It must have been nice to be Malik Riaz.
Until events finally overtook him in 2018, he had managed the impressive task of amassing a massive fortune while simultaneously brushing off every public accusations of underhanded, if not outright criminal, behaviour. After all, Riaz is the same man who was caught bribing and influencing talk-show hosts on television; who admitted in court to lavishly funding foreign trips of the son of a chief justice who was then adjudicating cases involving him; who accused serving and retired military personnel of trying to extort money from him; and who, on several occasions, openly declared that he had spent a fortune on ‘influencing’ bureaucrats, politicians and other state functionaries in his inexorable march towards becoming one of Pakistan’s richest men.
Riaz’s journey from a humble government contractor in the 1990s to a real estate tycoon in the early 2000s has often been characterised as a rags-to-riches story. The hagiographic accounts of his life that frequently appear in print emphasise his modest origins as well as his commitment to philanthropy and the welfare of the people of Pakistan. Bahria Town, Riaz’s flagship real estate venture in multiple cities, has been marketed from its very inception as the manifestation of one man’s desire to provide Pakistan’s middle class with a lifestyle equal to, if not better than, that enjoyed by their equivalents in the first world. It is not coincidental that his residential schemes come complete with replicas of famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower, Trafalgar Square and the Pyramids of Giza. Why leave Pakistan when everything that is apparently special about the rest of the world can be brought right to your doorstep?
Yet, behind the manicured lawns, glitzy malls, flashy cinemas and well-equipped hospitals, there has always been a whiff of duplicity. Riaz may have started with nothing but his rise to the top arguably had less to do with his zeal and vision and much more to do with his apparent talent for making friends in the right places.
Not everyone would, for example, be able to launch a joint venture with the Defence Housing Authority in 2008, creating the DHA Valley scheme in Islamabad (and allegedly embezzle 62 billion rupees from it). No average real estate developer would have a tax claim of 119 billion rupees withdrawn in 2013 as Riaz did when then president Asif Ali Zardari allegedly intervened on his behalf to get the Federal Board of Revenue to back off from pursuing the claim. No other builder would receive thousands of acres of state land to develop a new housing scheme in Karachi as he could when he started setting up Bahria Town in Karachi in 2015. From the media to the military and from the bureaucracy to the upper echelons of all the mainstream political parties, Riaz has always been only a phone call, gift or bribe away from seeking the favours he needed to pursue his business interests.
In a way, he embodies the nexus that arguably exists between the state institutions, political power, big business and criminality in Pakistan. It is abundantly clear that his alleged crimes and wrongdoings – from illegal encroachments on state land and land-grabbing often from unsuspecting farmers to tax evasion and money laundering – could only have been done with a deliberate silence, or even connivance, of the authorities.
As evidence of all this continues to pile up, what remains perhaps most surprising is Riaz’s seeming indifference to all forms of public criticism, corruption investigations and even law suits. Despite numerous allegations of forcible takeover of land from villagers for Bahria Town as well as scandals involving dubious and suspect land swaps with various government departments, he continues to build his empire, a living example of the idea that the law works very differently for the rich and the poor. Riaz demonstrates how right connections and the right amount of money to maintain them is all that is required to make it big and keep it that way in the Land of the Pure. Without ever contesting an election or holding a public office of any kind, he has cannily manipulated the levers of patronage in order to make himself one of the most powerful men in Pakistan.
This is precisely why Riaz’s legal troubles in 2018 are of such great significance. It is difficult to say why the last year might come to be remembered as the one that marked the beginning of his success story’s end. Perhaps an energised and activist Supreme Court is finally able to take the cases lodged against him seriously. Maybe it is the change in the political calculus brought about by the ascent to power by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf amid the disintegration of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan Peoples Party. Or it could have even been nothing more than a falling out among friends at the highest levels of power and influence in Pakistan.
Whatever the reason, Riaz was never far from the news in 2018 as reports continued to emerge of the cracks appearing in the armour that had shielded him from too much scrutiny in years past. Since a Supreme Court judgment in May 2018 barred Bahria Town from selling any more land or apartments in Karachi following a ruling that its exchange of land with the Malir Development Authority was illegal, his misfortunes have multiplied.
Questions have been raised about his land acquisitions in Islamabad (where the authorities have told him to hand back 500 kanals of land), older allegations of money laundering and other financial misconduct have resurfaced and many of his associates have been hauled before courts or off to prison as investigations into Bahria Town’s business dealings expand. Riaz himself has been made to stand in the dock at the Supreme Court on several occasions and has also been placed on the exit control list.
If he is to be remembered as one of the key figures of 2018, it is not because of what he has done but what he has come to symbolise. As the most visible symbol of a corrupt system in which the powerful are able to do as they please, his gradual fall from grace in the last year potentially augurs a change in a direction that may eventually lead to accountability for all and equality before the law. Yet, such hopes may turn out to be premature, independent of the fact that accountability of this kind has yet to extend to Riaz’s co-conspirators in politics, bureaucracy and other state institutions.
Unlike Karachi’s Empress market, where relatively poor shopkeepers and stall owners saw their livelihoods being wiped out in an instant in the name of an anti-encroachment drive, his Bahria Towns have repeatedly been spared such a fate due to the timely interventions of high-ranking officials in spite of court orders to the contrary. In the media, reports and opinion pieces praising Riaz continue to appear and he himself has repeatedly highlighted his charity work as a reason to spare him, even going so far as to offer to contribute billions of rupees towards the construction of dams in Pakistan.
Riaz may be in trouble but it is clear that his influence in Pakistan persists and is likely to do so for some time to come.
The writer is an assistant professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
This article was originally published in the Herald's January 2019 issue under the headline. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.