Middle East

Nadhim Zahawi’s journey from Baghdad to Downing Street

Nadhim Zahawi grew up on the banks on the Tigris in Waziriyah, a Baghdad neighbourhood that suffered extensive violence during the sectarian strife that followed the US and British-led invasion of Iraq.

There was destruction and population displacement. Very few in the affluent district recall the sacked Tory chairman’s wealthy Kurdish family.

Named after his grandfather – a Bank of Iraq governor whose signature was on banknotes – Zahawi came to Britain from the Iraqi capital aged 11. His father Hareth fled two years earlier, on a one-way Swissair ticket, after being warned that Saddm Hussein’s secret police, the Mukhabarat, were after him.

After the dictator’s downfall and execution, Hareth Zahawi’s Al-Zahawi Group – later renamed Iraqi Project and Building Development – had lucrative deals in Iraq, especially in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Nadhim Zahawi would also build extensive links in the country, with commerce and controversy a common theme during his involvement there.

He was part of a campaign for Kurdish refugees and met Jeffrey Archer, who had taken an interest in their plight. The author and high-profile Tory politician recognised the young Zahawi’s organisational skills and employed him as an aide along with another Iraqi Kurd, Broosk Saib. Archer, a party deputy-chair whose colourful career ended in scandal and imprisonment, called them “Bean Curd” and “Lemon Curd” – often in their presence.

Archer set up a charity in conjunction with the Red Cross and organised a concert in which artists including Rod Stewart, Paul Simon, Sting and Gloria Estefan performed for free. At a press conference afterwards Archer flourished a cheque for £57,042,000 – a sum, he was keen to point out, nearly £10m greater than raised by Bob Geldof’s Live Aid.

The success of the concert led to then prime minister, John Major, recommending Archer for a peerage, something the honours committee had already rejected him for.

There were soon questions over the money raised. Of the £57m, it appears around £3m came from the concert, £10m from the UK government, and the remaining £43m from overseas government aid projects. The Kurdish Disaster Fund wrote to Mr Archer, complaining: “You must be concerned that the Kurdish refugees have seen hardly any of the huge sums raised in the West in their name.” It said that no more than £250,000 had been received by groups in Iraq.

It was claimed that Lord Archer had invested in a Panama oil firm that was seeking oil rights in northern Iraq. Zahawi has always denied any impropriety in regards to the concert. Scotland Yard launched an investigation but no charges were ever brought.

Zahawi went on to work on Archer’s failed bid for the London mayoralty. Two years later, Archer was convicted of perjury over a 1980s newspaper libel case that centred on his encounter with a prostitute, and jailed for four years.

Zahawi went to work for his father’s company in Iraq and landed a contract to provide cleaning, logistics and support services to the new US-led interim government, based at what had been Saddam’s palace. It was at this time he met Boris Johnson, then editor of The Spectator, who had commissioned an opinion poll in Baghdad by YouGov, the company Zahawi had co-founded.

Soon after getting a seat in the House of Commons, Zahawi became the vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kurdistan. He visited Kurdistan five times in four years, the trips paid for by the region’s administration.

Zahawi set up a consultancy with his wife, Zahawi & Zahawi, that worked with oil companies in the region. He accompanied senior members of the Kurdistan administration to meetings with British officials and also Boris Johnson when he was London mayor and prime minister.

Zahawi became a major shareholder in Genel Energy, an Anglo-Turkish oil and gas exploration firm run by former BP boss Tony Hayward. He declined at the time to tell The Independent what his shareholding was worth.

UK-based, US-owned oil company Afren worked with Zahawi for four years, but the arrangement stopped after the Serious Fraud Office, with help from the US Justice Department, began a money-laundering investigation that led to the conviction and jailing of two executives, Osman Shahenshah and Shahid Ullah, over a £35m fraud and money laundering operation. There is no suggestion Zahawi was involved in any criminality.

In 2015, Zahawi became chief strategy officer at Gulf Keystone, which operated the Shaikan oilfield, one of the Kurdistan region’s largest. He was getting paid £29,643 a month by 2017. He earned, in total, £1.3m including a £285,000 leaving bonus the following year when he left to become a government minister.

A former senior Kurdish official, recalling Zahawi’s activities in the region, said: “He undoubtedly worked hard for his clients, presenting their cases for contracts, making sure they were getting paid their money, chasing that up. That was important, because payments were often late; and we are talking about lots and lots of money.

“Of course the fact that he was an important politician in the UK as well as from Kurdistan originally was a big asset, he has the contacts. Oil and gas is a complex and very wealthy business. Mr Zahawi knew some interesting people making interesting deals, business people, politicians.”

Zawahi’s memoir, A Boy from Baghdad: My Journey from Waziriyah to Westminster, is to be published in the autumn. It may require some updating after the events of the last few days.


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