by Amir Mateen
We might blame the politicians for buckling under the might of Malik Riaz but the real power behind the man is the military brass. No question about that.
He learnt the ropes of the contracting trade early on when he worked as a clerk at Maintenance and Engineering Services (MES), a civilian branch of the Army that renovates and repairs houses. That’s where he honed his skills in the art of ‘wheeling-dealing.’ In due time, he made enough money to become a contractor with the same MES, this time ‘greasing’ the palms of the junior officers that he had trained himself in all things shady. They grew in career as he grew in wealth or may be the other way around. His level of the interaction has sky-rocketed since then.
The former MES clerk now has among his employees many retired generals. We are told he enjoys it when some of them carry his bag shamelessly. During the initial days of the infamous Arsalan Iftikhar case, a photograph showed two retired generals escorting Malik Riaz while exiting the Supreme Court. One was the former mighty in-charge of military’s political muscle, Major General (retd) Ehtesham Zameer, who ran the political section of the ISI during the Musharraf government. And with a ruthless abandon I must say. The other was the top man of military’s public relations, Major General (Retd) Shaukat Sultan. Perhaps their job description remains the same but this time for a different boss and a really different salary package. No wonder, Malik brags so often that his files never stop.
That one picture captures the state of affairs in the Army, which continues to lose respect because of its partnership with one man.
The former MES clerk seems an uncrowned Field Marshal in terms of the power that he enjoys in all things related to the Brass.
One two-star general, while he was Director General of Welfare and Rehabilitation (under which comes DHA Islamabad), constructed a palatial house on a hilltop for himself not in the DHA but in Bahria Town next door. The house is so grand that people come to see it as a tourist attraction. This is not to cast any aspersions but it was under his tenure that the DHA and Bahria got into the most controversial joint ventures. No proof but in such positions people are expected to exercise some discretion.
Malik was smart enough to realize in the 1990s, when the khakis engineered the fall of a government every two years, that the real power, among the three most powerful proverbial As in Pakistan, lies with the Army. He knew that having the uniforms on your back is the safest bet in town.
Turns out, that’s exactly what Malik did. He sold the land to the DHA after grabbing it forcefully and illegally from not so powerful and influential individuals or housing society owners. Once under the control of the military, he knew there was no way it could come back to bite him. After all who would take the military to court even if DHA Islamabad, or some parts of it, are built on Qabza land.
The case of 2880 kanals owned by Revenue Employees Cooperative Housing Society (RECHS) should explain. The society land was proposed to be converted to Phase-9 of Bahria Town, and members of the RECHS would have been accommodated accordingly. But once the merger was complete, thanks to Pervaiz Elahi, Malik Riaz sold it to the DHA.
It has taken years of litigation and effort by the victims to pressurize Bahria Town to compensate through the courts. Many remain without compensation even after nine years.
Malik Riaz knew he had to keep generals in his pocket, along with the politicians and other civilians. That’s why most of the generals count on his vast empire for future employment post-retirement.
Interestingly, one of the recently retired general – of the NLC scam fame – was the Garrison Commander in Lahore when Malik built The Mall of Lahore, a high rise, posh luxury apartment building smack in the center of Cantonment and right opposite the otherwise red-zoned Corps Commander’s House. To this day, people are amazed that how this construction was allowed at such a sensitive sight. He developed a friendship with the two-star general way back then and as it turns out (some say may be it was orchestrated) that the same gentleman was promoted and posted as the QMG in Rawalpindi who heads all of the army’s housing and land related projects.
He is definitely an expert in knowing which hands to grease. Stories of many generals literally eating from Malik’s hands abound and they are not confined to Army messes. Also affected are lots mid-ranking officers, retired soldiers and, painful for the rank and file, the families of the martyred.
It’s a Rs 62 billion scam. The story goes that the DHA Valley scheme was announced with lots of fanfare. People bought free forms in black because of the hype. The scheme offered plots measuring 150 and 240 square yards to retired officers, JCOs and the families of martyred soldiers.
But the issue is that ‘the land ain’t there.’ The acquisition of around 80,000 kanal required for DHA Valley is far from completion. Those who got cheated include 110,000 civilians, 41,000 serving and retired military officers, jawans and the families of martyrs. I have seen people crying for the loss of their life-long savings. Enters Malik Riaz, the realtor tycoon was contracted to develop the scheme. You may not believe this but the Don was paid Rs 62 billion in advance. The DHA Valley is yet to acquire land but the money for its development was paid against all legal advice. Isn’t it mind-boggling?
Those who lost the money are found appealing to the Chief of Army Staff through press releases in newspaper offices. The COAS seems as helpless as anybody else before this former MES clerk. You have to give credit to the man.
Part III.Malik Riaz-the real power broker
Malik Riaz may just be a new phenomenon in Pakistan. No private individual may ever have exercised as much leverage over the state as he does. Is it because the state institutions have become so weak that they can be manipulated easily or is he a very smart man. Either way, this Realtor-in-Chief has got his tentacles all over.
He has control right from the office of the President down to the SHO at Islamabad’s Kohsar Police Station. He can influence khakis from the level of Generals to an MES clerk, the lucrative post from where he took his start to stardom. The media is under control as Bahria Town is one of the biggest advertisement-throwers. Most owners take favours worth their value, while the journalists, particularly a whole generation of easily purchasable new TV anchors are sometimes available even for crumbs. This makes a perfect setting for the reincarnation of Mario Puzo’s Godfather, Malik Riaz, to take the lead role.
The hapless people who get robbed of their land in hundreds of cases have no place to go. The only forum available to them, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, has now been cowed down, thanks to the shenanigans of Arsalan Chaudhary. One must give credit that Malik had the chutzpah to attack the superior courts and then get away with it. Now, he sees no obstructions in converting huge swathes of cheap land, mostly acquired through dubious means, into golden retreats, safari villas and golf clubs. His posh houses are valued at as high as Rs 220 million. Of course, he spares lots of patches for the lower and middle classes to keep up the ‘Sultana Daku’ image that he loves so much. But this largely benefits a small elite club that will continue to grow richer and richer. On his back are the chosen members of that exclusive Club – the most prominent being the President of the Islamic republic.
It’s common knowledge that Malik Riaz is the most important person at the Presidency. The President used his constitutional power to pardon Malik Riaz’s personal guard. The guard was sentenced to life imprisonment after he confessed about killing a person in a shoot-out in an Islamabad market. Who cares that the Presidential discretion is supposed to be used in very special circumstances. This encourages Malik Riaz to brag that he could walk into the President’s bedroom any time. Such bravado keeps the subordinates in line. In most cases he does not need to bother the President. The ministers or anyone who matters —everybody knows how important he is for the President. President Zardari’s sister, Faryal Talpur or somebody from his family is seen photographed at almost every important function organized by Malik Riaz.
Bureaucrats remain as obliging as Alladin’s Genie, especially if they want to live a ‘respectable’ life in the Capital. But he is more interested in postings and officials that handle things related to real estate —actually land-grabbing. Revenue and Administration officials are crucial but the most important is police. It is widely known in Islamabad that nobody gets posted on crucial positions without Malik’s approval.
Hundreds of people have recorded statements before various courts complaining about the police torturing and harassing them “at the behest of Malik Riaz.” In a prominent case, two citizens, Raja Qayyum and Habibullah, complained before the Supreme Court that they were beaten and tortured by SHO Idrees Rathore and DSP Malik Mumtaz on the orders of Malik Riaz. They were allegedly kept locked-up for three months, forcing them to sell their properties to Bahria Town.
Sihala and Bhara Kahu is a Malik terrain and, says a published report, no police officer could be posted there without the approval of Malik Riaz. The report quotes an incident where a Sihala SHO, Haq Nawaz got changed just because he did not give “due protocol” to a person sent by Malik Riaz.
Islamabad’s top cop is known to be a henchman of Malik Riaz. Rumour has it that he was instrumental in getting Malik’s son escape to Dubai when the courts ordered his arrest on the charges of murder. He risked Cntempt of Court many times by dilly-dallying on Malik’s arrest in land-grabbing cases. He twisted facts to evade the registration of FIR against Malik recently.
Malik controls Islamabad’s Police that recently risked fighting a war with their uniformed colleagues when a Rawalpindi court ordered Malik’s arrest. The property Tsar travelled with fleets of Islamabad’s heavily armed police commandoes with orders to shoot Rawalpindi police if they tried to arrest Malik. The police forces of the twin cities, playing a cat-and-mouse game, came close to mutual bloodshed many times because of him. At one stage, Malik had the muscle to have Rangers posted at his house. So who runs this country, one may ask.
In his business, Malik needs official patronage. He was even more boundless during Musharraf’s time. The Chaudharies in Punjab loved to oblige and top civilian lackey, Tariq Aziz and his khaki counterpart, Lt. General (Retd) Hamid Javed delivered the rest of the country— of course on the basis of mutual reciprocity. The beauty of his model is that he gets all favours without spending much. In most cases he obliges them in kind by giving them plots that, interestingly, he acquires with their help. Smart, isn’t it?
The PML-N was opposed to Malik initially but then Shahbaz Sharif got his help in Ashiana Scheme. The extent of Malik’s affection for Shahbaz Sharif’s son, Salman got disclosed in an off-camera shoot that somehow got leaked. Remember the ‘scrooing’ episode.
Malik Riaz is a fictional character. In real life the closest example one can think of is former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi. He bought media through his business empire and then used it for his political and business ends. Malik commands as much political control without coming into power directly. So far, that is. But we hear that he has invested huge investments on dozens of potential candidates. And this may be the reason for his recent friction with the Sharif Brother, besides the 25 acre villa that he allegedly built for the Man on the Hill. Who knows he might just take over this country at some stage. Who would not want that with half of the Parliament in his pocket? Imagine Malik Riaz as the PM.
Part II – Will the real Malik Riaz please stand up?
Malik Riaz of Bahria Town may be the best prism through which one can understand today’s Pakistan. He personifies the potential that this ‘land of opportunities’ offers, provided you know how to go about it. Palm-greasing, he says, is an essential skill here and that he knows how to attach ‘wheels’ to his work files — a metaphor used for bribery. “Believe me, nothing moves in this country without wheels and my files, I tell you, never stop,” he said boldly in a TV interview, an impish smile on his face. That tells something about the man and the country where he, like it or not, happens to be the most powerful person.
His is a rags-to-riches story that should beat the Carnegies and Rockefellers hands down. The ‘robber barons,’ as the American Moguls were labeled a century ago, got their share of flak. But the biggest realtor baron of this country remains unscathed because he has got the media literally in his pocket.
Not much is known about one of the richest man in Pakistan except for the bits that he has told about himself. Even Wikipedia says that the details are sketchy on how a small-time labourer climbed up the ladder to become the 10th richest man of Pakistan with assets worth $800 million. He may actually be worth much more if we take into account his ‘file-wheeling’ skills.
The information about him trickles down through carefully selected journalists who throw out carefully orchestrated images of his personality. A self-made man, he passed his secondary school exam by marginal numbers. Equally marginal were his skills as he could not even drive a car. He started off from petty chores, the first being a house whitewash. We are told that he walked for 10 kilometers just to save Rs 50. He had to sell household items, tears in his eyes, to get his daughter medical treatment.
He is as somebody living next door with whom ordinary people could identify; somebody they could trust with their savings. He almost comes across as Amitabh Bachan, as in Bollywood movie Tirshol, though of course minus the superstar’s beauty, particularly his hair. Suddenly, the hero morphs into a dazzling rich person that the lay people aspire to be. A halo of glitz and glamour circles around his head. Malik Riaz travels in his private jet, lives in seven-star mansions, parks a Bentley in his porch and drives with a fleet of SUVs with a battalion of armed private commandoes that should match the prime minister’s protocol.
Malik Riaz is undoubtedly the most powerful person in Pakistan. He rubs shoulders with the high and mighty that seem to be at his beck and call. He calls former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s son, MNA Abdul Qadir Gilani, as Bunny, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s son, Salman, who takes care of the family business, as Sill. I suspect, in the same pattern, he calls President Asif Zardari and Benazir Bhutto’s son, Bilawal, as Billu. His favourite pass time, we are told, is to order senior functionaries on transfer and postings using some real rough language. This happens on a speaker phone while the worthy guests get amused and awed by his audacity. The treatment was recently meted out to another Malik with an ‘R’ who, outraged at one stage, suspended the officers who had gone to Riaz for a prized posting. The matter got resolved by the Man on the Hill later.
On a typical day, he starts his day with a working breakfast with rich Arab Sheikhs; lunch at the Presidency — with aalu shora he says; evening tea with the Punjab Chief Minister; dinner with top generals and late coffee with the biggest industrialists of this country. But he does not sleep before giving ‘tweets’ to his favourite journalists on how and what to say in the media. If he does not run Pakistan, who does?
Malik remains the biggest paradox. He has got more faces than that Hindu mythological figure from Lanka. Is he the saviour who gives jobs to 20,000 people who in turn cater to a work force of 17000 ancillary industries? Bahria Town brochure boasts that 100,000 households are dependent on them. He goes on to claim, almost in the same hyperbole that he used in the $ 45 billion fiasco, that Bahria Town workers might stretch from Lahore to Rawalpindi if they are lined up with their arms stretched wide open.
But the questions remain: Is he the great visionary who changed the housing concept in Pakistan, providing the middle and lower classes high quality residential facilities at a much lower cost?
Is he the messiah who is seen feeding hundreds of people, helping the sick, needy and the handicapped? Bahria Town sponsors many schools, hospitals and charity organizations.
Is he the trouble shooter who somehow emerges as a referee in every political wrestling match. He played a role in Musharraf’s deal with Benazir Bhutto. He was again involved in the Bhurban meeting that led to an agreement between Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. He was instrumental in arranging a patch-up between Asif Zardari and the Chaudharies of Gujrat. Only recently, he popped up out of nowhere to play a role in Tahirul Qadri’s long march.
Is he the hero of the poor who, as Amitabh Bachan, made it big in the cruel world of the rich. He likes to compare himself with ‘Sultana Daku,’ a local version of Robinhood who looted the rich to distribute among the poor. There are more shades of his personality in real life than the roles that Amitabh may have played in films.
For many, he is worse than Prem Chopra. All that glitz about good work is just a smoke screen that he maintains to hide a sinister villain that comes across in dozens of cases that he attends in various courts and police stations all over the country. The crimes that he is accused of include murder, kidnapping, forgery, fraud, extortion and many other evil things that all Bollywood villains put-together could not have done. These cases run into hundreds, mostly involving land-grabbing where his goons forcibly took away land from poor people to sell houses, some of which cost as high as Rs 220 million—the Sultana Daku in reverse here. Just to explain the extent of accusations against him, he has still got at least three dozen cases before the Supreme Court, despite the disposal of double the number of cases. In one day last year, the Supreme Court issued 44 orders against Bahria Town in various cases.
So how do we judge him. Will the real Malik Riaz please stand up? It is all the more important to understand him as he enjoys the power in this country as nobody else. Whatever the case, he is surely a movie character who got stuck with ordinary mortals.
Part I – $45bn fiasco exposes Malik Riaz
The biggest-ever media con
Is this funny, sad or simply stupid. The clarification by Abu Dhabi Group about their alleged $45 billion investment in Pakistan may have exposed lots of things — and lots of people. One Malik Riaz of Bahria Town for sure.
He virtually conned the Abu Dhabi Group, Pakistani media and the public. We already knew about his hold on the Pakistani media. And it is not just about that one incident where he was caught red-handed with two TV anchors engineering news. The Bahria advertisements worth billions of rupees have simply blinded media owners who ensure that nothing is published against Bahria Town. News against Malik Riaz comes out only when he is summoned in the courts for the cases of murder, fraud, forgery, assassination attempts, blackmailing, to name some of the ‘virtues’ that he is regularly accused of.
But a more classic example of Pakistani media’s incompetence-actually capitulation-could not be given. Here is why.
The announcement of a whopping $45 billion investment in Pakistan was a dream-come-true story. This too at a time when nobody wants to invest a penny in Pakistan, and half of my foreign friends want to send their mothers-in-law for ‘sight-seeing’ in FATA.
It was simply mind-blowing. The UAE sacrificed its pride for having the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. And because Malik charmed them so well, they let Karachi have the honour. Apart from building the world’s tallest building in Karachi, the other attractions included a financial hub, sports city, international city, media city, educational and medical City, miniatures of the world’s seven wonders. It was amply flashed that “these projects would employ more than 2.5 million people and boost more than 55 industries like cement, bricks, iron, steel and glass.”
Malik Riaz came across as the Messiah who had bailed out Pakistan from its financial mess. Abu Dhabi Group Chairman Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al Nahyan was quoted as describing Malik as a “visionary,” adding that this guaranteed that “we will Inshallah be welcoming first residents in next 3-4 years.” As if he was not a ruler but a real estate agent.
Media outlets competed with each other in flashing the news amidst incessant advertisements from Bahria Town. Newspapers were also found outdoing each other. Most newspapers, English and vernacular, presented what was basically a press statement by Bahria Town as “independent news.” Nobody checked whether the Abu Dhabi Group, the UAE government or even the international wire services issued any news about an investment that was worth, no less, than $ 45 billion. Not a single journalist bothered to even check if there was any news of this sort on any website of the UAE companies or whether Sheikh Nahayan had actually said those words. The half-page advertisement on newspapers’ front pages, showing Malik shaking hands with the Sheikh seem to have blinded everything. Or perhaps they were told not to test their editorial discretion.
The so-called most credible English newspaper went a step ahead by giving a joint dateline of Karachi and Islamabad instead of Dubai. It added colour to the story by quoting a Karachi magnate, of course on the condition of anonymity, that the construction site would be “Kutta Island,” which is 3 to 4-km off the coast of Karachi. It went a step further than what Malik Riaz had claimed, informing readers that “the Abu Dhabi Group-Malik Riaz would, apart from the above mentioned projects, also launch into building of 125,000 houses on the island.” (sic)
The reporters also made sure to confirm it from the source of the press release, Malik’s son Ali Riaz, instead of checking from the Abu Dhabi Group or even their local counterparts here in Warid, Wateen or Bank Alfalah.
Imagine an investment of $ 45 billion takes place in a place as Pakistan and the news is not on CNN, BBC, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or even Reuters and AFP. Fellows — where was the common sense.
Last time, the UAE committed half the amount for construction on the same Kutta island (known as such because people dump stray dogs there) but the Monarch, Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself arrived for such a big announcement. However, not a penny came as the UAE was eyeing for Gwadar Port as compensation.
It is actually funny how the media got duped. And that is exactly how they took it in Dubai. A friend who works for The Gulf News shared that journalists there could not believe it in their morning meeting. Everybody laughed as the entire Pakistani media was conned so easily. The Gulf News did not carry the story as there had been no announcement from anywhere. Internationalist journalists saw this “stupid news” on the web and just ignored it.
My Dubai friend, knowing Bahria’s leverage on Pakistani media, could understand that the news got carried on the first day. “But how about the five days after that,” he asked, confused. “Why nobody followed-up on the story that was supposed to be the biggest investment in the country’s history.”
It turns out that the Abu Dhabi Group and the UAE government was aghast at the development. But since they have lots of investment here they did not want to embarrass Pakistanis. A small news was leaked through Reuters wherein Sheikh Nahayan, while talking to a reporter in a Dubai exhibition, clarified that the investment might materialize in 15 years. He also dispelled the impression about building the tallest building in Karachi, saying that the business plans were “at a very early stage.”
No paper except The Spokesman carried the story. Sheikh Nahayan also explained that the MOU was signed in his capacity as the owner of his private company, Dhabi Contracting and not as the chairman of the conglomerate, Abu Dhabi Group. He could not have been more specific when he said that it would materialize in phases, adding, “every phase will be studied by itself… It depends on the situation when we decide to go ahead with the projects."
This was to clarify the wrong impression given here by Bahria Town that it was Abu Dhabi Group and not Dhabi Contracting that signed an MOU that only showed minor interest in business here. Still, nobody took the hint here as advertisements kept coming. Nobody questioned that how could a private company in Pakistan commit a $45 billion investment without the government being in the loop. Imagine the world’s biggest building and residential quarters for millions being constructed without any representative from the provincial and federal governments. In Sheikh Nahayan’s case, the assumption of the UAE government could be forgiven as he is a minister and Chairman of Abu Dhabi Group.
A whole bandwagon of Urdu columnists and TV anchors was found eulogizing Malik Riaz as the savior of the country. After five days, it just became too much for the UAE rulers and they had to issue the clarification that everybody read in newspapers on Friday.
Obviously, the Dubai rulers knew they were duped into that photo-up and their reputation was being used for petty benefits. It is easy to understand the benefits. This kind of news changed the scenario for Malik Riaz. He was being hounded by the courts in numerous cases, some of them seriously heinous. He was in conflict with LDA over opening new housing schemes in Lahore without permission. He was also in conflict with the army for land dispute with DHA that affects thousands of former army officers and jawans. All of this may have shaken the public confidence in his housing projects. In monetary terms this could mean a loss of billions of rupees for him. Such news about building the tallest building in Karachi is worth a lot though. Even if it had not materialized, the impression of a partnership with the Dubai rulers would have rewarded him billions of rupees in terms of public confidence. Elementary, isn’t it.
But the question remains: Was our media (of which I am a part by the way) stupid, incompetent or simply capitulated before the owners. A little bit of everything I think. I was dared by a colleague on twitter that we shall see some expose` when I get up on Saturday. I hope so but am not sure about it.