Arif Naqvi was charismatic, inspiring, and self-made—all the qualities of a successful business leader. The founder of Abraaj, a Dubai-based private-equity firm, Naqvi was the Key Man to the global elite searching for impact investments to make money and do good. He persuaded politicians he could help stabilize the Middle East after 9/11 by providing jobs and guided executives to opportunities in cities they struggled to find on the map. Bill Gates helped him start a $1 billion fund to improve healthcare in poor countries and the UN and Interpol appointed him to boards. As Pope Francis blessed a move to harness capitalism for the good of the poor, Naqvi won the support of Obama’s administration and investors, who compared him to Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible.
In 2018, Simon Clark and Will Louch were contacted by an anonymous whistleblower who said Naqvi had swindled investors out of hundreds of millions of dollars and offered bribes to sustain his billionaire lifestyle. Digging into the claims, Clark and Louch uncovered hundreds of documents and exposed the wrongdoing. In April 2019—months after their exposé broke—Naqvi was arrested on charges of fraud and racketeering, and faces up to 291 years in jail.
Populated by a cast of larger-than-life characters and moving across Asia, Africa, Europe and America, The Key Man is the story of how the global elite was duped by a capitalist fairytale. Clark and Louch shine a light on efforts to clean up global capital flows even as opaque private equity firms amass trillions of dollars and offshore tax havens cast a veil of secrecy which prevents regulators, investors and citizens from understanding what’s really going on in the finance industry.
Simon Clark is a journalist and author based in London. His investigative reporting has led him to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, the copper mines of Congo and to many banks in the City of London. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2016. The Key Man, his first book, was published in July 2021.
In a sense this is 2 books. As a summary of the details of what happened at Abraaj, this is clearly well researched. The story is also quite interesting and fascinating and the writers must be credited for bringing it out.
Beyond that though, the second book is the narrative that’s woven around it, which is just atrocious on so many levels. Almost all of the attempts to dip the details into a context fails. Even if he spoke about it a lot Naqvi is hardly the poster child for impact investing or the founder of shared value or any of those ideas. His troubles don’t really prove or justify drawing any conclusions about that. Would also have been interesting to unpack other parts of the story. How come there was so little control, how did auditors miss the corruption for so long? Valuation is rarely a science, we’re they forging accounts or applying strange multiples? As long as the story is, it’s filled with a lot of unnecessary details. Why do we need to know that the lawyer’s brother works at the same firm with the brother of David Cameron or that people who made a bid for Abraaj were associated with Obama? Interesting stories aren’t pursued while we are peppered with random details constantly. Every few pages a fee or an expense is compared to average incomes in developing countries. Only the writers know why that is necessary. At some point they insinuate that the Head of IFC goes against his team and approves a commitment to an Abraaj Fund but of course they don’t discuss the angle of corruption there. I think the worst part of the book is the epilogue where somehow a push for lower taxes in the US is linked with low tax revenues in Pakistan.
Overall an interesting insight into how Abraaj happened and worth reading for that.
A well-researched and well-written account explaining the rise and fall of one of the largest private equity funds in the world, Abraaj, founded by Arif Navqi, in the heyday of globalization in the 2000's and early 2010's all the way to its undoing and the recent London court ruling in 2021. As of this writing, Arif Navqi is sitting at his home in Kensington, London, with an ankle monitor, awaiting extradition to the United States.
Simon Clark and Will Louch, two British journalists, have written an engrossing page-turner, though at times it is hard to keep up with all of the relationships that Arif 'cultivated' for his own purposes. Then there's also the numerous accounting tricks, loan requests, etc. that Arif and his finance team managed to pull off to camouflage gaping holes in the funds at key moments as when for example, financial auditors came to audit the books.
One of the things the book managed to do was it made me look at the annual World Economic Forum event at Davos differently: the authors do not hold back in harping on the fact that this gathering of the global elite meet to discuss pressing world issues when most of the time those directly affected (the poor, the disadvantaged, for eg) are not even in attendance. They liken it to a bunch of men meeting to discuss how to improve gender equality. It is hard to disagree with that analogy.
But the annual Davos event was a favorite of Arif. He paid millions of dollars each year to be at the Forum so that he could hobnob with the elite. And he was quite excellent in networking and building relationships. He had a strong stage presence, and often managed to land himself high-profile spots sitting next to the likes of Richard Branson and Bill Gates onstage as keynote speakers, thereby further burnishing his image. He was smart and highly educated. But he funded his billionaire lifestyle with the money that investors poured into his private equity fund.
He repeatedly touted the importance of 'doing good while making a profit' and that it was possible to strive for this; this repeated mantra of his at Davos and other global summits shook the global elite and roused them to give his company millions of dollars to manage and it worked because it spoke to the innate desire (or perhaps guilt) of the rich and powerful to feel good about doing good while making a profit. Arif was adamant that the Western elite should not call many parts of Africa and the Middle East as 'emerging markets', which was patronizing, but as 'global growth markets' and that the world should start paying more attention to these important markets which have millions of consumers and would provide great returns to investors. He managed to brush aside deep-seated (and not unfounded) concerns from the media, academia or investors, around political instability or endemic corruption in many countries in the Middle East and Africa. Arif was well-positioned to talk about this part of the world as he was educated at the London School of Economics, was from Pakistan and set up his business in Dubai; he was the bridge between the West and the 'global growth markets' as he liked to call the part of the world that he wanted to help in concrete ways.
He did have a good and noteworthy vision of marrying money from the rich world to benefit the parts of the world that needed it like hospitals in Kenya or Ghana, for example. But he suffered from severe self-delusion and narcissistic personality disorder (it does not take a psychologist to see this) and a few of his acquaintances/friends mentioned in the beginning of the book eventually severed ties with him, having recognized Arif's darker and more disturbing side. And of course, several ex-employees of Abraaj did not want to be identified in the book for fear of reprisal: one example is of a young Indian analyst who joined Abraaj only to quit soon after because he was humiliated in front of the rest of the staff at a company party when Arif told him to take off his shirt, undershirt and tie and threw those pieces over the balcony of a high-rise, sort of like testing the loyalty of this poor newcomer. It was a truly disturbing account to read.
High-profile, well-known investors in the fund included the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, (which invested $100 million in Abraaj), the Washington State Investment Board (apparently "one of the world's largest and most experienced investors in private equity fund" which made a $250 million investment in Abraaj), the CDC (the Colonial Development Corporation founded in 1948 by the Labour party in Britain), etc.
A seminal moment in the book occurs when Andrew Farnum, who managed $2 billion at the Gates Foundation smelled something fishy in late 2017 as he was puzzled by Abraaj's repeated requests for money for the fund "when the firm didn't appear to be using the cash he'd already sent them." I view Farnum as the hero in this whole story because he seemed to be the only one (well, at least the only one mentioned as such in the book) who took the extra time to ask Abraaj just a few more questions, make a few more phone calls, and to prod just a bit more than the other investors into how their money was being used and to ask for something as simple as Abraaj's bank statements over a time period (not rocket science, right?). Farnum was conducing basic due diligence, something that should have been done more thoroughly BEFORE putting money down, but by the time Gates Foundation had made the investment, Arif had acquired a perfect veneer of credibility, integrity, reliability, and an 'excellent track record' that it became impossible to believe any wrongdoing was going on behind the scenes at Abraaj. And from here the unraveling begins.
If you like what I call "non-fiction white collar crime thrillers" such as Dark Towers (by David Enrich, about Deutsche Bank); Bad Blood (about Theranos/Elizabeth Holmes; I have not read it yet but I know a few people who finished it in a day or two because they just couldn't put it down); Billion Dollar Whale (about the Malaysia 1MDB scandal); or Black Edge (about SAC and Steven Cohen, and which I have read and thought it quite good), then you probably will like this book also.
A staggering book by Simon Clark. A non-stop read that makes your head spin and your heart beat faster and faster. The story of the rise, rise, rise and then complete collapse of the Abraaj Group (Dubai).
What makes this book so compelling?
- A story that PROVES that fairy tales DO come alive. This is the stuff movies are made of. - Hard, compelling, repeated proof points of how 'risk and rewards' work out in the exhilarating world of entrepreneurship. - The most important aspect of this book (like many others of this 'rise & fall genre) is the FINE line between Success (good), Super success (desirable) and 'Too good to be true' Success that almost ALWAYS comes with a dark side & corruption of morals & ethics. - Insights, stories, quotes! Examples: - “You could not have designed a more troubled company if you had set your mind to it" (Karachi Electric) - He (Jeffrey Skoll) became a billionaire by selling eBay shares and used the cash to fund his dream of inspiring people to help humanity. - How super luxury boats are sold : "The salesman usually got on well with his super-rich clients because, smart as they were, they considered building a boat for family and friends a pleasant activity, not a locking of horns and a battle to prove who was the best dealmaker." - How Bill Gates got inspired to start his charity drive: "The African (Honeymoon) holiday sparked a burning curiosity in Bill and Melinda. Why were there such extremes of inequality in the world? What caused poverty? How big was the problem, and did it really have to be like this? Walking on a beach on the African island of Zanzibar, they resolved to pour billions of dollars into an attempt to end poverty."
I have always been fascinated by the contrast between people who have emerged from the brutally competitive, ruthless culture of social advancement, particularly in South Asia - and the highfalutin rhetoric of businesses driven by purpose, typically espoused by Western executives and corporates with an outsized global influence.
It is a grotesque sight watching 'saleoo banday' ('sales driven dudes' in the parlance of the Indian ad industry) pay lip service to looking out for the little guy, having to care for the feelings of their subordinates (or even regard them as human beings and not wholly disposable gofers), and to take steps to address absurdly distant issues like the environment.
It's not so much making a silk purse out of a sow's ear, as it is carting a sow around, insisting it is a purse.
Many of these people, thanks to a combination of ruthlessness, agility and smarts, have carved out comfortable niches for themselves by the time they hit their mid-30s, doing significantly better than the generations who preceded them.
Expecting them to set aside every instinct that made them successful and abruptly transform into 'concerned responsible citizens of the world' is a conceit full of hubris and arrogance.
Going by 'The Key Man' Abraaj founder Arif Naqvi strikes me as a significantly smarter and (despite recent events) a much more successful version of a sort of person I've frequently encountered. A 'saleoo banda' who, instead of chafing uncomfortably under the yoke of 'good corporate citizenry', saw in it a massive opportunity for personal advancement.
Having recently finished Chasing Ghislaine by Vicky Ward which went into some detail on Jefrey Epstein's methods and reading about Naqvi's ability to convince money managers to part with millions of dollars, I am awestruck by how easy marks some of the world's wealthiest people appear to be.
Naqvi also effectively played on many of the follies, pretensions and goodwill of people who have never known poverty firsthand. He was comfortable weaponising liberal squeamishness about inequality and an increasingly expansive list of taboo subjects and attitudes. But on evidence of The Key Man, this appears to have been an entirely rhetorical device to impress potential investors or score brownie points at international fora - for instance, against allies turned adversaries like Bill Gates. There are no discernible signs of his regard for 'all stakeholders' considering the largescale embezzlement of funds intended to start hospitals across Asia and Africa, or in his interactions with colleagues.
His relationship with the employees of Abraaj again brought with it a nasty sense of deja vu. If you are 35 and older and have worked for any length of time in India, you've probably heard of or experienced this firsthand: the bizarre demands of 'loyalty', the feudalism that creeps into what ought to be a mostly transactional relationship between employer and employee, and a boss claiming to treat employees as 'family' which sounds great until you realise that families are the worst, most restrictive, suffocating and fundamentally unavoidable ties that one can get saddled with.
'The Key Man' covers a lot of this ground in an incredibly easy to grasp way. Considering the rather dense subject matter, Simon Clark and Will Louch do an fantastic job of simplifying complex concepts and transactions.
If there's a knock against the book, this simplification sometimes gets a little repetitive. And while it isn't anywhere close to being slow paced, the authors occasionally belabour a point that has been previously explained. It's however not much of a dealbreaker since having a full grasp of these concepts is often essential to understand what happens next.
What's missing and would perhaps be impossible to include in a book like this is the internal compulsions that drove Arif. There's little evidence of it in the publicly available material where he is - to all appearances - a socially conscious profit oriented investor. There are shades of it in his interactions with colleagues at Abraaj, but his inner life is an unsolvable puzzle. One that probably wouldn't be resolved even if the authors got ample interview time with their subject, because if a mask has worked so well and you owe nothing to the people you are talking to, why let it slip?
If I may hazard a guess, his actions strike me as being driven at least in part by a sense of injury that can be perceived across at least some of the people in corporate South Asia and I'd imagine, many other former colonies. A great contempt for the 'rules' created by people whose ancestors observed precisely no rules at all, as they ran roughshod over vast sections of geography, enslaving and impoverishing the local population. Places where decolonised citizens now find themselves in a constant Darwinian struggle against their countrymen. Places that the descendants of their former oppressors, patronisingly call "emerging markets".
The realisation that yes, if you leap through a series of increasingly narrow hoops, you will get a chance to play, but the rules themselves, and the attendant gatekeeping are all very self serving.
As the book makes amply clear, the collapse of Abraaj is driven by greed, selfishness and hubris. But beneath it all I sense an undercurrent also present in conversations I've had with Indian executives, especially, when they were a few drinks down, at some global soiree, away from home. A chafing at coming from a 'poor' country with a 'weak currency' and the relative lack of opportunities for massive self enrichment. Opportunities that Western corporates and captains of the industry, who now give pious bromides about 'doing well by doing good' and 'profit with a purpose' have already availed of.
Also disturbing is the ridiculously soft landing Arif appears to have wrangled for himself. I won't spoil it any further, but it will (or should) fill you with rage. The trial is ongoing, but if he did get away relatively unscathed, it wouldn't surprise me at all.
10 stars out of 5. This books reminds me of why I ever thought I could be a journalist and why I'm glad I didn't become one because I doubt if I would have had enough courage that weighs the small toe of either of the authors! Talk about tenacity? As I continued to read, at a point i felt these were white boys out to pull down a successful brown capitalist, the frequent references of "the boy from Karachi" grated my nerves and sounded condescending to me, however in the end Mr Navqi's greed, bullish recklessness and his inability to accept the consequences of his actions convinced me that he was just another con man looking for his big payday. I've always suspected and judged people who cannot hide their love for wealth while ostensibly wanting to help poor people- it's a failing of mine which I've yet to be proven wrong upon. As the authors say on page 291, ...Mr Navqi wanted to dispel a negative stereotype about corruption in Pakistan and other developing countries but his actions may have ended up reinforcing it. This is about the most damning sentence in the book- that another brown or black business man might never be given a chance to do good because Mr Navqi's race has tainted that possibility for others.
As a person who worked for Deutsche Bank in Dubai from 2005-2008 I knew a number of the people mentioned in the book personally as well as people who are recognizable to someone familiar with the matter but are unnamed. While I only met Arif once he was, nevertheless, a constant presence as a client and as someone that DB had invested with. I wish I could say I knew all this but I did not. Most of the criminality took place long after I had left. High finance in Dubai during the period I worked there had an unreality about it that is difficult to describe though, I have to admit that I too was motivated by a sense that a better ordering of the financial system there would promote wider humanitarian goals. Unlike Naqvi I deceives mostly myself. The authors do a good job but as journalists rather than insiders, they can only say so much so the story is not as interesting as it could have been. Also their moralizing, though important, I think in some cases of over-wrought and in other cases does not go far enough. Stakeholder capitalism is absolute garbage and if you ever needed an example of just how bogus its claims are, this is the story of it. The guy basically did in high finance what the woke left are doing in popular culture. Accuse your critics of racism and then monetize the guilt you have stoked.
I've read about twenty or so books in the past ten years on various economic crashes, scams, or company implosions. If I rated them all in descending order this would be closer to the bottom than the top. It has its moments, but in the end it was dragged down by repetiveness. The book could have been condensed, and actually packed more of a punch. It seems as if the author attempted to flesh out the story with context and instead stuffed it, mounted it, and displayed as alive what is probably dead. Ok, enough with the metaphors. As a story, it is predictable, though still interesting in a car-crash sort of way. As a cautionary tale, it is excellent. Once you start down the road of greed and pride driven dishonesty it is almost impossible to turn around.
There's a moral in here. There's a decent story in here. It could have been better done.
Wild story of Abraaj Group. Celebrated PE fund leading the charge on impact investing in emerging markets with big name investors like the Gates Foundation…turns out to be a Ponzi scheme. Lot of red flags overlooked by investors. Interesting to read right after the fall of SBF/FTX.
1. Grow up in elite Post colonial high school in Pakistan, be ambitious 2. Study in London School of Economics 3. Go to the Middle East and do well in an investment firm 4. Open up a fund with friends 5. Have early success flipping companies, taking risk after 9-11, buying companies on the cheap. 6. Turn around Karachi Electric 7. Pay millions to attend World Economic Forum 8. Preach about Impact Investing to the Davos crowd 9. Have billionaire friends, and live a billionaire lifestyle, even if it means taking money from funds that are supposed to be used to be invested. Transfer some into own account as well
Unfortunately, investing in the emerging markets is inherently risky. So when the promised 17% yearly return is not forthcoming, the deck of cards started crumbling. Why did the elites believe him? Because they want to believe that one can invest in poor countries and help the poor and earn high returns, all at the same time.
A page turner. I wonder how did Arif Naqvi manage to hide his financial play from the auditors! And what a charisma he must have to dupe the economy big-wigs at World Economy Forums, the Banks and the foundations mentioned!
As per the latest news, the one person that helped prevent his extradition to US is the case of Nirav Modi! If Nirav's extradition to India doesn't work, Arif's to US won't work either!
The middle of this book is seriously irritating and repeatedly putting Naqvi’s millions in “context” by saying “not bad for the boy from Karachi” frankly racist. The overall story is well told but constantly pushing a weirdly formed agenda by using figures like a person in Nigeria would earn this much in 48,000 years, is just strange, as is saying about every conclave (UN, WEF etc.) that there were no poor people there. Errrr, when have there ever been? I’m still giving the book 3 stars because of its comprehensive coverage but compared to “Bad blood” which I finished only a couple of days ago (I started the key man when I got it in August last year but shelved it because I wasn’t in the mood then), this is not a great book. ALSO, main peeve: the entire middle of the book, where the writers are giving sweeping statements about corruption etc, they fail to explain financial regulations and systems, even though these are way easier to comprehend for laypeople than medical and scientific things, and Carreyrou did a fabulously thoroughly job with the latter in his book.
The Epilogue is good though and has an interesting thesis about the vested and self indulgent intentions of billionaires’ investments to reduce poverty which cannot be a replacement for government spending.
It was hard for me to review this book at first because I wasn’t exactly sure how to describe it to others considering it. Yes, on the one hand, it does deliver the breaking story of a man, for whom over a decade, ran the world’s greatest Ponzi scheme; one that makes Bernie Madoff look like a mere pickpocket.
It seems absolutely astonishing to me that Arif Naqvi was able to deceive so many so-called “brilliant” investors, politicians, diplomats and regulators. Then again, when it comes to the world of the uber-wealthy and their inherent narcissism and auras of self-importance, I suppose it’s quite easy for them to be swayed by someone who reinforces their attitudes that there’s nothing wrong about the excess wealth they enjoy.
Naqvi in fact goes a step further, and allows for billionaires such as Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Warren Buffett to believe that their lives of luxury do NOT come at the expense of the poor, but rather (ironically enough) that these very poor individuals belong to the “emerging markets” sector, and in these “impact investing” scenarios, wealthy people can become even wealthier, while simultaneously giving themselves a pat on the back for improving the lives of the citizens of Third World countries!
The authors make this clear when they mention how, during these huge, lavish global events, (where the main topic of discussion is how to improve the lives of the poor) not a single person in attendance is even close to poor. And naturally, wealthy billionaires are going to want to support the argument that private equity businesses can do a better job than the government at reducing inequality. Why? Because this way they can keep tax rates for themselves low, undergo little (if any) serious regulations checks, and generally be afforded more secrecy in their dealings. And governments and institutions are REALLY going to trust these people, who have a very personal financial stake in this battle, to what? Do the right thing? Actually go against what private equity firms are meant to do and instead lose money by giving it to the poor? LOL! That’s a funny joke...
The crimes Naqvi committed against tons of wealthy investors pales in comparison with the crimes continuously committed against the poor by Naqvi and the wealthy elite. Maybe their crimes instead consist of using loopholes, bribes, or hoarding cash (just a few of many examples) to stay wealthy. It’s just sad to me that there’s only outrage, really, because Naqvi deceived arrogant billionaire investors, most of whom failed to do basic research and should have known better. What’s even sadder is that some of these investors were so wealthy, they didn’t even notice that they weren’t getting the returns back on their investments after companies they owned stakes in were sold! When you’re so rich you aren’t really concerned about a few million dollars invested in a fund until perhaps a year after that fund has been sold off, or news reaches you through a friend, perhaps you may have too much money? Just a thought.
Anyway, I didn’t come here to rail on the rich. I have no problem with rich people or wanting to do well and live well. What I do have a problem with is the excessive, gluttonous greed, where the people are completely removed from reality, and somehow think they’re special enough to be one of the slightly higher than 2,000 people in the world deserving of this lifestyle.
Aside from the serious flaws in Abraaj exposed by the authors throughout the book, it seems to fluctuate too often between different times, companies, and people. Far too many names are named that I often found myself going back to check if so-and-so was the same person as the person I was now reading about.
Also, as mentioned earlier, I understand the stark contrast of these wealthy investors and the people they claim to care about: the difference in their lifestyles, and the money they make. But I also thought: did we really need constant reminders? For example, something to the effect that Arif’s hotel room for one night cost the same as 12,000 average Pakistanis make in a year, or that his posted bail would take the average Pakistani 6,000 years to earn? A few examples would suffice, but it was just an overload. I saw it as unnecessary filler for a book that lacked a lot of the more important details.
And while I understand that perhaps the book was largely incomplete based on the investors, auditors, regulatory bodies, etc. refusal to comment (as well as the fact that the trial is still pending), to me this signifies that while this is not the fault of the authors, perhaps this IS a book, however, that could have waited a bit longer to be written. But then, there’s always that urgency among authors to write the “first book”.
However, I’ve seen examples of much better books that were written later, when the information was more abundant, and more transparent. Breaking the story first in a news article is one thing, but building an entire book around the subject is quite another! Just felt unnecessarily drawn out to me, even though it was only 360 pages or so.
After figuring out why this book was a bit challenging for me to review, I feel more like it a deserves a 3/3.5, therefore I’m changing my rating. It wasn’t that the story wasn’t fascinating: rather, it seemed jumbled and incomplete.
This read establishes how a poised but shady Pakistani businessman bamboozled aristocratic investors into believing they could profit from doing good for the globally impoverished. The tale exposes how easily the world’s wealthy business and political leaders reached a consensus around the idea of “impact investing” that Arif Naqvi rose to eminence.
This distinctive book, more true crime than finance, vividly describes how Naqvi and his colleagues inflated valuations, moved money between the company, its funds and their personal accounts, and lied about their achievements. It was a standard Ponzi scheme that needed to keep raising ever bigger sums to keep going.
Many billionaires and chief executives still defend that they can make money while making the world a better place (most rich people, especially politicians are generally greasy). Among the authors’ closing thoughts is a call to action: “If accountants and regulators can’t keep private equity firms on the right track then more people are going to have to take an interest in how they operate.”
It is an essential message. But in a world where much power is condensed in the hands of buyout factions and their wealthy executives, who often dodge the public eye or seek to control the flow of information, it might be arduous to beget.
It should be repugnant for a group of wealthy people to talk about poverty mitigation. In order to get a reality check, there is a need for the people who are purported to be the recipients of impact investing to be included in the discussion about deploying capital to generate these outcomes. Otherwise, it will probably play out at best as a PR caper and at worst as fraud.
The Key Man is a book based on the investigative journalism that helped to bring down abraaj, a private equity fund that collapsed after the fraud committed by its founder, Arif Naqvi, was uncovered.
It's a tale reminiscent of Theranos and WeWork in which charismatic leaders make grandiose promises to attract investors, falling apart when they are unable to deliver.
The book reads like a long form newspaper article. It has lots of names, numbers, facts and quotes. It's an exhaustive and well-supported account, but it's hard to draw many broader conclusions. Was abraaj brought down by mismanagement and excess, or was it little more than a ponzi scheme. Was Naqvi a true believer in emerging markets and "capitalism for good," or a charlatan who used "stakeholder capitalism" as an inside path to connect with the global elite?
It is difficult to determine whether The Key Man is a takedown of Naqvi or the entire idea of stakeholder capitalism. There are repeated references comparing the cost of some expensive purchase to how many years the item would take to purchase by a low-income person in one of the emerging markets in which abraaj invested. This got gratuitous and annoying. Purchases of millions or tens of millions are unimaginable even for the mass-affluent in the West. The wealth of private equity leaders is hardly unique to Naqvi. The message of the book is that "capitalism for good" cannot work when practiced by a global elite so far removed from everyone else. But this message was mixed with the tales of the unusual criminality of Naqvi, leaving me to wonder whether it was the man or the concept that was so deeply flawed.
Phenomenal book, bringing to colour the biggest scandal to rock the private equity world. A tale of greed, deception, complicity with factual evidence that will make you do a double take. A boy done good, a dizzying rise and an even steeper fall from grace.
Naqvi rubbed shoulders with high society having promised to be able to deliver the magic formula - ethical investing with double digit returns.
Recommend to also watch the BBC documentary on the scandal so you can witness a master manipulator in action.
This gripping tale of the rise and fall of Abraaj has lessons for elsewhere: (1) Clear thinking can foresee trouble so don’t be fooled by the smokescreen of baseless numbers, grand rhetoric and endorsement from the rich and famous. (2) Criticising Abraaj’s scam doesn’t equal to opposition to investing in less developed parts of the world or philanthropy. (3) Beware of glitzy poverty-reduction initiatives marketed by billionaires and highly-paid consultants announced in exclusive five-star hotels or Davos where not a single poor person is attending.
A fascinating tale of the fraudulent founder of one of the highest profile private equity funds in recent memory. This stories where there were so many red flags to begin with and everyone just decides to give them a free pass are unbelievable. Confirmation bias at its worst.
I could not put this down - a Ponzi scheme that duped some of the most preeminent institutions on the globe all in the cloak of impact investing. Page turner. The charade that is Davos unveiled amongst other things. Remarkable how sloppy large institutional investors were.
Overall, a good easy read. Little background about PE/finance industry is required here. The story flows.
Few things that can be improved: * The book mentioned impact investing multiple times. I was in the impact investing industry and Abraaj/Arif was not the poster boy. Acumen was a much better known pioneer. Abraaj was seen as the largest emerging market PE, not necessarily an impact investor. The author could interview the wider industry not just the actors directly involved * In the book, it was not much mentioned about the actual returns that Abraaj got in their successive funds. Was Abraaj close to deliver the 17% returns and Arif just ruined the firm with his extravagance spending, or was it really a mirage. The book did mention some troubled investments and some good exits, but the overall picture was not shown. Fund returns are confidential information but all fund employees should have access to it hence not that difficult to get * Motivation. In the book, Arif is portrayed for just being greedy and erratic in nature. It would be useful to learn about why it is such a case. Story of his childhood occupied just one chapter in the book with not much is revealed about events that shape his character. There is also not much story about his family, especially his wife, who must have been influential in his life and career
The title says “The Key Man” but the book covers the event more than the man. The largest failure in the private equity industry’s history. A breezy read and written in a relatively jargon free style familiarizes the reader how Abraj managed to fool all of the people all of the time …almost .
It begs the question why do individuals who already have more wealth than 99.99% of humanity crave still more . Perhaps it’s a flaw in all of us but fatal to only a few …Greed.
What’s unpardonable though , it was done all in the name of the faceless, nameless impoverished masses whereas the real benefactor was only 1 .
The book also opens up the cosy coterie of the wealthy individuals, financial institutions, regulators , auditors and Governments. Where the “problems of the poor” are discussed over champagne and caviar and everyone is brown nosing everyone else . A bit like cannibals discussing “How to promote vegan diets”
Great for a in flight read and familiarizing oneself with yet another financial scandal .
This book goes to show how charisma, a veneer of legitimacy and "big ideas" of solving some of mankind's most intractable issues can blind some of the richest and smartest individuals and governments. This is a spectacular tale of how one man and a group of loyalists were able to bilk many out of millions of dollars, all in the name of solving poverty and inequities while (paradoxically) turning a profit. It sounded so good and noble until it turned out to be just another Ponzi scheme fraud.
A quick interesting fun read. The forensic side and linking the dots is very interesting. Where it lets itself down is the overly sanctimonious equivalences like comparing a business flight cost (hardly a surprise for any average corporate) to the median wage of Pakistani workers - am sure the WSJ local lunch place is X times the Pakistani equivalent too, and the blanket dismissal of impact investing. The last sentence of the book is truly Disney and not in a good way. For a better articulated criticque on corporates doing good try: Winners Take All.
Would have been better with more details on the actual fraud and chronology so for example had to go back through to try and figure out when the first improper transfer happened as the book jumps around quite a bit. Still a page Turner nonetheless.
Nonfiction is one of my favorite genres (has a more broad or sweeping statement every been made?) I think because the straightforwardness of the writing style of a good investigative piece is an excellent chaser to my other favorite genres, those of the New Weird and hard science-fiction, two places where straightforward writing is very often hard to come by.
But... you ever read something that's a little... too? straightforward?
This book really failed to pull me in. I mean, I got through it, sure, and I'm glad I did, but the whole time I didn't feel like I was reading a story. I felt like I was reading a report, something quickly compiled to outline a situation. Moreover, I felt like I was reading an internal report where I was supposed to have some kind of background knowledge on the intricacies of international private equity, and as a person with just over $1,000 in my savings account, I profoundly do not have that knowledge. I would read whole paragraphs, whole chapters, and I could tell what I was reading was supposed to be an articulation of a major financial crime, but I would get to the end of the sentence or paragraph or page and just blink a little and think, "huh," and keep on reading. Nothing really hit me. Nothing really had an impact. Nothing financial, anyway, which is the crux of the narrative. The human rights violations and egregious spending I could wrap my head around, but that didn't end up being the point of the story.
It seems like the authors were kind of aware of this, because early on they used a technique where they would say something like "x thousands of dollars were moved from fund abc to fund xyz, which the average Pakistani/Kenyan/Nigerian would take xxxx years to earn," and the first time that little device was employed, I really, really appreciated it. And the second. And the third.
And then I was 75% into the book and that was still the only device used to reinforce the egregious nature of the financial crimes being committed and I literally made a note in my Kindle that read "YES WE GET IT THESE PEOPLE ARE RICH AND THE PEOPLE THAT ARE BEING STOLEN FROM ARE VERY POOR." It's literally the only emotional hook in the whole book boy is it exhausting.
There were also extremely jarring shifts in tone where I would say a good 90% of the book is told from a dispassionate third person, and then all of a sudden the authors will say, "...and then we..." or take some other hard right turn into first person plural and I would literally have to page back a good few percent to make sure I wasn't missing some other introduction or acknowledgement of involvement, but no, I never was. I get that Clark and Louch did a lot of the investigating and reporting themselves, but the majority of this book is told completely from an outside perspective and then all of a sudden it's trying to be Bad Blood. And let me tell you, reader, Bad Blood it is not.
I hate capitalism. I hate capitalism as much as - okay, probably a lot more than the next guy. And while Clark and Louch have a hell of a story on their hands, the way they tell it could use some work, because by the end, except for the brief stint of courtroom drama in the last ten or so percent, I just... didn't care. I hesitate to give less than three stars because I do feel like this is worth a read, but this is worth a read in the way that checking your credit score is worth doing: you'll come away with a lot of valuable financial information that you'll have no real idea how to use in your everyday life, or even how to know exactly what it means.
This is a book written like a thriller about an enterprise that was said to be criminal and, while pretending to be Robin Hood, took money from the rich and just kept it for feeding the lavish lifestyle of some individuals and their families.
I have absolutely nothing against people with wealth. I usually assume that they have made a contribution to society which has allowed them to be wealthy.
But am I wrong in worrying about money that is raised by private equity through well known banks? Is that being put to the use they say it is? Yes, there are reports but can we trust them?
I think I left the book with that worry predominant in my mind.
The Key Man is a perfectly fine story of corporate crime, but certainly should not be counted among the genre's top entries. On the plus side, the book focuses on areas of the world (namely MENA and Pakistan) absent from many other books in the genre, which affords it a unique outlook. I particularly appreciated Clark's regular recognition to the disconnect between the titular dealmaker (and his colleagues) and the poor individuals on whose behalf he claimed to advocate. But ultimately, the book's pacing felt a bit off (a little bit too much time spent on all of Abraaj's accomplishments and too little time spent on the story of the reporting that uncovered Abraaj's crimes). For lovers of corporate crime books, The Key Man will make for a worthwhile read.
The key man: The story of how the global elite was duped by a capitalist fairy tale by Simon Clark and Will Louch
This story of the Pakistani fraudster, Arif Naqvi, and his PE firm Abraj Capital started in the early 2000’s when Naqvi made a $50 million fortune in a masterful deal with nothing but $50,000 in his bank account. He then founded Abraj Capital and raised billions of dollars from wealthy investors selling a promise of “impact investing in growth markets”. “Impact investing”, “social entrepreneurship”, and “philanthropic capital” are terms used to describe investments that seek to help the poor while turning a profit. With investments in Palestine, Africa, India, and Pakistan that include hospitals and ambulances, Abraj capital claimed to be the embodiment of impact investments. Naqvi toured the world meeting with celebrities and investors in Davos and other rich European and American watering holes. He delivered brilliant speeches and attracted many who believed the private sector is better than governments at every thing even when it comes to social services for the poor. Problem was, Naqvi turned to be a crook. He lost hundreds of millions in bad Abraj deals and syphoned hundreds more into personal offshore bank accounts.
This is just another fraud story, but I felt personally betrayed by Naqvi for two reasons:
First, I knew some of those who worked at Abraj. They are among the smartest and hardest working people I met. I even considered working there and might have actually done so if I didn’t immigrate to Canada. Joining a company that claims to do all this good in the world and discover it was a front for a Ponzi scheme must have been a terrible betrayal!!
Second, If Abraj actually delivered what they claimed, it would have been an invaluable service to humanity. Delivering health care and economic development to the poor is a moral imperative that has always been tarnished by government corruption. Abraj capital only made it worse. Who knows how many poor kids could have been saved if the money went to them instead of Naqvi’s private jet, Yacht, mansions, art collections, and Caribbean bank accounts.
I liked the story of the take down of a billionaire dirtbag! However, the authors conclusion that capitalism can be regulated through “democracy” or “government regulation” is absurd! Anyone with any business sense knows that a capitalist system is regulated by the consumer and their satisfaction! Case in point, ask anyone if they would rather pay for $100 video game of their choice or pay for their vehicle to be registered by their state? The answer is pretty clear the end consumer is the regulator!