British-Pakistani billionaire Mohammad Zahoor has been working the phones since the Ukraine crisis began, trying to mobilise funds and helping evacuate refugees to the UK and other parts of Europe.
Over 3.3 million people, mostly women and children, are estimated to have left their country. Zahoor and his wife Kamaliya, a Ukrainian pop singer and a former Mrs World title-holder, couldn’t just leave people in the lurch. After all, Ukraine was home.
Zahoor, a 66-year-old minigarch whose primary business interests are in the second-largest country in Europe, says his heart bleeds for Ukrainians who are “being savaged by a mindless war”. He runs a charity, Kamaliya Foundation, which is named after his wife, and it is at the forefront of humanitarian services. From his home in London located in the Hampstead neighbourhood, Zahoor — who became a British national in 2007 — looks back on his formative years and his success in Ukraine, as well as in Russia. At one point, he even owned Ukraine’s oldest English-language newspaper, Kyiv Post, and personally knew the country’s presidents “starting from Leonid Kravchuk to Leonid Kuchma”.
From Karachi to Moscow
It all started with his fortuitous tryst with the erstwhile Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) that collapsed on the back of glasnost (openness and transparency) and perestroika (restructuring) in 1991.
Zahoor was a callow lad of 19 years from Karachi, Pakistan, when he arrived in misty and dank Moscow on an engineering scholarship offered by the Soviet education ministry in 1974.
“My parents were on a pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia when I got the Soviet scholarship. So, I left for Moscow in a jiffy without telling them. I was among 42 Pakistani students who got the Soviet government’s scholarship. As luck would have it, 14 stayed on in Moscow, 14 went to St. Petersburg and I was among those unlucky 14, who were put on a 32-hour arduous train journey to Donetsk (a bleak industrial city in eastern Ukraine located on the Kalmius river in the disputed area of Donetsk Oblast) in then-eastern Soviet Ukraine,” Zahoor told Khaleej Times in an exclusive interview from London.
He obtained a degree in metallurgical engineering from the erstwhile USSR and returned to Pakistan in 1980 with his first wife Olga, a Russian.
He got a job with Pakistan Steel Mills, which was built by the Russians, in Karachi, and worked as a safety engineer. He translated Russian safety manuals into English.
However, soon, Zahoor found himself in the crosshairs of Pakistani agencies — “as many as nine were after my life” — because the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and “my wife was Russian”. The agencies were in hot pursuit against Zahoor, and he quickly realised that his career prospects in Pakistan were limited because he was married to Olga.
In 1987, he took up a job with a Pakistani trading company in Moscow and showed his prowess in making money. His employers laughed all the way to the bank, as he bought Russian steel at $100 (Dh367) a tonne and sold it abroad for $250 (Dh918.26).
“We raked in a profit of $1.5 million (Dh5.51 million) from 10,000 tonnes of steel,” he reminisced.
Emboldened by the early success, he ventured into a partnership business — he incorporated MetalsRussia group in Hong Kong in 1991 — with a Thai steelmaker. The association was snapped in 2003, as he anchored his base in post-Soviet era Moscow.
Fortune favoured Zahoor, an inveterate risk-taker, as he betted big on steel. By the early 1990s, the MetalsRussia group was making an annual profit of $50 million (Dh183.65 million).
In 1996, Zahoor bought the dying Donetsk Metallurgical Steel Mill, which was founded by Welshman John Hughes in 1872 and where he had undergone practical training as an engineering student.
“We became cash-positive from the first day of our acquisition. Italy’s Danieli group was entrusted with the task of modernisation even though the plant was in debt to the tune of $150 million (Dh550.95 million),” he said.
Zahoor is a forerunner to steel barons such as Lakshmi Mittal because he enjoyed the first-mover advantage of tapping opportunities in the commodity sector in eastern Europe.
But steel brought pain and joy to Zahoor in equal measure.
“In 1996, Ukraine’s second president Leonid Kuchma was in power. Doing business in Russia and Ukraine was like the Wild West, where you had to constantly look behind your back to ensure oligarchs don’t snatch your business away,” he recalled.
He had a brush with oligarch Rinat Akhmetov but managed to stave off the latter’s advances by forging a pact with another oligarch Viktor Nusenkis.
However, his victory was momentary, as Nusenkis wrested 90 per cent control of the plant from Zahoor.
In 1998, he changed the company’s name from MetalsRussia to International Steel and Tube Industries Limited ahead of the listing on the London Stock Exchange.
Changes of business line
Zahoor, known for his love for spicy lamb korma (curry), cashed out of the steel business — including an under-construction steel plant in Dubai (see box) — ahead of the 2008 recession and sold his business to Russian parliamentarian and oligarch Vadim Vashavsky for $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion), whose business went belly up shortly after.
The following year, Zahoor bought the Kyiv Post for $1.1 million (Dh4.04 million).
He diversified his business to commercial real estate, manufacturing, hospitality, trading, media, green energy, and startups in KSA, the UAE, Spain, and Germany.
In 2019, he sold off the Kyiv Post to Adnan Kivan, a Syrian who lives in Odessa, Ukraine.
He fondly remembered that during his ownership of Kyiv Post he always tried to “steer clear of editorial interference at the cost of my other business prospects”.
He saw the Kyiv Post as a “pride of place” but had to let go after suffering a loss worth $5 million (Dh18.37 million) and “the critical stand that the paper took against successive Ukrainian regimes such as Viktor Yuschenko, Viktor Yanukovych and Petro Poroshenko even though I personally knew all the presidents starting from Leonid Kravchuk to Leonid Kuchma”.
He added: “The incumbent President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a former colleague of my (second) wife Kamaliya and the Kyiv Post remains a symbol of free press in Ukraine, which is an antithesis of muzzled media in neighbouring Russia.”
Charity and Pakistani politics
Zahoor and his significant other Kamaliya have been working overtime to help Ukrainians as the crisis unfolded. Though Kamaliya wanted to stay in Ukraine, the increasingly dangerous situation in the country made her leave for London.
Zahoor left the country two days before the military operation began on February 24. Now, he is busy meeting heads of states and other influential people he connected with through the years — all to ensure the safe passage of Ukrainian refugees.
Even with the name he has made for himself, the Pakistani billionaire has no plans to join politics back home.
“I’d rather do charity back home than do business and get involved in politics. My fascinating life story is all about earning respect and reputation, which will get tarnished the moment I join politics,” signed off Zahoor before attending to another call from Ukraine regarding the humanitarian crisis.
Doing business in the UAE
Mohammad Zahoor has business interests in the UAE. He visits the UAE at least six times a year — including his last trip was during the ICC WorldT20 cricket tournament in October-November 2021 — and has around 200 employees on his company’s roll in the country.
He bought a ready-mix plant in Umm Al Quwain in 2009 from a Saudi national. He has invested in commercial properties in Dubai and owns apartments in Burj Khalifa, Dubai Marina and other neighbourhoods in the emirate. He is also in the process of setting up an information technology company in Dubai and collaborating with German and Austrian firm Technischer Überwachungsverein.
“Dubai will always remain close to my heart because I visited here with my wife Kamaliya during our courtship days in 2003,” Zahoor said.
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