On the trail of Portsmouth's elusive saviour

Ali al-Faraj has finalised his Pompey takeover but, discovers Nick Harris, he's an international man of mystery
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The Independent Online

Ali al-Faraj, the new owner of Portsmouth, has been variously described as a "Saudi property tycoon", a "Middle East billionaire" and a "mega-wealthy oil magnate". Yet during a day-long search yesterday from Hampshire to Riyadh via Redditch and many points in between, The Independent found it impossible to substantiate very much about him at all.

To say he likes to keep a low profile is the understatement of the season so far. His middle name could be Macavity.

Portsmouth declined to provide any details about him or his business background or his wealth before the takeover, although he has been reported as having a stake in the petro-chemical conglomerate Sabic, the largest and most valuable plc in Saudi Arabia. The size of that stake is not known. He is not mentioned at all in the company's annual report.

Sabic's website describes the firm as "one of the world's leading manufacturers of chemicals, fertilizers, plastics and metals. We supply these materials to other companies, who use them to make the products on which the world has come to depend. Ours is the largest and most reliably profitable public company in the Middle East with sound investor relations."

Certainly Sabic makes a few quid, with annual global revenue of around £25bn. But how much of this monster company does Faraj own? We do not know. A call to Sabic's HQ in Riyadh was not returned. The firm's annual report lists three British-based arms of the company: Sabic United Kingdom Limited in Redditch, Sabic UK Petrochemicals Limited in Redcar, and Sabic Innovative Plastics Limited in Sale, Cheshire.

A spokesman for the Redcar firm initially confirmed that Faraj was a "private shareholder in Sabic and a wealthy individual but it's unlikely even the head office will give you more details". The Independent asked: "So you can, at least, confirm he is a shareholder, and rich?" "Err, I can't personally confirm that," the spokesman said. "I read it in The Sun and assumed they had checked."

Next The Independent tried the information office at the Saudi Arabian embassy in London, where no one had heard of a prominent Saudi businessman called Ali al-Faraj.

There was a similar lack of recognition from the commercial liaison office of the embassy, which deals with Anglo-Saudi business. Neither did the man from the Saudi Press Agency, which is an official arm of the Kingdom's press operation, know anything at all about Faraj, aside from what he had read in the British press. Another source said there were rumours that Faraj has a cake-making empire and is effectively the Middle East's Mr Kipling. Of course, no one could confirm that.

The name "Ali al-Faraj" had never been mentioned in any English language publication in the world before being mentioned in association with Portsmouth in August this year. The Premier League has already cleared him as a fit and proper person to own a British club but declined yesterday to elaborate on what it knows about his business interests.

Faraj may well indeed be one of the most wealthy and influential business people in Saudi Arabia, but he is not on the Forbes Magazine list of Saudi billionaires. He would have been omitted if he were a Saudi royal, which remains a possibility, but none of the reports of his wealth or background have yet suggested he is.

Portsmouth fans waiting to learn more about their new messiah will hopefully not have to wait long for more details, but Fahim's official spokesman, when asked yesterday what he know about Faraj, said: "Nothing, I'm afraid." So maybe the wait will be a little longer.

Relations between the Fahim and Faraj camps are unlikely to be helped by the knowledge that Faraj, who had been brought to the table by chief executive Peter Storrie, was about to buy the club in August when Gaydamak surprised Storrie by suddenly tying up the long-delayed deal with Fahim.

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