We expect oligarchs from the former Soviet Union to have names like Boris or Roman, to love football, and to sound like John Malkovich’s KGB character in the cult poker film Rounders. So it comes as a surprise to meet Pakistan-born Mohammad Zahoor in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, a cricket-loving oligarch with a weakness for spicy lamb korma.
An industrialist-turned-media mogul who made a fortune in the post-Soviet steel industry, the 57-year-old Zahoor is a white tiger—a foreigner in the oligarchs’ cabal. Like his rich compatriots, he has a home in the posh Hamptons neighborhood of London and divides his time between East and West. His wife is the glamorous blonde Ukrainian singer Kamaliya, a former Mrs. World, whose dance tracks have topped the U.K. charts. Their large mansion outside the city is shaped like Dubai’s Burj Al-Arab, lavishly decorated in an Asian-European fusion style with bright murals and gilt furnishings.
Unlike some of his compatriots though, Zahoor is still heavily invested in Ukraine. He built ISTIL Studios, a state-of-the-art television facility that creates highbrow shows for the local market. He’s also bought prime real estate in downtown Kiev and invested heavily in other television-related businesses.
His social standing in Kiev however, is linked to his ownership of its prestigious English-language weekly, the Kyiv Post. Having bought the loss-making paper for more than a million dollars in 2009, he has used his deep pockets to keep it afloat during these crisis years. It hasn’t been easy: critical of the government, the Kyiv Post is widely seen as an opposition newspaper, and is not an easy sell to advertisers. After a highly public spat with the editorial team last year over an article criticizing a government minister, though, Zahoor, ever the statesman, has stepped back and given a free rein to the paper’s editorial.
“Zahoor is the only crazy guy doing this—running an independent newspaper in this difficult environment,” says Walid Harfouche, deputy head of the government-run State Television Company.
In person though, Zahoor is a far cry from the stereotypical dissident publisher widely seen as a thorn in the government’s backside. When interviewed in his elegant office above a Maserati dealership in downtown Kiev, he comes across as more of a dandy than a gadfly, given his penchant for colorful, open-collared shirts and striped designer jackets. With his jet-black hair flopped over his playful features, and the tip of a silk handkerchief peeking out the side pocket of his jacket, he looks more Mad Men than rust-belt tycoon.
He’s very comfortable with his wealth and success, seeing it as the logical conclusion of a journey begun almost four decades ago, in 1974, when he enrolled in a university in Donetsk, in Soviet Ukraine, to study metallurgy. Though he moved back to work at a steel plant in Pakistan upon graduation, with a Russian wife he met at the university in tow, he didn’t stay there long. “Having a Russian wife limited my career development there,” he says. “The secret services were also very active during the ’80s, and I thought it better to leave.” He moved to Moscow to work for a Pakistani steel company in the late ’80s, and hasn’t looked back since.
He made his first fortune exporting Russian steel in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse in 1991. “The country was in a mess, and the mills had no idea how to export their product, let alone pay their mounting bills,” he recalls. Buying steel in cash from struggling mills—and often even paying the railways, utility companies, and other involved parties directly—he exported it worldwide through his company MetalsRussia, which he set up with a Thai partner. “It was a crazy time, and so many people had to be paid separately for one deal to go through,” he says. “But the margins were very high, and it was possible to make a killing.”
When Russia began to stabilize in the mid-’90s, and steel mills learned to tap global markets directly, Zahoor decided that it was time to invest in his own mill. Along with his partner, he bought the dying Donetsk Metallurgical Steel Mill in 1996, and set about modernizing the plant. In that respect, he was a forerunner to steel barons like Lakshmi Mittal who have begun to replicate his strategy in Eastern Europe in the past 10 years. “The plant had $150 million in debts, and was in complete disarray. We bought it on a privatization tender, and were the only ones who applied,” he says.
The management and modernization of the Soviet-era steel mill were challenging years for Zahoor. Apart from the massive capital involved in rebooting the plant, he found himself in the crossfire of local groups jousting for control of the plant. Although he was never threatened with violence, there was plenty of verbal intimidation. “They just came to us and said. ‘There was a meeting. We decided we are taking over the factory.’ ”
The ’90s were the “Wild East” era in the former Soviet Union that heralded the rise of the oligarchs. There were few foreign investors and the rule of law was an abstraction. Having acquired a British passport, Zahoor went public with his problems and lobbied the British Embassy in Kiev and Western chambers of commerce to support his cause. It was this critical time that taught him the value of an independent media and explains his dogged support for the controversial Kyiv Post.
Zahoor’s attempt to influence the Ukrainian government through his contacts with the Western embassies and media did bear fruit. Although he lost control of one mill in 2000, he retained a smaller one, which he sold in 2008 for more than $500 million. “I saw China building up their steel capacities in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics and realized that prices were going to drop soon after. It was the perfect time to sell,” he recalls with a smile. Six months after selling his steel mill to Russian investors, the price of steel dropped twofold. Zahoor is nothing if not prescient.
Having cashed out of the rough-and-tumble steel business, he has gone the way of other oligarchs through investments in media and high-profile real-estate deals. His strategy of buying prime buildings cheap during the crisis produced dividends. The pre-revolutionary Leipzig Hotel, an art deco gem which he bought for just $35 million, is set to open next spring as a Marriott Renaissance Hotel, the chain’s first venture into Ukraine. Zahoor’s company is also a developer in this landmark project.
He has not been so lucky in his other ventures though. He lost almost $60 million in his attempt to set up a Sky TV–like satellite television network for Ukraine. “There aren’t enough subscribers willing to pay premium for satellite TV,” says Zahoor with a sigh. “The market isn’t ready for an ambitious channel like this.” He also admits that some of the failure was due to poor advice and his lack of experience in the field.
His missteps in satellite television haven’t soured him on the business. He launched Xtra TV last year, a prepaid-card system for receiving premium channels through satellite television. With its reasonable prices and appeal to middle-income households outside the reach of cable, Xtra TV seems to be making inroads into the local market.
Though television is where Zahoor clearly hopes to make his next fortune, he’s more animated when discussing the Kyiv Post, his baby. He sees his investment in the paper as a service to the community, and as payback for the difficult times when the international community supported his cause. It’s a laudable mission in these dark times for Ukraine. The country’s autocratic president, Victor Yanukovich, has jailed his main rival for the presidency, Yulia Tymoshenko, on trumped-up charges, and is muzzling the freedom of the press and expression. Many see Yanukovich aping Putin’s strategies of authoritarianism and centralized government. Meanwhile, corruption and cronyism are stifling an already sclerotic business climate. “The newspaper’s voice is a vital service in these economic and political times,” said the Czech Republic’s ambassador to Ukraine, Ivan Pocuch, during a monthly luncheon organized by Zahoor to discuss the Kyiv Post.
The laudable task of running a conscientious newspaper in a climate of censorship is in sharp contrast with Zahoor’s flamboyant private life. When not locking horns with Ukraine’s government, he lives a carefree life in London, a city he claims to love “more than anywhere else in the world.” With his singer wife Kamaliya having made some inroads there—her songs have made it to the top 10 of the U.K. charts—he’s plugged into a more glamorous, cosmopolitan scene. His posh London lifestyle invites comparisons to Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s English period, with Zahoor’s wife, Kamaliya, a stand-in for Jemima Khan. “I prefer London in many respects,” he says. “Kiev’s a small town and we’re always the center of attention when we go out. It gets annoying. I like the anonymity of London.”
He often joins his wife on her busy touring schedule, flying to Berlin or Barcelona on a moment’s notice. This jet-set lifestyle is a far cry from his earlier incarnation, when he managed steel mills and spent evenings at home with his former wife, Olya, and their two kids. “I’ve had a more normal life in the past,” he admits. “I much prefer my present lifestyle.”
For now, Zahoor has the last laugh in his stand against the administration. However, there are fears that the government might make its misgivings more public and deal with him as they did with Tymoshenko. “I hope we’re not here one day discussing your fate, instead of the financial problems of the newspaper,” warned Pocuch, the Czech ambassador.
Moving against Zahoor, however, would be a risky gambit even for the pugnacious administration. The Kyiv Post is a symbol of the free press and gagging the newspaper would provoke an international outcry and seriously damage Ukraine’s already fragile relationships with the West. Buying the high-profile Kyiv Post might have been the best investment that Zahoor ever made.
Vijai Maheshwari is editor-in-chief of B.East Magazine, a lifestyle publication about Eastern Europe. He is a former editor-in-chief of Playboy Russia.