The media trial of Arif Naqvi

Published July 21, 2021
Two recently published books on Abraaj stacked on a table.
Two recently published books on Abraaj stacked on a table.

IF you were to read the press coverage about Arif Naqvi over the last few weeks, the tainted former head of the fallen Abraaj empire, you would be convinced that Naqvi is evil. ‘The fleece artist’, ‘thief’, ‘liar’ and ‘the myth builder’ are phrases in articles that paint an ugly portrait of Naqvi. He is currently in London facing extradition to the US, where he has been indicted on counts of theft, fraud and racketeering. A trial is set to take place in the Southern District New York court.

The recent coverage stems from the publication of a book, The Key Man, written by Simon Clark and Will Louch — both Wall Street Journal reporters who broke and covered the Abraaj scandal. Clark and Louch allege that Naqvi, motivated by greed, masterminded a global criminal conspiracy, stole from his firm and misused investor capital. Their story is a hair-raising timeline of how a top private equity group promising to do good went bust, with officials, including Naqvi, raiding investor funds meant to build hospitals to allegedly enrich themselves and plug cash shortfalls in other parts of the company.

Two recently published books on Abraaj paint wildly different accounts of the man at the center of a scandal that shook the private equity world

But there is a second book, one that tells a starkly different story. It calls these descriptions of Naqvi one-sided and tells the story of Naqvi, the human and the victim. Written by Brian Brivati, a historian and professor based in London, the book titled Icarus challenges — at times directly — the assertions made by the WSJ reporters. In Greek mythology, Icarus was the son of a master craftsman who flew too close to the sun and fell to his death after his wax wings melted. The moral of the story is to beware ambition as risks can have unexpected consequences.

‘More misunderstood than monstrous’

The book argues that Naqvi set out to make a positive change through impact investing in emerging markets, but then a series of events led to the collapse of his investment company which is now at the centre of a global criminal conspiracy. It tells the story of Naqvi as a flawed human, but as someone who is more misunderstood than monstrous. It makes a case for Naqvi to be tried in a civil court in the UK for alleged regulatory breaches, instead of for a criminal conspiracy which carries a hefty prison sentence.

Brivati says Naqvi is vain, delusional even. “But,” he adds, “his life story is not the story of a crook.”

In one interesting observation, Brivati talks about Naqvi’s hubris. “[Naqvi] suffered from the delusion that if he could make it around the next corner everything would be OK because it always had been before and because up to that point the usual laws of financial physics had not applied to him.”

Icarus makes three key assertions. First, that despite the allegations of fraud, “there is no money missing”. Second, the US Department of Justice’s exhaustive charge-sheet against Naqvi is built on falsehood and bias.

And third, that Abraaj was caught in the crosshairs of a geopolitical tussle between the US and China, and cut to size when “it would not bow to the whims of these global behemoths”.

Brivati is no journalist, but he has made an attempt to build his arguments. On his assertion that no money was missing, Brivati writes that the claim was made by Naqvi’s counsel during the extradition hearing in London, but not refuted by the prosecutor. He says creditors made claims for debts but “[no one said that] monies had disappeared from accounts without being recorded as receivables”.

He cites court papers from the Cayman Islands when Abraaj was put into a restructuring process. “I could not find any significant US-based creditors,” he writes, adding that they were limited to “claims for a few thousand dollars from various service providers”.

He writes: “At the moment The Abraaj Group went into liquidation it had assets that were greater than the amounts claimed by the creditors. This was detailed in a witness statement filed in the Cayman courts, which pointed to extensive analysis done by a prominent US-based restructuring firm, Houlihan Lokey.”

When asked about the money Abraaj owes to Air Arabia, Brivati told Dawn: “There are [non-US] creditors who are owed money but if the restructuring plan from August 2018 had been implemented they all would have been paid back.”

In a criticism of the DOJ, Brivati refers to an opinion and order by Judge Nathan in which he reprimands members of the DOJ for their maximalist approach in a different case. “It is imperative that prosecutors fulfil their constitutional and ethical obligations with the same zeal with which

they pursue convictions… The Court hopes and believes that the attorneys of the United States Attorney’s Office will take to heart the lessons of this case and keep in mind that the prosecutors’ first duty is not to prevail in every case but to ensure that justice shall be done.”

Target of media campaign

He writes that Naqvi “was certainly the target of the destructive legal process and the carefully orchestrated negative media campaign that helped bring the company’s intrinsic value down to zero”.

Brivati is probably the only person Naqvi has spoken to on the record since he was arrested at Heathrow Airport in 2019. While Naqvi is yet to offer a detailed rebuttal to the specific charges brought by the DOJ, Brivati did write about “one very pointed response when it came to a discussion of his WhatsApp messages that appear in a number of places in the indictment”.

In his book, he refers to two incidents where Naqvi addressed the charges. “...the indictment quoted him saying that dealing with Deutsche Bank in a negotiation was a ‘bit like playing poker’, he noted that this is an accurate description of deal making rather than an illustration of a conspiracy; the context in which he and a colleague were discussing negotiations at the time on a particular deal involving Deutsche Bank had absolutely nothing to do with any kind of conspiracy. But quoting just that message in the indictment when it had no relevance helped to paint him in a negative light”.

Read: Arif Naqvi’s capitalist fairy tale

Second, “he mentioned how a WhatsApp message exchange was stitched together to appear as part of a continuous conversation when actually the two messages shown were sent weeks apart and easily explainable by providing the context of the two distinct topics being discussed”.

An intriguing part of Brivati’s story is where he talks about Abraaj’s collapse being a result of a bigger political game. Icarus leans on this theory heavily to develop the idea that Abraaj’s collapse was brought about by “external and internal factors” rather than simply the founders’ alleged misdeeds. It shares the broader context of US displeasure over Chinese influence, citing examples of the US using its own influence to restrict pro-China ventures. He also talks of US opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which would bring gas directly from Russia into Germany.

He also mentions Joe Biden’s “cover pressure” on Angela Merkel on this project. He then makes a sweeping allegation: “There is powerful circumstantial evidence to suggest that the taking down of Abraaj was an economic hit supported by key US companies and interests within Pakistan, Kuwait and the UAE that are loyal to the United States.”

Here, he refers to changing political dynamics that he claims “blocked” the sale of K-Electric, which some say was the final nail in the coffin for Abraaj. The Key Man, too, acknowledges that the Abraaj sale of the utility company to Shanghai Electric “angered US officials who thought it would give China more influence”. But it says hurdles in the sale persisted because Naqvi’s “elitist strategy of trying to win influence at the top” to sway decisions was not working with the Pakistani government.

Brivati, however, suspects that these persistent bureaucratic hurdles — one of which involved giving a national security clearance certificate and the other was the setting of a power tariff by Nepra — were engineered to block the sale.

“Three successive administrations and three successive prime ministers of Pakistan between 2016 and 2019 publicly proclaimed that they wanted the transaction to be completed… But when the deal with Shanghai Electric was done, the US stopped seeing Abraaj as either pro-US or neutral.”

He alleges that a “pro-US lobby” within the Pakistan military and civil service establishment acted on “the army’s interest to assist the US in curbing Chinese influence”.

He alleges that a retired brigadier who was the Nepra chairman “contributed to the scuppering of the transaction”. He alleges that although ex-PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was assured by the army leadership that it supported the deal, “by setting such a low tariff for Karachi Electric, in spite of the successful trajectory the company had been on for the previous eight years, it appears that elements within the military elite were set on disrupting the deal”.

Blame on Nepra chief, PC secretary “Two individuals, the chair of Nepra (National Electric Power Regulatory Authority) and the secretary of the Privatisation Commission — ostensibly unconnected — had together thwarted the largest single inward investment in Pakistan’s history. They cannot have done this by accident”.

Abraaj was the biggest private equity firm in the Middle East and North Africa until investors raised concerns about the management of its $1 billion healthcare fund, which led to its collapse. Separately, the Dubai Financial Services Authority fined Abraaj about $315 million for misleading investors, misusing funds to pay off executives and expenses, and carrying out other unauthorised financial activities. Air Arabia is one of Abraaj’s unsecured creditors, with a loan of $75m in default, according to liquidator reports.

However, he acknowledges that this hunch is not backed by any hard evidence: “It would be near impossible, in the absence of another WikiLeaks-type moment, to establish firmly that the US leaned on the Pakistan civil bureaucracy–military complex to block the Karachi Electric deal; backroom conversations between elements of the intelligence fraternity do not happen over email.”

Brivati has written other books, mostly biographies of “dead white men” as part of his interest in contemporary history. Speaking to Dawn, Brivati says he was drawn to Naqvi’s “extraordinary and fascinating life”, and felt his interest in life writing and human rights issues converged for this story.

He takes a sympathetic view of what happened to Naqvi and says the former private equity boss was a target of “a series of well-timed precision strikes”.

Brivati raises questions about the reporting by the two WSJ reporters, and alleges that it was a result of “leaks to them over many months”, “which they loyally reproduced without knowing the identity of the initial source of the leaks and emails”.

This observation is unfair, because journalists everywhere work with whistleblowers and protect the identities of anonymous individuals to tell stories. And in this case, both Clark and Louch made attempts to corroborate the leaks, document evidence and feature accounts from Abraaj executives to tell a story of the alleged wrongdoing.

Their writing is scathing of the Abraaj group’s inner workings, but the reporting is well-sourced. Brivati himself acknowledges it as “a convincing thesis”.

Still, on the subject of flaws, The Key Man, too, cannot be absolved. The book is a sensational page-turner that, aside from documenting the collapse of Abraaj, opens a window into Naqvi’s world as seen by those who despised him. Naqvi has countless critics who speak more openly since his spectacular fall, and The Key Man features many of them. But in overzealously casting Naqvi as a one-dimensional, Wolf of Wall Street-style character, the book takes liberties with the narrative to show how Naqvi was a schemer from the start. He is described as the boy “who wanted to play the game of life and win”.

From Naqvi’s Karachi Grammar School days to the end of his empire, The Key Man on occasion shows a singular image of Naqvi as an inherently greedy, immoral and power-hungry individual. In this vein, it points to moments in his life which foretell this epic disaster and remind the reader that Naqvi was always hungry for status and connections. It features chilling accounts of Naqvi’s alleged mistreatment of people, but also shares the story of Naqvi carving his name into a stone porch at the school and stretches this flimsy anecdote to fit a narrative of Naqvi as the rule-breaker determined to leave his mark on the world. Many a KGS student is guilty of scratching their name on that very porch, an act which is more of a cheeky tradition than a symbol of hunger for world domination.

Both books may be construed as too earnest in showing Naqvi as either utterly crooked or as the innocent victim. The Key Man leaves little room for doubt that Naqvi is a greedy, ambitious man whose “fine words only served as cover for devious deeds”. Brivati builds an overly rosy picture of Naqvi, the patriot; someone who may have had a future in politics in Pakistan and someone motivated by a desire to do good — till he was “struck down”.

Reading the two transports one to an imaginary courtroom where Arif Naqvi is already on trial, and the Key Man’s prosecutorial blows are being rebuffed by Brivati’s defensive view.

In an actual court of law, however, it is evidence, not storytelling alone, that will decide Naqvi’s fate. Did Naqvi mastermind a conspiracy, or was he the victim of one?

Naqvi has denied wrongdoing in brief statements, but has largely been silent, citing advice from lawyers. The question remains: when he has his day in court, will Naqvi’s own testimony tell a different story than the books that have tried to define him?

Published in Dawn, July 21st, 2021



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