Arif Naqvi
Arif Naqvi

LONDON: For those familiar with Abraaj and the spectacular rise and fall of its founder Arif Naqvi, the recently released BBC documentary Billion Dollar Downfall: The Dealmaker will spring no surprises. Still, the story of Mr Naqvi, who went from rubbing shoulders with billionaire investors to living under 24-hour curfew in his South Kensington flat as he awaits extradition to the US, is gripping in itself and makes for interesting television.

Mr Naqvi lost an extradition case in 2021 after being charged by US prosecutors as being part of an international scheme to defraud investors, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Mr Naqvi denies wrongdoing, but if convicted, could face a prison term of up to 291 years.

The film begins with Mr Naqvi’s arrest, but takes the viewer back to the beginning of his ascent in the private equity and impact investing world, with narrators in Davos, Dubai, Seattle, London and Cairo.

Several individuals who appear in the documentary to tell Mr Naqvi’s story have earlier spoken about the Abraaj scandal publicly, such as journalists Simon Clark and William Louch, who last year published a book on the subject. But it is the accounts of those who worked closely with Mr Naqvi, and especially representatives of the companies that invested in his billion-dollar healthcare fund which eventually collapsed, that give viewers a sense of how things unraveled.

Andrew Farnum, head of the Gates Foundation’s Strategic Investment Fund — a key investor for Abraaj’s impact investing fund — describes how trust and credibility were shattered when he picked up on investor capital being moved from one bank to another.

He also said there were questions about the professionalism of the Abraaj team, and the money they spent on entertainment and food during trips to Seattle.

Clarisa De Franco, Managing Director at British International Investment (BII), described how, when she was asking questions about an aggressive business plan proposed by Abraaj, Mr Navi told her “you are asking too many questions”. Clarisa says in the film: “Individuals will be charming and convincing, and individuals will be intimidating — you can try both, Arif tried that with me, but it didn’t work.”

Prior to its release, the PR suggested Mr Naqvi “is now seen and heard for the first time”, prompting some to believe he will break his years long silence by addressing the wide-ranging allegations against him directly. However, Mr Naqvi did not agree to be interviewed, and the documentary instead features what the filmmakers titled ‘personal videos’ from his London apartment.

In multiple video clips where Mr Naqvi is speaking to a camera, he looks tired and defeated as he recounts his version of events. In one, he says he is now a “different Arif from the one you folks knew”.

In another, he blames the negative press Abraaj got, which he blames for its collapse. He talks about fear, anger, and says: “We wanted to change the world, we were not bad people.”

The video clips are no replacement for a real interview but they do offer a small glimpse of the reclusive Mr Naqvi, who was once known as a media-savvy charmer. It is unclear who Mr Naqvi is addressing in these videos.

The film also features the perspectives of those who are sympathetic to Mr Naqvi. In their separate interviews, Pakistan’s former prime ministers, Imran Khan and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, praise Mr Naqvi and address the Abraaj scandal.

Mr Khan calls Mr Naqvi “a friend”, and the documentary even covers the fundraising cricket match Mr Naqvi held for the PTI chairman at the businessman’s country estate a few miles from Oxford.

Mr Khan said Mr Naqvi made K-Electric “far more” efficient than the government. “I met Arif off and on during these days. The more money he made, he made sure the people in Pakistan benefited from it.”

Mr Abbasi, talked about his interaction with Mr Naqvi during Abraaj’s attempt to sell K-Electric to a Chinese company. Mr Abbasi hinted that the “single largest Chinese investment into Pakistan” may have ruffled feathers, and there were “geopolitical” implications. “You always find out about these issues a quarter of a century later when documents are declassified,” he said.

The story touches upon the themes of success, greed, flamboyance, and ambition taking viewers to key moments in the Abraaj saga. One of the key takeaways from the documentary is how critical the elements of trust and credibility are in the private equity world, and how badly these were shattered for Abraaj’s investors when they saw funds being misused.

At the end, the documentary leaves viewers with questions about accountability, and an emotional message from Mr Naqvi.

Two former colleagues of Mr Naqvi ask why his board of directors hasn’t been sued, and highlighted that “without the enabling elements that surrounded him”, this fraud would not have been possible.

In the final video clip, Mr Naqvi says: “Fear is feeding the anger. Now my anger sits with me, my fear sits with me… it sits on my sofa, my bedroom, my ankle bracelet is a constant reminder that I am facing extradition.”

Published in Dawn, January 13th, 2023

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