One man’s journey from extreme poverty to becoming Pakistan’s richest person
Dubbed as ‘The King of Gold’ or ‘The richest man of Pakistan’, Sheikh Abid Hussain alias Saith Abid’s name has been synonymous with wealth in Pakistan for decades. The exaggerated myths surrounding his personality have become folklore tales among not just the country’s moneyed elite but also the lower middle class. Yet except for a rare picture or two on the internet and a few sceptical blogs, little has been known about the mysterious figure’s personal life. Interestingly, even the picture used by most media outlets to report his death or the reported details about his family are factually incorrect.
Saith Abid was born to a potter in the town of Kasur and spent his childhood in extreme poverty. Growing up Abid and his childhood friends, two brothers from Lahore (one of them eventually became his brother-in-law) partnered to get involved in the illegal business of smuggled gold trade. Within a few years, the Saith Abid-led gold syndicate began dominating the underworld trade and drove out all competition. Gold smuggling for him at that stage was not an unethical business but justified as a response to enforced capitalistic exploitation by international powers (disclaimer: The writer does not endorse these views).
To his mind, he was coming across as a Robin Hood-like figure by helping the poor from his illegal trade. Contrary to popular claims, Saith Abid had never been a mafia lord or a drug dealer. Once in a gathering, he remarked: “Despite my past and popular rumours about me, I have never been involved in any form of land grab, extortion, or blood of innocent people. My thing was with gold only.”
During the Ziaul Haq regime, the government of Pakistan decided to accelerate the development of its nuclear programme. Amid increasing international pressure, the government sought the help of Saith Abid for a ‘key breakthrough’ in the nuclear programme and offered him amnesty in exchange. Following his role in the nuclear programme, Saith Abid emerged as a hero in the folklore tales of Pakistani imagination. He entered the business world in the ’80s with a clean chit and soon established himself as a real estate magnate so much that a common saying would be: “Saith Abid has enough money to buy all of Pakistan”. In the peak years of his political influence and fame; Ziaul Haq offered him a place in his cabinet. Abid refused.
Saith Abid’s life stories have been subject to extreme exaggeration and forgery. One of the most circulated rumors is that Abid had once offered the government to repay Pakistan’s entire debt if his portrait was printed on the national currency. This is a fabrication according to family sources. On the other hand, there is some truth to political wrangling with then premier Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. At one point Bhutto had placed Saith Abid’s pregnant daughter under house arrest. Following the Zia era, Abid was often consulted by key politicians. In 1996, a close aide of the former premier Nawaz Sharif allegedly approached Saith Abid to ask whether the PML-N was being ‘voted’ into power in the following election. During the 1998 financial crisis, then finance minister Ishaq Dar had approached Abid to seek his advice on stabilizing the economy.
Despite the obvious wealth and political influence, the sight of the man himself, at least in my observation during the last two decades was perplexing. In a patched-up kamees and a dhoti or a shalwar at his residence. Saith Abid was dressed up well enough to attend any important personality. The car I saw him drive was a decade-old Mitsubishi Lancer dented from one end to the other.
To his mind, he was coming across as a Robin Hood like figure by helping the poor from his illegal trade. Contrary to popular claims, Saith Abid had never been a mafia lord or a drug dealer. Once in a gathering, he remarked: “Despite my past and popular rumours about me, I have never been involved in any form of land grab, extortion, or blood of innocent people. My thing was with gold only.”
Saith Abid often said: “I haven’t forgotten my origins, I come from a poor background”. Thus his principles were clear: at all events drivers and servants would be served food before the guests. The rule wasn’t broken even when an event at his residence was attended by influential people including the then Punjab governor. Perhaps one of the most interesting observations, I can recall from personal memory was at his granddaughter’s wedding in 2007. Abid was found sitting along with the security guard at the entrance of the wedding, carrying himself in a way that the guests couldn’t tell the difference.
Saith Abid’s massive wealth accumulation didn’t mean that his life was free of tragedy. Four out of his seven children were born with hearing disabilities. He left no stone unturned to provide his children quality education, facilities and resources. He was particularly frustrated when it was time for them to get married. Given the lack of public awareness those days, many people mistook his children’s hearing problems as a mental disability.
The greatest tragedy of his life came in 2007 when his son was shot dead by his own security guard. This marked a shift in his social attitude as he struggled to bear the loss of his son.
Abid had been very blunt in his expression. At the funeral of his son, when a relative approached him to express her sorrow, Abid replied: “You may be in sorrow but I am not”. The aged lady looked at him in shock. He added: “It is God’s will. He has taken my son back. There is no sorrow with His decree.”
Philanthropy was increasingly his focus as he aged. In memory of his slain son, he had several mosques constructed in Karachi and Lahore. Rations worth Rs 100 million were distributed by him every year in Ramazan. He had earlier established Hamza Foundation as a free educational institution for the hearing-impaired. It is currently located in Lahore and maintains high educational standards. His contribution to Shaukat Khanum Cancer Memorial Hospital and the Namal Foundation was significant ‘during the most difficult times’ in the words of Imran Khan.
“My grandfather considered philanthropy key to a businessman’s success” recalls his grandson Quresh Mehmood. The grandchildren have struggled to continue the legacy and had been trying to bring him back to public life. Saith Abid’s last public appearance was in May 2019 when he accompanied his grandson, Quresh, to a Shaukat Khanum fundraiser.
With an estimated net worth of over $3 billion in 2017, the once richest man of Pakistan left this world empty-handed. “Such is the reality of his life. He is with God now. My only request for the people and government of Pakistan is to continue his legacy in facilitating the hearing impaired. Especially those who unlike me do not have the resources that my father could provide me with,” says his son Sajid Mehmood.
The writer is a former alumnus of Aitchison College, currently pursuing his bachelor’s at York University, Canada where he also serves as the Pakistani Community Director. He frequently writes on politics, history and current affairs. He tweets @Khan__Bahadur