The Key Man: Arif Naqvi, and the multi-billion dollar fall of the Abraaj Group

He told them he could save the world — and make them filthy rich in the process. But if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is...

When a great white shark stops moving, it dies. Something to do with ‘ram obligate breathing’, apparently, and a distinct lack of buccal muscles, and the flow of oxygenated water into the old gills. But in short: the poor beast has to swim constantly onwards, striving forever forward, never ceasing or relaxing or sleeping or pausing for thought — or the game’s up. Dead meat. Fish food. The big sleep. Or, if you’re a certain kind of shark: six consecutive life sentences in federal custody and a few billion dollars in the hole. 

Arif Naqvi was a big fish in a moderate-sized pond. There were larger funds in the private equity game; funds with more impressive returns; funds with more prestigious names and locations and legacies. But none that were quite as splashy and drooled over, for a period, as Abraaj — the Dubai-based firm which promoted a brand of have-your-cake-and-eat-it capitalism all of its very own. At the head of the company sat Naqvi, a self-made financial guru with the timbre of a Ted Talk regular, the easy charm of a talk show host, and the messianic certainty of a cult leader. His promise to investors and governments around the world was simple: that they could make lots and lots of money and do lots and lots of good at the exact same time. Abraaj, which for a while managed some $14 billion dollars, pledged to buy up and improve struggling companies in emerging or developing markets — and in doing so, apparently, set in motion a series of cosmic dominos which would one day end the existence of global poverty altogether. (And hunger, and disease, and illiteracy, and climate change, and inequality, and just about any other modern-day horseman you care to name.) It was the great win-win in the sky; the Diet Coke of global investment: same great profits, none of that pesky existential guilt.

Abraaj Group HQ in Dubai

If something sounds too good to be true, however, it almost certainly is. By the summer of 2019, Abraaj had become the latest in a series of modern morality plays populated by a memorable cast of clear-eyed, hype-fueled founders: Bernie Madoff’s colossal Ponzi-scheming; the bluster and hippyish vision of Adam Neumann at WeWork; the chilly, polo-necked genius of Elizabeth Holmes’s fraudulent Theranos. Like those before him, Naqvi was blessed with a potent knack for storytelling, showmanship and self-mythology which blinded the smartest people in the room to his company’s inherent flaws. (KPMG, auditors to the firm, said they saw nothing fishy on Abraaj’s books; Freshfields, the London law firm, also deemed everything A-Ok.) Naqvi also displayed a familiarly impressive talent for self-deception. Even while his company had begun haemorrhaging cash, locked in a drastic tailspin towards scandal, ignominy and criminality, the Abraaj posterboy trotted around the world, lecturing governments and luminaries, chumming up to billionaires and the global press. He was the great white shark of global finance: moving ever onward, upping the stakes constantly, doubling down on his rickety ruse, terrified to stop for a single second.

When the going was good, however, it was very, very good. In the nervy, awkward years following the 2008 financial crisis, the idea of ‘impact investing’ was shifting rapidly from CSR buzzword to mainstream policy. And as the unrest of the Arab Spring swelled soon after, the Pakistani-born entrepreneur seemed eerily well-placed to bring a Western-style capitalism to the Middle East and beyond. The cash and the plaudits poured in. For a long time, if you Googled Naqvi’s name, you’d be met only with puffy, fluffy profiles of the businessman from the likes of Forbes and the New York Times.

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