Can the trial of Arif Naqvi, the disgraced founder of the defunct Abraaj Group, reveal financial information that could prove damaging for Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan? The Pakistani businessman built Abraaj “to become one of the world’s most influential emerging-market investors”. Then came the criminal charges from the US and millions of dollars in fines from Dubai for fraud and irregularities. Naqvi has since been under house arrest in the UK. Now, Imran Khan may be facing the heat. Sources close to Arif Naqvi say that he admitted to providing Khan with around $22 million for his election campaign in 2013.
Is it possible that Imran Khan’s baseless claims of an ‘American conspiracy’ to dethrone him are aimed at pre-empting such a scenario or exposé? So that he can deny such links, particularly because Khan has always claimed to be squeaky clean and called his political rivals thieves who looted Pakistan.
This would be another big scandal to rock Pakistan’s volatile and polarised politics. In 2017, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court to hold office on the grounds that he had been dishonest to parliament and courts in not disclosing his employment in the Dubai-based Capital FZE company in his 2013 nomination papers.
The Supreme Court has already shown that it is willing to be stern when it comes to Imran Khan.
Who is Arif Naqvi?
Arif Naqvi faces criminal charges in the US and is currently awaiting the outcome of his appeal against the decision by London’s Westminster Magistrates’ Court to allow his extradition to the US. The Abraaj Group—based in Dubai—managed $14 billion for investors at its peak before its collapse in 2018.
Two of Abraaj’s senior managing partners, Egyptian-born Mustafa Abdel Wadood and Sri-Lankan born Sev Vettivetpillai, admitted guilt to most of the US criminal charges after striking deals with American prosecutors in September 2021. Naqvi is accused of 16 counts of fraud and related money laundering said to have been committed between 2014 and 2018.
Naqvi was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison by a court in the United Arab Emirates for a case involving low-cost carrier Air Arabia PJSC. The Dubai government fined Abraaj a record $315 million for deceiving investors and misappropriating their funds in July 2019. In January 2022, the Dubai Financial Services Authority slapped a fine of $135.6 million on Naqvi and banned him from Dubai’s financial centre for his role in the private equity firm’s 2019 collapse. Naqvi “personally proposed, orchestrated, authorised, and executed actions that directly or indirectly misled and deceived the investors,” Dubai’s authority said.
Naqvi has been in UK police custody since April 2019 when he was arrested at Heathrow Airport for allegedly defrauding investors. He was denied bail by a London judge on 29 April 2019 after prosecutors said he may flee to Pakistan rather than face US fraud charges. When Naqvi was arrested, he had four passports. He wrote down seven phone numbers for the police. One was Imran Khan’s. Judge Emma Arbuthnot, who denied bail, observed that the phone number was “a sign he had friends in high places in Pakistan. If he were to be granted bail, I’d be extremely concerned he would leave the country.” It might be very embarrassing for Imran Khan if the court trial in the US reveals a link between the embezzled money and the monies Naqvi allegedly sent to Khan and his party, the PTI.
A close friendship
A news report published on 8 January 2022 stated, “through the State Bank of Pakistan accounts, according to records, Arif Naqvi remitted over US$ 140 million into Pakistan.” Khan’s PTI submitted an affidavit of Naqvi to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) on 15 March 2022, as evidence to prove the funding was genuine. In the affidavit submitted before the ECP, Naqvi confirmed that he had raised over $2 million for PTI’s political campaigns. According to The News International, Naqvi stated in the affidavit: “I have collected the funds amounting to the US $2,121,500 in the account titled Wooton Cricket Limited (WCL) and transferred to the PTI account in Pakistan for the period 2012 to 2013. The Wootton Cricket Limited (WCL) Company was 100 per cent owned by me in my personal capacity and was not a multinational and neither the contributor of the funds and only acted as a convenient and traceable aggregator of funds as a conduit for the transfer of funds to Pakistan.”
However, Naqvi’s relationship with Imran Khan goes back to the 1990s. Was Imran Khan completely unaware of how Naqvi operated? Did he receive just $2million, or more?
It is interesting to note that PTI’s biggest foreign fundraiser Naqvi was once a blue-eyed boy of the Barack Obama administration that invested $150 million in Abraaj in June 2010. Naqvi invited Imran Khan to Dubai in November 2010 for a conference attended by many celebrities and government leaders including Obama administration official Judith McHale, who was then an undersecretary of the US State Department.
Subsequent events shed further light on Khan’s relationship with Naqvi. Bashir Memon, a former head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency, reportedly said that Imran Khan had told him that “Arif was a good friend who had funded his political campaigns.” This conversation reportedly took place after Bashir Memon tried to recover from Karachi Electric, controlled by Abraaj, the Rs 87 billion that it owed to Sui Southern Gas Company. Khan complained to Memon about the investigation of Karachi Electric. Responding to Khan’s allegation that Memon had ruined Karachi Electric, Memon asked: “Why am I responsible? It is important to highlight that Imran continued his relationship even after Abraaj and Arif Naqvi had been publicly accused of misusing funds at least since February 2018.” Arif even attended an official meeting presided over by Khan in October 2018.
A forensic investigation of Abraaj and Naqvi’s accounts about remittances into Pakistan could reveal more about his relationship with Imran and could prove seriously damaging to the PTI chief’s reputation if it turns out that he or his party were beneficiaries of more than just US$2 million, something that has already been admitted by Arif Naqvi.
Yousuf Nazar is a political analyst and author of a book on Pakistan: ‘The Gathering Storm, Political Economy of a Security State’. Views are personal.