Saturday Jan 14, 2023

BBC documentary looks into rise and fall of private equity tycoon Arif Naqvi

Abraaj Group founder Arif Naqvi speaking at the World Economic Forum in an undated photograph. — AFP/file
Abraaj Group founder Arif Naqvi speaking at the World Economic Forum in an undated photograph. — AFP/file

LONDON: Former Prime Minister Imran Khan has strongly defended the Abraaj founder and private equity tycoon Arif Naqvi as his personal friend who wanted to do good for others, especially in Pakistan, in the process of making a true impact in the financial world circuit.

In doing so, he was joined by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, his predecessor as Prime Minister who agreed with him especially when it came to the role played in the demise of Abraaj due to the issues in selling Karachi Electric to the Chinese.

The views of the two former prime ministers were aired in an hour-long BBC research documentary on the rise and fall of Arif Naqvi and his brainchild Abraaj: ‘Billion Dollar Downfall: The Dealmaker’.

During his interview, the PTI chief said: “The more money he [Naqvi] made the more successful he got and the more he contributed to good.”

Imran Khan spoke to the makers of the BBC documentary alongside former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi; this correspondent as the Geo News reporter for exclusively covering Arif Naqvi’s case; former CEO of Unilever Paul Polman; Simon Clark and William Louch, who published a book on Abraaj; Khalid Janahi, former Chairman of Dar al Maal Islami Trust in Geneva and a long time Davos attendee; and Andrew Farnum, manager of the Gates Foundation’s Strategic Investment Fund, amongst others.

Both Abbasi and Khan defended Naqvi’s work and lamented that it was unfortunate that he was now under house arrest in London, awaiting extradition to the United States to face a possible imprisonment of nearly 300 years over charges of money laundering, wire fraud, and financial mismanagement.

The BBC documentary also featured Arif Naqvi’s video comments for the first time in which the Pakistani national strongly denied all allegations, denying any intent of criminality and stressing his innocence. These videos appeared to be a compilation of his personal diaries or video recordings of zoom calls made with family and close friends during the COVID-19 lockdown in his home in London. In one of the videos, he is recorded saying that he was no longer the same man he had been before and that he was “a very different Arif from the Arif you folks knew. But it is still… somewhere there.”

Arif Naqvi has yet to grant an interview to the media over the past four years since his arrest, and the clips did not address the matters listed in his indictment. However, others around the documentary raised enough questions to begin to provide a slightly more balanced narrative in the international media compared to the Simon Clark-led biased narrative to date.

It is clear to note from the videos alongside further reports regarding the Arif Naqvi case that his mental and physical health has seriously worsened following the collapse of the group, arrest, and subsequent house arrest.

It is of specific interest that in the gripping documentary, while former disgruntled employees at Abraaj or from the Gates Foundation spoke against Arif Naqvi and called for his punishment, two former Pakistani prime ministers, former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, and businessman Khaled Janahi defended Naqvi and described his work as “phenomenal” and praised him for making a big impact in the developing world.

His defenders asserted that Naqvi could have erred in many ways and lost the trust of those he worked with, but in the process, his contribution to society was of great significance, and given the chance, he would do well again.

Through these interviews and the fact that it was the more junior-level staff that levelled allegations, the documentary laid bare the senior-level support that Naqvi enjoyed.

Khan also claimed that Naqvi had helped raise funds for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) through a cricket match — a match which was also attended and participated in by the PTI leader — at his countryside home and explained that Naqvi had organised a dinner for Pakistanis in order to raise funds for PTI.

The PTI chairman said, “I met Arif Naqvi on and off in those days, and the more money he made, the more he made sure that the people in Pakistan benefited from it.

“He set up Aman Foundation and this foundation has done a lot of charitable work in Pakistan. He set up ambulance services in various parts of the country. I have known him for 25 years and certainly consider him a friend.”

Abbasi told BBC that he had met Naqvi when he was the prime minister of Pakistan after Nawaz Sharif was ousted by the Saqib Nisar-led Pakistan Supreme Court.

“Arif Naqvi asked to see me in relation to Karachi Electric. He said it was critical for Abraaj and for him. As prime minister of Pakistan, I felt this was important for Pakistan so I tried. I allowed my military secretary to allow him full access to me and my office. It was the single largest Chinese investment in Pakistan.” He added regretfully that “for the whole host of issues we couldn’t finalise that transaction.”

He concluded his comment with a mysterious comment on how more facts would eventually come to light when sensitive documents are declassified after 25 years.

Naqvi was arrested in London in April 2019 by Scotland Yard at the behest of the US Department of Justice for extradition to the US. He is accused by US prosecutors of being part of an international scheme to defraud investors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In several video clips, the founder of the Abraaj group described how he was being feted by world leaders one minute, and the next he was sought by the United States of America where he was now under house arrest.

Naqvi stressed “I know what I’ve done in my life but more importantly, I know what I haven’t done in my life, and I am crystal clear in front of my maker, I’ve never committed an intentional act of criminality, nor was I aware of any of my actions could be construed as such. I categorically claim innocence from those charges.”

Naqvi said his motto was never to make money, but primarily to give it away, creating a positive impact in poorer countries to benefit the local societies.

He also spoke fondly about the Aman Foundation charity that he set up with his money and which ran successfully till Naqvi’s financial collapse. “Over the last decades, Aman has saved over a million lives, I know that for a fact.”

Described the toll the house arrest on himself and the fear of being extradited to the US, he said, “my fear sits with me, in my bed, sofa, and in my ankle bracelet while I am facing extradition.”

The BBC filmed around Davos, Dubai, Seattle, London, Pakistan, and Cairo, and its makers spoke to people who either worked with Arif Naqvi or knew him well, including Gulf businessman Khaled Janahi — who hoped that Naqvi “would be able to make one last deal” — and Unilever former CEO Paul Polman, who said that Naqvi was a “force in the impact investing world” during their time together designing the global Sustainable Development Goals and as members of the B-team.

Journalists Simon Clark and William Louch described how they were passed a tip-off by an Abraaj insider about the financial mismanagement going on in the group.

They said, “when we started digging around and looking into Abraaj’s books, we found irregularities”.

The documentary for the first time revealed two of the sources. One of these was Giles Montgomery Swan, who had only joined Abraaj just before its collapse and provided a series of corporate documents and computer records, and bank statements to the journalists.

This correspondent told BBC how Arif Naqvi’s investment in Karachi brought a breath of fresh air to one of the most congested cities on this planet and how riots and mayhem used to erupt over power outages and how Naqvi seriously attempted to address the chronic issues of power outages.

Moreover, the PTI chief said Naqvi bought Karachi Electric to Pakistan — “the biggest foreign investment in Pakistan, and over the years we found that Karachi Electric ran far more efficiently than when the government was running it”.

Prior to Abraaj signing the exit to Shanghai Electric in 2016, Karachi Electric became a case study for large institutions all around the world regarding the role of private capital in being a force for good. Their investment and involvement turned the company around over an 8-year period, in which though they suffered, the Abraaj group was able to create an efficient machine that helped power Karachi.

This correspondent also told BBC about the charitable work Naqvi had done in various countries in the world, and the contribution he had made to the community in the form of financing multi-million dollar mosques in Dubai and London as well as community centers for the Pakistani diaspora in Dubai.

However, Naqvi in his personal videos, when talking about the approach taken by the Wall Street Journal reporters, said that he was being ignored.

“I sent letters and responses in writing. I sent them verbally, but nothing that I said was reported. I only stopped when I realised that it didn’t really matter. It continued to be a one-sided narrative,” he lamented.

Naqvi’s lawyers noted that they and he “welcome any trial of these issues before the courts in the UK.” During the extradition process, Naqvi and his lawyers have been unable to argue the facts of his case and dispute the allegations in the indictment due to the Extradition Treaty signed between the UK and the US.

While the documentary laid out the charges and the brief chronology of the story, it did not provide key details including a report that a forensic accounting firm Deloitte had provided for investors in May 2018, which stated that all the money was accounted for. The documentary also overlooked the fact that the leading law firm Freshfields had provided Abraaj with a legal opinion, stating that their treatment of the Healthcare funds was in line with fund documents.

The Abraaj Group has successfully invested in and then sold over 150 companies across emerging markets. According to documents, it had indirectly employed over half a million people prior to its collapse in 2018, at which point, it had interests in over 50 companies and over $14 billion of assets under management.