Who is Dubai-based tycoon Umar Farooq Zahoor?

The billionaire has been in Pakistani news headlines after revealing he bought Imran Khan’s Toshakhana priceless Graff watch

Murtaza Ali Shah
Norwegian-Pakistani businessman Umar Farooq Zahoor. — Photo provided by author
Norwegian-Pakistani businessman Umar Farooq Zahoor. — Photo provided by author

LONDON: The billionaire Dubai-based businessman Umar Farooq Zahoor has been in the headlines in Pakistani news after revealing that he bought former prime minister Imran Khan’s Toshakhana priceless Graff watch from Farah Khan for around $2 million during a transaction in Dubai – the famous watch that Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Suleman gifted to Imran Khan.

So, who is Umar Farooq Zahoor? How does he afford to fly in private jets and how does he enjoy a close association with the senior leadership of the PTI, PML-N and PPP? How did he make his fortune and how has he landed into so many controversies, and fights and what’s the story about several big cases he has been involved in various countries?

Zahoor, who runs several businesses in Dubai and elsewhere, told Shahzeb Khanzada during an interview on Geo News that it was Shahzad Akbar who introduced him to Farah, the best friend of Khan’s wife Bushra Begum, and then Farah met him to sell the watch. 

In his defence, Zahoor has shown four gifts (Diamond Master Graff with Makkah Map Dial, Diamond Cufflinks, Round Diamonds, Diamond Gent's Ring, VVSl Rose Gold Pen Set with Pave Diamonds and Enamel Mecca Map) which he purchased for a total 7.5 million AED Dirhams.

Zahoor's revelations made such a big impact that former PM Imran Khan did a tweet against him and the entire PTI leadership called him a “thief”. “crook”, “dishonest”, and a “conman”. The attack on Zahoor was led by PTI leader Fawad Chaudhary who called him a dishonest person and accused his entire family was involved in fraud. 

Zahoor hit back by releasing hundreds of conversations with Chaudhary, showing that not only Chaudhary was calling him his “bhai” even after he made allegations against Farah but also requested Zahoor to give the job to his friend in his company and discussed buying COVID vaccine from him, shared secret government information with him and visited Dubai at Zahoor’s expense. As soon as the businessman appeared on Geo News, everyone started searching for him and published several false and correct news about him. So who really is Zahoor and what’s the truth about him?

Zahoor is a successful businessman and it is estimated that his worth is in the tens of millions of dollars at this stage. He has made investments in real estate, IT business, energy projects, the agriculture sector and much more in Dubai and several other countries. He closely works with many royal family members in the Middle East and also with several heads of state in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and South America.

Zahoor has been in Pakistani news for many years in relation to his long-running court battle with his former wife, model and actor Sophia Mirza. The couple has two twin daughters who live with Zahoor in Dubai in an exclusive neighbourhood in Mohammad Bin Rashid City District One.

Mirza claims that Zahoor kidnapped his own daughters and took them out of Pakistan against their agreement when the twins were infants. Zahoor has already obtained legal custody from the UAE’s Sharia court and the daughters have publicly said they are living happily with their father.

Zahoor’s name was flashed by Pakistani media first in 2021 when all TV channels started reporting quoting the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), then under Akbar, that it was Bashir Memon, the former FIA DG, who had allowed Zahoor to visit Pakistan along with a royal family member on an official visit. 

Memon and Zahoor were linked in news reports and the latter was called a “fugitive” of law. Immediately after that, pictures came out showing Zahoor meeting PTI ministers Faisal Vawda, Umar Ayub, the late Naeem-ul-Haq and others.

Vawda this week said he had met Zahoor on the instructions of former premier's office and added that several senior government figures were also a part of the meeting.

Zahoor was born in Norway to Pakistani parents from Sialkot. He studied in Norway initially and then left for the Middle East around 22 years ago. He claims he has known Akbar well and it was in March 2019 when he introduced Farah to him. Records show that Akbar and Zahoor got into a serious fight in early June 2020 when the FIA Lahore’s Corporate Circle started an investigation against him after receiving a complaint from a “concerned citizen Khushbakht Mirza” who made allegations of fraud and money-laundering of around Rs16 billion by Zahoor. It was not declared in the complaint that Khushbakht was actually Sophia Mirza.

Mirza urged the FIA to take action against Zahoor “for the sake of Pakistan’s name and to prevent financial crimes against Pakistan” but didn’t declare that he was her former husband and the couple were involved in a court dispute.

Akbar, who was head of the Assets Recovery Unit (ARU) at that time and also controlled the FIA, took Sophia’s complaint to the cabinet and received a go-ahead for the FIA to probe the alleged fraud of over Rs16 billion by Zahoor.

The FIA further alleged, based on Mirza’s complaint, that Zahoor had committed a bank fraud of $89.2 million in Oslo, Norway, in 2010 and another fraud involving an amount of $12 million in Bern, Switzerland, in 2004; was involved in smuggling of minors; committed fraud of 9.37 million Turkish Lira; executed shady deal of $510 million in Ghana; owns millions of dollars in cash in the shape of black money; and owns many houses and properties in Dubai and Pakistan worth hundreds of millions of dollars, including in Dubai’s upper-class districts, Sialkot, Gwadar, and Islamabad.

Mirza further alleged the businessman was involved in gold smuggling, owned expensive watches, kept millions of rupees and gold at home and in bank lockers in Dubai, owned Rolls Royce, Mercedes and BMW cars, and illegally acquired billions of rupees in fraud from various countries, defamed Pakistan, and was defrauding businesses in Pakistan. 

As soon as the federal cabinet approved actions against Zahoor, FIA Lahore Chief Dr Rizwan started action against him. His name was placed on the exit control list (ECL); non-bailable warrants in one of the first information reports (FIRs) were obtained from the court without fulfilling the legal requirements, and on the basis of the non-bailable warrants, his passport and CNIC were blacklisted and red notices were issued through the Interpol by National Crime Bureau (NCB) Pakistan for arresting Zahoor.

Zahoor, who is Liberia’s Ambassador at Large, initiated a legal case against the FIA and the matter reached the court where the non-bailable warrants were set aside. in June 2021, the Lahore High Court ordered the removal of red warrants issued against him.

Authorities in Switzerland had started a case against Zahoor and New Zealand national Shaun Morgan for running an illegal bank called “Bank International” from December 2003 to February 2004 for allegedly misleading clients into investment transactions. Swiss authorities on December 7, 2020, dropped the case against Zahoor without any further action.

About the same case in Switzerland, a Turkish citizen Erhan Kanionglulari had made a complaint in 2005 to Pakistan authorities and at the request of the Turkish Embassy, a probe was started against Zahoor. The Turkish national had alleged he was a victim of the alleged fraud in Switzerland to the tune of 9.73 million euros. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) started an inquiry into Zahoor and the Turkish national visited Pakistan to assist in the inquiry. The Turkish national didn’t cooperate with the inquiry for seven years and the case against Zahoor was closed on February 25, 2014.

A case was registered against Zahoor in Norway in 2010 on the allegation that some bank officials of Nordea bank of Norway colluded with some private persons to fraudulently deprive Randi Nilsen of 89.2 million Norwegian kroner and transferred the same to UAE banks. Official papers of the Oslo police confirm that the case against Zahoor was dismissed on May 12 2020.

The fight between Zahoor, Mirza and Akbar became so personal that the FIA Lahore started an investigation into both Norway and Swiss corruption cases against Zahoor in October 2020 when authorities in Norway had already closed the case and Switzerland authorities were about to drop the case, delete the arrest warrant and end the investigation. Two weeks ago, Zahoor’s name was removed from the Interpol Red Notice list.

Akbar has denied that he introduced Farah to Zahoor and he has repeated allegations against the latter. 

Zahoor says he now owns the priceless watch that was given by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Suleman to Khan and then sold to him along with all certifications, appraisals and evidence to prove his claim.

Originally published in The News