May Issue 2008

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 16 years ago

Student leader, Trotskyite, historian, journalist and playwright manqué, Tariq Ali reached iconic status for his raucous, rabble-rousing anti-Vietnam protests. We, who much to the mocking mirth of our friends, marched in solidarity into Grosvenor Square, looked on with no small measure of pride, as this handsome Pakistani took centre stage. That was the year of the protests in Chicago at the Democratic Convention and of the birth of the famous Chicago Eight. Throughout the intervening years, Tariq Ali has produced a shelf load of historical fiction, essays, TV films and is a much sought-after speaker. In all this time he has maintained his radicalism, even if it is inevitably mellowed and measured.

tariq-ali-may08He has recently published this indictment of the late Agha Hasan Abedi and his creation, the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). Tariq Ali has chosen a subject that in this country resurrects distressing memories and over which clouds of confusion and concern remain. This selection is all the more perplexing in that there is no significant current interest in the history of BCCI — today’s entry-level collegiate was hardly born the year the bank was closed and the acronym is more likely to conjure up the Indian cricket authority rather than this bank. In any case the central character passed away some time ago. So why travel back down this well-worn road?

BCCI was set up in 1972 by Agha Hasan Abedi and a close-knit group of confidantes, after the nationalisation of his previous venture, the United Bank. The funding came primarily from several Arab emirates, the staff from UBL and his international acceptability from a 25% partnership with the global giant, Bank of America (BoA). The Luxembourg Banking Commission made it clear that the license was being given to BoA.

According to Swaleh Naqvi, Abedi’s trusted and loyal No.2 (and confirmed in interviews with many key players, both loyal and dissidents), they envisioned a truly global organisation fuelled by emerging petrodollars — “a World Bank, a global bank for the Third World.” It was to be achieved by a meteoric expansion into the developing world and through the introduction of real customer service concepts in markets dominated by complacent postcolonial near-monopolies. The bank was to be managed by bankers, mainly from Pakistan, charged with the culture and ethos delineated by Abedi.

Back in the seventies, in those bleak days of misapplied socialism, the career path for an ambitious Pakistani led only to state-managed enterprises, entailing vigorous sifarish and an introduction to a culture of licenses, nepotism and sycophancy. Foreign investment dwindled to a trickle and the opportunity for fulfilling employment in multinationals or even progressive local outfits was scarce. BCCI, with its shiny chrome and glass interiors meticulously created by a Lebanese designer, and young men in smart suits, oozing enviable team spirit, culled from the best and the brightest.

From its bases in London and the Middle East, BCCI expanded into Africa in the seventies and further afield in Asia by the eighties. By 1980, BCCI had 150 branches in 46 countries and set about expanding into the Americas, North, Central and South. The US was to prove to be that bridge too far.

In the latter half of the eighties, terminal illness struck- both literally and figuratively. Its founder suffered a debilitating heart attack and in the US, authorities initiated a multiple attack. The bank was vilified as the greatest fraud of the century, as a shopping centre for criminals, the merchants of sleaze and corruption, a haven for drug money, a pimp for potentates and a criminal enterprise violating US banking regulations. Opportunistic journalists, of which Tariq Ali was the most prominent, clambered on to the bandwagon. In 1981, he wrote three unsigned articles published by the New Statesman, which are appended in this TV script. Then through a film The BCCI Story in 1991 for Channel 4 and now, over a quarter of a century later, with the publication of a long-forgotten TV script buried in his filing cabinet.

What then is the motive? Drama or possibly vendetta? If conceived as a drama, even with the demands of sound-bite sensationalism, perhaps Tariq Ali should study the craft of the writers of such excellent TV dramas as Inspector Morse or House of Cards. In the early part of the last century, William Archer in his seminal work, Playmaking, lays down two immutable rules for any dramatic work. Quoting Aristotle, he says a play should have a beginning, a middle and an end, a fundamental requirement that Tariq Ali seems to avoid as one is hard put to fathom a story or a theme. Secondly, Archer advises, “The story which is independent of character — which can be carried through by a given number of ready-made puppets … is essentially a trivial thing.” The only person in this story, however, slanderously portrayed, and who inspires attention is the character of Abedi himself. The rest are ‘ready made puppets’ and the story is essentially ‘a trivial thing.’

Tariq Ali does not shroud Abedi alone with evil but, unable to restrain his own politics, imputes base corruption to officials of the Bank of England and collusion by a number of official agencies to subvert the investigation of the bank. On the soft targets of Pakistanis and Arabs, it is open season.

The story covers the discovery by a journalist, Amanda (the could-be central protagonist), that the CIA was instrumental in the formation of the bank, supported the bank’s involvement in drug-trafficking and money-laundering, which was financed Abu Nidal, the world’s No.1 terrorist — and then Amanda is mysteriously killed. The end.

The action moves at break-neck speed — a total of 160 scenes, comprising mainly entries and exits from rooms, hotels and bars. Not being an expert on scripts, I again turn to Archer. “What then is the essence of drama if conflict be not it? What is the common quality of themes, scenes and incidents, which we recognise as specifically dramatic? [T]he essence of drama is crisis.” You will be hard put to find any crisis in this story. Glib, populist with a full measure of acknowledgement to baser instincts — salacious Arabs feeling up young men, a salacious Arab with a naked hooker, venal Pakistani thugs undoing belts as they strip naked the whistleblower’s wife, and other such clichés.

If not dramatic enterprise, what then could be the motive? Tariq Ali’s exposés of over 25 years of BCCI operations comprise details of the structure of the bank shareholdings, its culture and ambitions, peppered with innuendoes over its shadowy intent. Does he then aspire to a Michael Moore-on-banking status, a voice for the voiceless victims? Or is there some residual grudge over his own relationship with the bank or ‘the banker for all seasons?’ Abedi is projected as a villain, a Bhagwan Rajneesh-type megalomaniac, personally corrupt and ruthless. He doesn’t appear a lot in the script, but his villainy is pervasive.

Does this portrait ring true? In over 100 hours of interviews with BCCI employees, executives, directors and clients, some of whose careers lay shattered, others whose businesses suffered, some who had to resort to legal action for the recovery of monies, I came across not a single person who spoke of Abedi in other than reverential terms. Not one spoke of a culture of expediency, short-termism or officially endorsed unprofessionalism, let alone corrupt practices in the bank. Not a single charge amongst the many indictments against Abedi, Naqvi and many others comprised charges of self-enrichment.

So what is there to support the villainous evil enterprise theory? In October 1981, Tariq Ali wrote in the New Statesman about Mr Masood Asghar, who had resigned from the group. “Asghar threatened to sue… against the advice of friends, he returned to Pakistan. One morning a group of soldiers burst in and Asghar was beaten and raped.”

This story has been repeated in Truell/Gurwin’s False Profits (1992) and Beaty/Gwynne’s The Outlaw Bank (1993). Tariq Ali considers this foul act against Asghar relevant enough to be repeated in the script, verbatim, from the mouth of the DA’s deputy, just to reinforce the notion of pervasive evil. My curiosity aroused, and I hunted down Masood Asghar and spoke to him about his relationship with Abedi and BCCI. Herewith verbatim.

Masood Asghar: “Mr. Abedi was the most gracious man I ever met. He gave me nothing but respect. His final words to me when I called on him to say goodbye was ‘come to me if there is anything I can do for you.’”

I persisted: “And what about stories of the alleged rape that have been repeatedly published?” Masood Asghar laughs: “That story was my own fault. After a dispute had arisen between some bank officials and myself on the interpretation of terminal benefits in my contract, I initiated legal proceedings. At that time, a friend from the bank phoned me from London and asked how I was doing. ‘Yaar, the bank is buggering me around,’ I replied. And so the story began!” This then comprises the authenticity of evidence to support the supposed evil nature of the enterprise!

What then should be made of the bagful of other charges heaped on Abedi and the bank? Unanimous in their praise for and defense of Abedi, those interviewed were equally vocal in their indictments of Abedi’s megalomania, his bizarre ramblings on metaphysics and spiritualism, his cynical acquisition of people and the bank’s legerdemain in accounting. Many other organisational features, both of structure and form, were highlighted that were serious enough to justify regulatory intervention but not to close down the bank.

The Bank of England (BoE) was purportedly instructed by the then prime minister, John Major, to close the bank in order to protect the depositors. That was the single most dangerous action likely to damage those self-same constituents. But what were they being protected from? Since the closure, efficient management by the liquidators has permitted the return of 81% to the UK depositors and, it is likely, that payment in full will be made even after over $1 billion have been spent on ‘liquidation costs’. In the rest of the world not a single depositor lost their money. Under an agreement with the liquidators, the majority shareholder (Abu Dhabi) paid over $2 billion to cover the dues of the depositors and that commitment had been unequivocally made by the ruler of Abu Dhabi prior to the bank’s closure. On July 4, the ruler’s representative flew to London to commit financial support to the proposed restructuring of the bank. At that meeting, not a word was mentioned of the BoE’s intent to close the bank the following day.

BCCI’s sins of false accounting, reckless lending and defalcation of the employees’ welfare benefits have been well documented but have been dwarfed subsequently by events at Enron, WorldCom, One.Tel and Northern Rock, among other well known corporations who took down billions of public money. BCCI, with the help of its principal shareholder, turned out to be solvent.

I cannot answer the question as to why this prolific and highly respected voice of our times should, at this point, wish to be part of the continuum of BCCI-bashing. The library of exposés feeding the hunger for sensationalism is large. Truell/Gurwin’s False Profits is meticulous in detail; Beaty/Gwynne’s The Outlaw Bank, is more cerebral but miserly with the truth and generous in fantasy; and Adam/Franz’s A Full Service Bank details the sting operations against BCCI in Miami . In the preface, Tariq Ali informs us that “the real story has yet to be told.” What then is still left to be told?

Can it ever be determined that Abedi’s vision of a ‘South ‘ World Bank, independent of Western control, funded by petrodollars, and organised for the development of the Third World was anathema to the West? Will the story of a myriad of dedicated, hardworking professionals, who carried unfairly a stigma not of their own making, ever be told? Will an even-handed analysis of the real motive for destroying the bank ever be exposed? Unlikely. Western minds are made up, eyes are closed and the deaf don’t hear.