The ‘untold story’ behind the autumn of Arif Naqvi

The Abraaj Group founder and Chief Executive Arif Naqvi speaking at an event. — Reuters/File

The Abraaj Group founder and Chief Executive Arif Naqvi speaking at an event. — Reuters/File
The Abraaj Group founder and Chief Executive Arif Naqvi speaking at an event. — Reuters/File

Senior executives at the now-defunct Abraaj group took huge amounts of money home but lied about Arif Naqvi’s role in the collapse of the multi-billion dollars equity entity and cut deals with the US government to save their skins and threw the Pakistani national under the bus, a new investigation showed.

Russian channel RT have published an article which sets out the roles of two former managing partners of Abraaj, Mustafa Abdel-Wadood and Sev Vettivetpillai. Both officials have entered into guilty pleas with the US authorities to get lenient jail sentences and lesser fines.

This is also the first time that Arif Naqvi has given an interview to any publication. 

“The untold story behind the fall of the Middle East’s largest private equity company” looks into how Naqvi was made to look like a bad person by his former employees, the US government and the Western press.

The author had communicated with Naqvi for two years for her article and met him in London before her story was published.

The interview looks at the remarkable life of Pakistani man who is credited with turning Abraaj, which he set up in 2002, into one of the world’s top 20 private equity companies. 

In its prime the company was the leading investor in growth markets, managing a staggering $14 billion in assets across Africa, Asia, Latin America, Turkey and the Middle East, with investments in healthcare, clean energy, transportation, education and real estate and then going on to convince the likes of Bill Gates and Barack Obama to recognise the potential of emerging markets.

But 16 years later, says the article, the same group collapsed on suspicion of defrauding US investors including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Now its mercurial poster boy is facing extradition to the US, where he would stand trial on 16 counts of fraud and money laundering. 

The US has accused Naqvi of misleading investors and auditors by covering up a $400 million shortfall across two funds by temporarily borrowing money to produce financial statements; changing financial statements to avoid disclosing a $200 million shortfall; and borrowing $350 million for Abraaj from an individual shareholder and friend to make the company appear solvent.

Naqvi has denied all charges and has been fighting extradition to the US but the case has taken a heavy toll on him. 

“Naqvi doesn’t appear to be loving life as much these days. There’s a certain air of despair about him.”

The writer says: “Indeed, I had travelled to London to meet the man accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars. But I leave having met a man who’s had something of his own stolen: his life story.”

The article points out that Naqvi’s fall became a business opportunity for some publications who ran campaigns against him and told fiction to make the former Abraaj CEO look like an evil person.

The article mentions headlines of different publications such as “A financial fairytale: how one man fooled the global elite”; “He Convinced the Elite He Invested for Good. Then the Money Vanished”; “How a Pakistani con man ‘robbed’ $100 million from Bill Gates”; and a book by two Wall Street reporters focused on Naqvi as “The Key Man”.

The interview claims “The Key Man” was so biased that it said Wadood, Abraaj’s former managing partner who was arrested in New York and pleaded guilty to seven counts, wanted to leave the company but Naqvi allegedly pressured him into staying. 

However, the interview claims that the masses are not aware that Wadood himself was a well-connected man and Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris had guaranteed his $10 million bail bond, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The RT article says Wadood lived in the same luxurious gated community in Emirates Hills in Dubai where Naqvi lived and held huge parties at his villa and at his private yacht. 

And yet, his attorney claimed in court, “This is a tragic story of a good man who stayed at Abraaj to try to rectify the madness that Arif Naqvi created and along the way participated in the wrongful conduct that he has acknowledged today”.

The article explores how Wadood, who could be sentenced to 125 years, has cooperated with US authorities for a lighter sentence in return for helping build a case against Naqvi. It says Wadood told the US authorities he was a helpless executive in Abraaj but the facts state he ran the show with Abraaj managing partner Sivendran Vettivetpillai.

London-based ex-Abraaj managing partner Vettivetpillai, who faces nine counts of criminal activities and 115 years in jail and who changed his non-guilty plea to a guilty for less jail time, was treated as a victim by Naqvi. The Wall Street Journal wrote about him that he “felt the sting of his conscience even as he conspired with Naqvi” while ignoring the fact that he was one of the main pillars in Abraaj.

The article quoted a former acquaintance of Vettivetpillai as saying he was “happy just being the bookkeeper, as long as he got to enjoy the rewards of the job”. 

Vettivetpillai is on bail in London and barred from doing any kind of financial dealings.

The article says that the overwhelming western media describes Naqvi as the mastermind behind a “global criminal conspiracy” under his leadership but ignores the role of key people like Vettivetpillai and Wadood.

The article lists Naqvi’s several successes which were unprecedented in scale, going on to give thousands of jobs and creating wealth and opportunities like nobody else could.

The article noted how America’s leading companies Thomas Barrack’s Colony Capital and Stephen Feinberg’s Cereberus Capital Management put in $125 million bid to buy Abraaj.

Even Obama’s former commerce secretary Penny Pritzker entered a bid to buy Abraaj through a group.

The article said: “It begs the question, why would the ex-commerce secretary of the former US president be interested in a Middle East company like Abraaj? Unless Naqvi had built something so valuable that executives at the highest levels of the US government had their eyes on, even after its collapse.”

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