Agha Hasan Abedi
Wednesday 09 August 1995
Born in 1922, Abedi was the son of a rent collector for the Raja of Mahmoodabad and he grew up resenting the assumed superiority of the Anglo-Indian aristocracy. Later, he took pleasure in appointing relatives of the Raja to the bank, and paying them lowly wages.
He acquired a traditional Islamic education at the University of Lucknow, but rejected conventional Muslim beliefs in favour of Sufism, a mystical offshoot of Islam. He remained a practising Muslim all his life. He entered Habib Bank in the late Forties, and shot through the ranks because of his talent for spotting rich clients. He was clearly skilled at parting a fool from his money and inspired colleagues with visions of a limitless banking empire. When a client put up the money, they followed him to his new bank, the United Bank Ltd (UBL).
Abedi's nose for wealth led him to the Gulf, and in the late Sixties he courted Sheikh Zayed, the ruler of Abu Dhabi, and owner of recently discovered oil reserves. Abedi's unctuous flattery of Zayed was notorious. When Abedi organised a hunting trip to Pakistan for Zayed, the Gulf ruler was caught out without a gift to offer the Pakistani president. Abedi produced a Rolex. Zayed gave Abedi carte blanche to invest his oil revenues; it was billions of pounds of business, and Abedi skimmed millions from it.
In 1972, Abedi secretly set up a bank in Luxembourg, called the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Sheikh Zayed and other Gulf and Saudi dignitaries lent their support and funds. Abedi promoted BCCI to the Muslim world as an alternative to the Jewish-dominated banks of New York.
His first bank premises was in Mayfair, in central London. Abedi saw that wealthy Arabs like to regard their bank as home, and he modelled his premises on an Arab's front room, with comfortable armchairs and lavish furnishing. By the mid-Seventies the bank was opening many branches around Britain and in the Gulf.
Abedi's unerring instinct for wealth took him to Africa, Asia and Latin and South America. He cultivated treasury and government officials with talk of his global banking vision and shamelessly bribed them. With success, Abedi began to believe he was a prophet leading the bank by a divine power. His lectures to the bank's annual conference were rich in mysticism. Leading politicans of the day, like James Callaghan, appeared unfazed by this rhetoric, and Callaghan arranged for BCCI to make a donation to the Cambridge University Commonwealth Trust. In the United States Abedi befriended Jimmy Carter and funded Carter's Presidential Center and Global 2000 initiative.
Between 1975 and 1985, the bank grew like Topsy, and British regulators sat back in admiration. When irregularities in its futures and options trading were revealed, the Bank of England said they were Luxembourg's problem. Abedi's methods started to unravel most dramatically when BCCI was found to have engaged in drugs money-laundering for General Noriega of Panama. Then it was revealed it had trafficked in arms for Abu Nidal. And, in 1990, US authorities acted against the bank when it suspected it had taken control of First American Bank of Washington by stealth. The pressure took its toll on Abedi, who had a heart attack in 1988, and in 1990 he ceded power to his assistant, Swaleh Naqvi.
When the bank closed in 1991, Abedi was safely ensconced in Pakistan. Later, the Abu Dhabi and US governments wanted to extradite him for fraud and racketeering, but old friends in Pakistan protected him. With many of his former colleagues detained in Abu Dhabi, in Britain or facing trial in New York, Abedi died disappointed, ill and in obscurity.
His extraordinary career says as much about the failings of the world's banking system as it does about a man of overweening ambition, and without any scruple. His legacy is the continuing woe of the legions of small BCCI depositors who lost everything when the bank Abedi had built closed.
Agha Hasan Abedi, banker: born Lucknow, India 14 May 1922; married (one daughter); died Karachi, Pakistan 5 August 1995.
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