LONDON: Abraaj founder Arif Naqvi has been in the eye of a storm after the Financial Times published an article asserting that he used a private cricket event in Oxfordshire to raise funds for Imran Khan’s Pakistan PTI and solicited funds from a sheikh of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The focus is also on Khan, the former prime minister of Pakistan, who has accepted for the first time that he received donations from Naqvi’s offshore company, Wooton Cricket Limited. While Khan has defended Naqvi, the news about his funding of PTI has dominated the news circuit and will continue to do so as the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is likely to announce a decision on the PTI’s foreign funding case soon. Amid all the political drama, many aspects of Naqvi’s global rise and fall are unknown to the world.
Naqvi, who was born in Karachi and studied there before establishing the $14 billion Abraaj, has been at the centre of negative news even before the FT article after his arrest in London in April 2019 by Scotland Yard at the request of the US government.
What’s not known is how Naqvi went from being a billionaire and internationally recognised face of Pakistan business to being reliant on friends for ongoing financial support and internationally condemned in the media while he fights his extradition case against the US government in the UK courts.
Following the payment of a record £15 million bail which was put together by a group of his friends, he continues to remain under house arrest in London almost four years later with very restrictive bail conditions, while he fights the extradition process in London, with significantly deteriorating mental and physical health.
While the extradition process is ongoing, Naqvi cannot present his defence against the allegations in the US charges which he continues to deny whilst asserting his innocence. If found guilty in the US after a trial, Naqvi could face a sentence totalling around 300 years in jail. It is equally pertinent to note that 97% of all indictments in the US federal courts never get to trial and are settled through plea bargains, which in this case would almost inevitably result in the equivalent of a life sentence.
Founded by Naqvi in 2002, the Abraaj Group experienced a meteoric rise, and fifteen years later, by January 2018, it had become the largest private equity firm in the world in emerging markets. It had $14 billion of assets under management, close to 400 employees in 25 offices from Bogota to Istanbul to Nairobi and as far as Jakarta, while its central headquarters were in Dubai.
Naqvi became the first Pakistani man to break into the western world of private equity finance and, for years, was an example for even other western firms to follow. It is telling that Naqvi was the first to refer to these parts of the world not as “emerging” but as “growth” markets.
Naqvi was globally recognised as a pioneer of growth markets investing and the impact investing space and was one of the first individuals to advocate for the use of private capital to achieve public and impact-focused objectives while making attractive returns. It is reported that when the Wall Street Journal started its reporting on Abraaj in February 2018, it was close to a resolution of its issues which largely stemmed from its failure to complete the ongoing sale of its flagship investment, K-Electric to Shanghai Electric for $1.77 billion.
K-Electric was a key asset of a consortium of Middle East investors led by Abraaj, which invested nearly $1 billion between 2005 and 2012. At the time of the takeover, the firm had failed to make a profit for almost twenty years. It was suffering from endemic corruption problems, with misallocated funds often preventing energy from reaching the market and was generally perceived to be operating in an unsustainable way – losing billions in revenue.
The turnaround of K-Electric was covered by numerous business school case studies including Harvard as a successful example of public-private partnership and community building. In fact, K-Electric became the first utility in the world and the only company in Pakistan to receive an A+ in its sustainability report submission to the global reporting initiative.
Regulatory obstacles, however, and unstable political conditions forced the sale to be stalled, despite support from the governments of former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Khan causing an unexpected gap to emerge in Abraaj’s balance sheet, which Naqvi has previously stated was a contributory factor to the circumstances that led key investors to withdraw their funds at an inopportune time for the firm.
This forced Abraaj to file for provisional liquidation in June 2018, after an unsecured Kuwaiti lender PIFSS called in its debt – at a time when both Deloitte and PwC as liquidators had largely completed that process in the Cayman Islands. It appears that neither firm has filed cases against Naqvi, who has always firmly denied any illegality or wrongdoing in his leadership of Abraaj.
Abraaj has been in the news since 2018 namely because of its meteoric loss of value and collapse with Naqvi being held responsible in what his lawyers have described as a “trial by media”. They have pointed out that although there were over 15,000 articles of a positive nature between 2002 and 2017 in the global media, the narrative has remained consistently the opposite subsequently apart from a few isolated international efforts to bring an impartial angle to the proceedings.
What remains odd is that there has been no focus on the immense impact that Naqvi had through Abraaj on the world of finance, emerging markets, and the people it served. It was a pioneer in building sustainability into an investment, as it created its own ESG index, the first of its kind in the private equity industry globally, nor the incredible personal efforts of Naqvi in the world of philanthropy across emerging markets in general and Pakistan in particular.
Naqvi was born in Karachi in 1960 to a middle-class background. Never exchanging his Pakistani nationality for a western one as he was often entitled to by virtue of residence, Naqvi has always been intensely patriotic as evidenced by a proud photograph in his living room in London of him, aged ten in 1970, polishing shoes on Tariq Road in Karachi for passers-by under a banner that read “Defence of Pakistan Fund”, despite being dressed in the uniform of the elitist Karachi Grammar School that he attended with excellence until 1978.
He went on to graduate from the London School of Economics (LSE). After stints in the UK and Saudi Arabia, Naqvi used $50,000 in savings to build a large multinational operating and investment business called Cupola in Dubai which built its fame following the acquisition and subsequent piece-meal sale of Inchcape Middle East, which netted hundreds of millions of dollars in profits for him and his investors by 2001.
Following Cupola, Arif Naqvi built Abraaj – a private equity firm and the first of its kind in the emerging market world. Being a prominent and regular participant at events like the annual World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, his status at the nexus of East and West brought him into close contact with political leaders at home and abroad.
Despite acquiring international repute, Naqvi never lost any efforts in seeking to help Pakistan and building its reputation abroad. For his efforts in the earthquake relief efforts in 2005, President Musharraf awarded him the Sitara-i-Imtiaz.
Every time a calamity hit Pakistan, Arif Naqvi contributed, including flying in dozens of ribbed rescue boats and personnel from overseas when the Indus River overflowed in 2011 which were used by the Pakistan Navy to rescue countless people stranded by the flooding.
He remains amongst the largest donors to date to numerous charities like Shaukat Khanum Hospital, Citizens Foundation, Marie Stopes, LRBT and i-Care as well as creating endowments and campuses at educational institutions like the IBA and Hub School.
On two occasions when Pakistani sailors were captured for ransom by Somali pirates, it was his money and international diplomatic efforts which quietly secured their release.
Hardly anyone knows that when Malala Yusufzai was shot by the Taliban, it was Naqvi who flew the two other girls who were injured in that attack to the UK and financed their education until the university level.
Naqvi established the Aman Foundation in 2008 with dollar contributions totalling over 35 billion rupees from 2008 to 2018, a philanthropic not-for-profit enterprise based in Karachi. The foundation is a social enterprise focused on health and education initiatives with its flagship initiative, Aman Ambulance being the first ambulatory vehicle network in Pakistan, providing round-the-clock emergency care across Sindh.
Ambulances are reported to have saved over a million lives since the start of the programme. Its educational initiatives include Aman Tech, a vocational training institute established in 2011, which provides skills, knowledge, and hands-on training for youths, where thousands of students have been placed into jobs otherwise unattainable.
Other educational programmes include partnerships with UWC where the Foundation created an annual overseas scholarship programme for 50 Pakistani students each year.
Due to Naqvi’s continuing misfortune, the foundation was forced to close in 2022, after which the government of Sindh took as well as prominent local charities established in Karachi by other leading philanthropists over its work.
Following the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009, he established and funded the Mustaqbali Foundation, which took over the care of almost 1,900 orphans created by the conflict and created a four-billion-rupee endowment to look after their needs till each of them reached the age of 21 for which he was offered an honorary Palestinian nationality by President Mahmood Abbas.
In Dubai, Naqvi spent millions of dollars to build the Masood Naqvi community mosque in Emirates Hills and the Pakistan Association Community Centre as well as refurbishment work at the Dubai Pakistan consulate and Pakistan embassy-run schools to enhance the status of Pakistan abroad.
Naqvi played a key role in founding the Dubai Art Fair which has benefited artists from across the region including Pakistan and is now one of the top three art fairs globally and is used by Dubai as a showcase of culture and success.
In the UK, he built the Harrow Mosque and the Masood Community Centre which was named in honour of his late father and the project is estimated to have cost millions of pounds.
Throughout the years, he has provided unwavering support to, among others, the Developments in Literacy Trust UK, Royal College of Arts, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Pakistani Foundation, and the British Asian Trust. It is estimated that the philanthropic contributions by Arif Naqvi in Pakistan and globally exceeded Rs75 billion over the fifteen years of Abraaj.
In 2013, he was the recipient of the Oslo Business for Peace Award, the highest form of global recognition given to individual private sector leaders for fostering peace and stability through business awarded by a jury of past Nobel prize winners. He became a Trustee of the Interpol Foundation, Board Member of the United Nations Global Compact, B Team Global Business Leader and Founding Commissioner at the Business and Sustainable Development Commission.
He was a Columbia Global Leadership Council member and helped fund the South Asia Institute at Harvard in terms of its focus on Pakistan and was made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art in London for funding deserving students from across emerging markets.
Naqvi was instrumental in launching, anchoring, and helping set up a Middle Eastern Research Centre at the LSE which included a focus on Pakistan and in 2017, he was made an honorary fellow of the LSE in recognition of his contribution and strong ties with the university.
He was the largest funder of the Acumen fund in Pakistan to support socially impactful businesses and was a board member of Endeavor, the leading entrepreneurship development NGO globally. He funded the formation and was a founding trustee of the Young Global Shapers programme at the WEF, which is today one of the leading recognition platforms for young achievers, including many from Pakistan.
There are many other efforts in the cause of Pakistan and track-2 efforts that Naqvi refuses to discuss outside courts irrespective of what has been said about him in the media. Lots of information about him is available online and many of the facts in this article have been obtained from his well-wishers, family and former colleagues: most of whom remain concerned to talk publicly given the nature of his adversary to Naqvi in these times.
His friends have pointed out that irrespective of the outcome of his case, the fact of his generosity to the causes of the common man in Pakistan should be celebrated as he was serious about making a positive difference in Pakistan. Then things went wrong for him completely and his world was put upside down by some of his own misjudgments and the machinations of others.
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