August Issue 2014

By | Profile | Published 4 years ago

 

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Malik Riaz, the owner of Bahria Town, the real estate conglomerate known for its expansive housing projects around the country, has become a household name. He was recently in the news again, when he announced a donation of Rs 500 million in aid for the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who are fleeing North and South Waziristan because of the army’s operation to eradicate militants from the region.

So who is Malik Riaz and how did he amass the billions that he now bandies about so freely?

Born in Islamabad, Riaz grew up in a middle-class family. His father was a small government contractor, but the business eventually collapsed and 19-year-old Riaz found himself working as a clerk at the Military Engineering Service (MES) — a civilian branch of the army that renovates and repairs houses — to help make ends meet for the family.

At the MES, Riaz slowly learned the ropes of the contracting trade, honing his skills and mastering the art of wheeling and dealing essential to the business. By the ’80s Riaz had become a small-time contractor, and in the mid-’90s was approached by the Bahria Foundation to develop two housing schemes in Lahore and Rawalpindi.

The agreement allowed Riaz to use Bahria’s name and the navy’s insignia to develop and market these schemes. The deal eventually ended up being investigated by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), but former naval chief Admiral (retd) Fasih Bokhari — and now former head of NAB — claimed that nothing suspicious was found against Riaz during the two investigations.

Despite Riaz’s exoneration, the Bahria Foundation ended its relationship with Riaz in 2000 and sued the tycoon for continuing to use Bahria’s name and insignia for his housing scheme. The law suit was taken to the Supreme Court, which in 2001 ruled in Riaz’s favour and allowed him to continue to use Bahria’s name. And so Bahria Town was born and Riaz gradually expanded it into one of the largest real-estate empires in Pakistan and consequently became one of the richest men in the country, with a net worth estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of rupees.

But Riaz’s rags-to-riches story is still a mysterious one, a tale which has been rife with controversy and allegations of extortion, land-grabbing, forgery, fraud and even murder. He himself has coyly alluded to some of those suspicions with his famous quip, “Mein file ke payyeh laga dayta houn (I attach wheels to files).”

In 2012 Riaz was caught at the centre of a national controversy, when he was accused of paying Arsalan Iftikhar, son of the former Chief Justice, Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, Rs 400 million to gain influence in the judiciary and buy himself a favourable verdict in the litany of land-grabbing cases filed against him. That episode was highlighted in the now infamous leaked video of the taping of a show on Dunya TV involving notable TV anchors Mehar Bukhari and Mubashir Lucman, who were conducting a “planted” interview which Riaz had allegedly paid for — further evidence of his massive influence in all sectors of society.

The land-grabbing cases had been filed by former military officer Lt-Col (retd) Tariq Kamal, who had alleged that the land that comprises Bahria Town in Lahore and Rawalpindi, was acquired through a land scam worth Rs 62 billion. The case, which was investigated by NAB, also implicated the Defence Housing Authority (DHA) and deprived 150,000 people — including 110,000 civilians and 41,000 serving and retired military officers, jawans and families of martyrs — of their residential plots.

Because of his initial partnership with the navy, Riaz now wields considerable influence on Pakistan’s powerful elite. He is said to have strong ties to Pakistan’s military establishment whom he repays with plots of land. Members of political parties and a handful of army officers (serving and retired), bureaucrats and lawyers are virtually on Riaz’s payroll. He has recently entered into a partnership with the Zardari Group, headed by former president, Asif Ali Zardari, —  for whom he constructed the Rs 5 billion Bilawal House in Lahore as a “gift” — and they together have announced various construction projects in Karachi.

Ayesha Siddiqa, the noted academic and political commentator has called him, “One of the many non-state actors that the Pakistani state is in a habit of partnering with,” lumping him with organisations such as the Sipha-e-Sahaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

Riaz, she alleges, was even used to console an angry Maulana Abdul Aziz (of Lal Masjid fame) and his wife Umme Hassan and spent Rs 15 million to rebuild the mosque, Madrassa Hafsa, and provide sanctuary to the maulana’s family. Some also contend that Riaz was asked to “take care of Abdul Qadeer Khan.”

While the rise of Riaz from common clerk to billionaire tycoon, is shrouded in controversy and conjecture, his philanthropic endeavours have been out in the open for all to see, garnering him much-needed goodwill around the country.

He’s built hospitals in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad which provide dialysis treatment, kidney transplants and all other medical treatment free of charge. Bahria Dastarkhwan in Islamabad provides about 100,000 people with free meals twice a day.

In 2013, Riaz paid the Rs 130 million ransom to free seven Pakistani crewmembers aboard the MV Albedo, which had been hijacked by Somali pirates. In March, Riaz pledged Rs 200 million for the drought-stricken people of Tharparkar in Sindh, saying, rather hyperbolically, that he’d even spend his entire fortune of billions if the people needed it.

While his intentions behind this largesse are either genuine or a smokescreen to camouflage his many questionable business dealings, give or take, it clearly illustrates his one-point agenda: money.

Riaz uses his billions to the full extent that he can, either to buy influence within political circles or to project an image of the benevolent philanthropist. A billion here, a billion there, his simple philosophy is that if there is a problem, money can solve it. But it begs the question: Can his generosity give him carte blanche to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to? He certainly seems to think so.

 

This article was originally published in Newsline’s August 2014 issue.

The writer is a journalist and former assistant editor at Newsline.