much like his ongoing engagement with the Duke community in myriad ways, including his membership on the Law School’s Board of Visitors and his generous support of the Annual Fund.

When he left Duke Law, Knight had little inkling that he’d wind up halfway around the world, working for an investment firm in the Persian Gulf. “I did not go to law school having well-formed goals and aspirations,” he says. “I did, though, have an open mind, a fair amount of curiosity and a willingness to try new things. And an understanding that law constitutes part of the framework by which society moves forward.”

That demeanor, coupled with experiences along the way, helped mold Knight into a trusted adviser, well-suited for this time and place. In hindsight, he says, those experiences placed him squarely on the road to Bahrain.

After his graduation from law school, Knight clerked for a judge on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Thereafter, he was awarded a Henry Luce Scholarship and was placed with the Supreme Court of Malaysia. “Malaysia was one of the Asian tigers at the time, so I had my first experience with an emerging market there,” explains Knight. “And though Malaysia operates under a common law system, I had the chance to study Islamic law while there.”

He developed crisis management and sovereign debt experience from stints with Shearman & Sterling, where he worked on the restructuring of the Mexican sovereign debt, and JPMorgan Chase & Co., where he was a senior member of the team that restructured the Indonesian sovereign debt during the 1998 Asian financial crisis. Knight served in various legal and management positions while with JPMorgan Chase, working in Singapore as the chief operating officer for South and Southeast Asia.

In each he relied upon his sound legal education. “A rigorous legal education gives people the confidence that they can step into difficult situations and take on challenges even when there are unknowns,” says Knight. “If you have the proper training, it’s the methodology and the general problem-solving skills that allow you to work through the unknowns. Certainly I got that at Duke.”

In Singapore, Knight settled in with a rewarding and engaging community, participated in numerous philanthropic organizations and, in 2007, joined The Rohatyn Group, an emerging markets investment firm. “I was comfortable,” he says. “Then along came this opportunity to help build an investment firm for the Kingdom of Bahrain. The chance to build something from the ground up was simply too attractive to pass up.”

He describes his time in Bahrain as being both challenging and invigorating. “These are a culturally very rich people, very diverse, friendly, and gracious to outsiders who want to come in and help,” Knight says. But they have also reminded him that there are limits to legal reasoning and to what an adviser can do. “Be a good advocate, but understand that local problems should be solved locally, by the owners of those problems,” he suggests. “Purely imported solutions aren’t always solutions that are sustained.”

Maintaining strong Duke Law ties

At each stop along his career path, Knight has relied upon lessons learned years ago in Duke Law classrooms, and recalled certain courses with ongoing relevance. “Contracts with John Weistart was one,” he says, “because that creates a framework by which understandings are reached, and which when broken are remediated.”

Don Horowitz’s course on social policy was another, he adds. “I learned that adjudication has its limitations, that there are other modes that may be appropriate for making policy and solving problems.”

And Corporations, with Jim Cox, was very important. “We are all about social responsibility, strong corporate governance, and raising local companies to international standards at Mumtalakat,” Knight says. “Everything I learned about corporate law comes into play here.”

Knight’s education is ongoing, as he meets and connects with alumni around the world and engages with students in Durham. While at Shearman & Sterling, he interviewed Duke Law students. At JPMorgan Singapore, he had Duke student interns. More recently, he has helped Duke students seeking placements in the Middle East. He has served on the Law School’s Board of Visitors since 2006 and returns annually for meetings, though his travel has been recently limited because of events in Bahrain.

“I’ve just thoroughly enjoyed staying in touch with students and alumni,” he says. “I’m still learning from some very interesting, well-educated people.”

Knight also has been a significant donor to the school’s Annual Fund, a role he underplays when reflecting upon his involvement. He views his donations to the school as incidental to a larger purpose. “Of course, funding is necessary for excellence in higher education,” said Knight. “But when alumni give back to Duke Law, they support an educational process that helps sustain and renew the rule of law in a society. In this sense, giving is about something even larger than Duke and is a way of supporting the rule of law as an element of a good society. That is something that most of us believe in.”

He has seen that vision of ordering justice in society take hold in his company, and is encouraged by the example it has set. “Mumtalakat is part of a reform agenda aimed at strong corporate governance and the responsible management of state-owned wealth,” says Knight. And he is proud, as well, of its staff of bright, young, and dedicated professionals, many of whom were educated in the U.S. “Throughout the period of unrest, our offices were open and attendance was very good, even though many employees had to negotiate either illegal civilian checkpoints set up by the protesters or military checkpoints,” says Knight. “The quality and integrity of our employees and the absence of sectarian tensions in our office leaves me optimistic about a promising future for Bahrain.” — Sharon McCloskey