Arif Naqvi in crosshairs for Dubai debt as he battles extradition from London to US

The Dubai Financial Services Authority says it will pursue the Pakistani-born founder of Abraaj to pay $135m fine

Arif Naqvi says he is ‘crystal clear’ that he never committed any intentional act of criminality. Bloomberg
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Once a larger-than-life tycoon who regularly rubbed shoulders with the world’s movers and shakers, Arif Naqvi is now compelled to keep a low profile.

The disgraced Pakistani-born businessman lives under curfew at his London home after posting a record £15 million ($20 million) bail while battling extradition to the US, to stand trial on 16 counts of fraud and money laundering allegations.

Mr Naqvi, who is the founder of the Dubai-based Abraaj Group private equity fund, was arrested at London’s Heathrow Airport in April 2019, the moment he stepped off a plane from Pakistan, under an extradition warrant from the US.

The 63 year old is now being pursued to recover funds lost in the collapse of his empire.

He was recently told by the Dubai International Financial Centre Courts that he has run out of time to appeal against a $135 million fine imposed for misconduct and serious failings at the now-defunct Abraaj Group.

Mr Naqvi lives under daily curfew with an electronic tag to prevent him fleeing the UK, under the bail conditions imposed on him by a judge who released him after six weeks in London's grim Wandsworth Prison.

“One minute, I was welcomed by the global elite, my opinion seemingly sought by so many world leaders, the next moment, here I am,” Mr Naqvi said in a video he released to put across his side of the story.

“My ankle bracelet is a constant reminder that I am facing extradition.”

He's currently holed up a well-appointed but discreet apartment block in an upmarket area of central London, where a three-bedroom property can be bought for just shy of $3 million.

With the lush expanse of Hyde Park just a stone's throw away, it's a gilded cage for a man who once had plans for changing the world but who is now battling to avoid a possible 291 years in prison.

A uniformed concierge ensures no one is able to reach Mr Naqvi's front door without permission. When The National twice visited this month, he said he would pass on a request for an interview with Mr Naqvi.

While plush by the average Londoner's standards, it's a far cry from a lifestyle that saw him host cricket matches on a private pitch at his former £12.25 million mansion in Wootton Place, about 100km west of London.

One match featured Imran Khan, the legendary former Pakistan captain and later the country's prime minister.

The Wootton T-20 Cup, as the matches played at Mr Naqvi's mansion were known, took place on an immaculate pitch set in 5.6 hectares of formal gardens and parkland, and were attended by hundreds of bankers, lawyers and investors. The event featuring Mr Khan reportedly doubled up as a fund-raiser for his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party.

From wealth to legal woes

As well as in rural England, Mr Naqvi had homes on St Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, and in France. These were bought with the wealth he made through Abraaj, once the biggest private equity fund in the Middle East and North Africa.

With interests across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East to manage, at its peak Abraaj had $14 billion of assets under management.

And with Mr Naqvi proclaiming his mantra was “doing good”, his apparent desire to use his wealth to help developing countries led to him sharing a stage at meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos with other philanthropically minded tycoons, such as Bill Gates, who invested $100 million in Abraaj.

To unwind after a day of schmoozing and deal-making, he would relax in a Davos bar by singing along with the resident piano player, tipping the musician with a €500 note.

Born in the bustling port city of Karachi, Pakistan's commercial centre, Mr Naqvi went to Karachi Grammar School and then the London School of Economics, before working for companies such as Arthur Andersen and American Express.

He eventually moved to Dubai and founded Abraaj in 2002 and with ambition for, in his own words “harnessing western style capitalism to help achieve stability, better health and prosperity”, he was able to move in the circles of the global elite.

When Barack Obama announced in 2009 the US was seeking to invest an annual $1.5 billion over five years, it sought out partners and pledged $150 million to an Abraaj fund.

The force of his personality and swashbuckling made Mr Naqvi the poster boy for so-called impact investment – a brand of business which involves trying to make a profit and doing good at the same time.

Soon he had the attendant lifestyle, flying in a Gulfstream jet with a personalised tail number – M-ABRJ – and sailing on his yachts, all the time comparing himself to mythical adventurer Sinbad.

The collapse of Abraaj Group

But Abraaj began to unravel as costs started to spiral while the firm was spending more than it was earning, weighed down by a bloated management team with a taste for the high life.

Whistleblowers began to come forward to warn investors not to put their money into a $6 billion Abraaj fund.

Alarm bells started ringing at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation when an executive sought bank records and began to ask what happened to the money promised for hospitals as part of its $1 billion healthcare fund. It later emerged money was being moved from the fund and was used to pay for various costs elsewhere in Abraaj.

Abraaj was forced into liquidation in 2018 with $385 million unaccounted for, after investors commissioned an audit to investigate alleged mismanagement.

Mr Naqvi is facing charges for allegedly concealing a liquidity crisis at his firm and siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars for his family.

The Dubai Financial Services Authority (DFSA) has also been pursuing Mr Naqvi and first fined him in 2022 but he referred its findings for review by the Financial Markets Tribunal (FMT), which rejected his appeal in December that year.

The tribunal found Mr Naqvi “was centrally involved in a sustained course of unauthorised financial service activities and misleading and deceptive conduct by Abraaj Investment Management Limited [AIML]”, the statement read.

AIML was a Cayman Islands-registered firm not authorised by the DFSA and in 2019 it imposed a fine of more than $299 million on the group for conducting unauthorised activities and misusing investors’ money.

The DFSA has now secured a default judgment against him in the Dubai courts, which happens when a defendant had failed to file a defence.

UAE judge Nassir Al Nasser has now ordered Mr Naqvi to pay $135,632,809 plus interest at 9 per cent a year.

The DFSA told The National it “does not comment on any ongoing legal action but will generally seek to use all available means to recover fines that remain unpaid, while also taking into consideration the claims of any affected investors or clients”.

Facing justice: Extradition and trials

In the meantime, Mr Naqvi is facing the prospect of trial in the US after a High Court judge refused him permission to bring a judicial review against the 2021 approval to extradite him.

During the hearing, his lawyer, Edward Fitzgerald, had argued Mr Naqvi was likely to be held in a notorious New Jersey prison where may have to share a dormitory with violent criminals.

Mr Naqvi suffers from severe depression and that there was a “real risk” of suicide if he was extradited, said Mr Fitzgerald.

Six former Abraaj executives, including Sev Vettivetpillai, are facing multiple charges from US prosecutors of racketeering and fraud.

In 2021 Vettivetpillai pleaded guilty to federal criminal charges of misappropriating client cash and misleading investors and potential investors about the firm's performance track record.

Having exhausted so many legal avenues to avoid the clutches of the US authorities, Mr Naqvi remains adamant he's done nothing wrong.

“I am crystal clear in front of my maker that I have never committed any intentional act of criminality,” he has said.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 9:23 AM