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How Imran Khan’s social media managers made a multi-billion rupee property empire

ISLAMABAD: A real estate company owned by Imran Khan’s former social media managers Arslan Javed and Farhan Javed embarked on multiple billion rupee mega projects during the PTI government’s tenure.

Graana, which brands itself as Pakistan’s first online marketplace, also accepted funds from the public at large, even while it was not registered as a Non-Banking Finance Company (NBFC).

So far, real estate analysts believe that the company has raised upwards of 10 billion rupees from the public at large, promising them fixed returns up to 3 times the country’s interest rate.

Graana’s Chairman Shafiq Akbar (left), Director Farhan Javed (center), Director Arslan Javed (right).

Legal analysts believe that the company is in breach of the NBFC rules but has still thrived due to its relationship with the former government.

The influence of Graana and its affiliates Brando Marketing and Agency 21 can be judged from the fact they are openly advertising on Punjab Police properties across Punjab and even have a contract to advertise by the Islamabad Administration.

While PTI was in power in the centre, Graana owners Farhan Javed and Arsalan Javed enjoyed privileged access to Prime Minister House and developed influential contacts with top government ministers.

Farhan Javed and Arsalan Javed served as Imran Khan and Zulfi Bukhari’s social media managers but as soon as Imran Khan formed government, their company, Brando Marketing received magnanimous benefits from the PTI government.

Zulfi Bukhari and Shafiq Akbar are pictured together. A controversy was made when a little known company became the official media partner of the Government of Pakistan. Photo via Siasat.pk

Brando Marketing, which is owned and controlled by Farhan Javed and Arsalan Javed was awarded a contract by National Information Technology Board as the “Official Digital Media Partner for the Government of Pakistan for powering government projects.”

Zulfi Bukhari’s direct links with Graana, based in Islamabad and run by British Pakistani Shafiq Akbar and brothers Arslan Javed and Farhan Javed have raised questions about the nexus of this group with PTI leaders of the highest order.

Graana has employed the services of senior retired members of the armed forces including Major General (retired) Saad Khattak, who has now quit the company and serves as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Lieutenant General (retired) Haroon Aslam currently serves as the President of the Graana Group Advisory Board. It’s understood that Graana pays upward of 20,000,00 per month to Lieutenant General (retired) Haroon Aslam in order to keep his name and influence on the company’s records.

Ex-employees who have worked for the company allege that the company has failed to deliver on the promises it made to the investors and has purposefully kept the inner structure and legal compliance of the company hidden from customers.

Shafiq Akbar, the CEO of Graana and Imarat, was a property dealer in East London’s Ilford area who worked in Steptons Estate Agents Ltd, as claimed on his bio on Linkedin.

The CEO of Graana and Imarat Group has also worked as a director in Homzz Investments and Hotspots Management UK Ltd. Back in 2007, Akbar was a Senior Financial Advisor at Douglas Allen. Before working in the UK, Akbar had a four-year experience as an Assistant Manager of Marketing in Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. Ltd between 1998 and 2002 according to his Linkedin Profile.

Akbar, whose meteoric rise to fame in the last few years as one of the leading property magnates of Pakistan had a partnership with Indian national Mr Shantilal Velji Patel at Steptons Estate Agents Limited which was registered as a real estate agency according to Companies House. Companies associated with Shafiq Akbar and his partner Shantilal had a total net worth of £3,100 or 733,161 PKR, a paltry amount for property businesses.

According to ex senior employees of the company, Graana has leveraged its relationships with key PTI leaders to flout the rules and regulations that govern other real estate companies in Pakistan.

Former PTI Minister Sheheryar Afridi with Shafiq Akbar and Farhan Javed at a Graana event.

A senior ex-employee of Graana and Imarat Group who was involved in the initial structuring of Graana said that the company was not registered as a Non-Banking Financial Company (NBFC) and thus could not legally accept investments from the public at large at the time when he was employed.

“I advised Graana to structure their company in a way that conformed with the law but my superiors did not have much interest to comply with the law,” the ex-employee who demanded anonymity shared.

The Non-Banking Finance Companies and Notified Entities Regulations 2008 states: “The provisions of this part shall apply to the following form of business,- (i) Asset Management Services (ii) Leasing; (iii) Discounting Services; (iv) Housing Finance Services; (v) Investment Advisory Services; and (vi) Investment Finance Services;] 35[4. An NBFC licensed by the Commission to undertake form of business mentioned in Regulation 3 shall, at all the times, meet the minimum equity requirement or any other requirement in lieu of minimum equity requirement in respect of each form of business as provided in Schedule I.]”

According to the ex-employee who was heavily involved in the financial structuring of Graana and Imarat Group, the company does not have the legal authority to accept investments from the public at large and neither does the company have any safeguards to prevent money laundering since it induces customers to invest in cash without delving into the source of the funds.

A lawyer who specialises in Pakistan’s Banking Law confirmed that any company which is not registered as a Non-Banking Financial Company couldn’t accept investments from the public at large.

The ex-employee also claims that Graana had entered into a deal to buy the land for “Mall of Arabia” at a price between 300-400 million rupees in 4 instalments. The ex-employee claims that Graana defaulted on the third and fourth instalments.

Conversations with Graana’s representatives reveal that the company offers prospective investors a fixed return of 25%, 18% and 15% per annum if they choose to invest in their projects which include Mall of Arabia, Amazon Outlet Mall, Imarat Builders Mall and Golf Floras.

This is considered to be an extremely high return for real estate companies since analysts cannot, with absolute certainty, predict the returns of any real estate project.

All of Graana’s projects are based in Islamabad and the returns they offer include rent, capital gains and a potential buy back scheme that attracts investors to invest in Graana’s projects. However, so far, only one of Graana’s major projects has been fully completed while prospective investors are shown videos of works in progress of other projects being built.

Graana has been linked to the highest echelons of the former PTI government which is why it has been claimed that this company has evaded the writ of institutions like the Federal Investigations Agency (FIA) and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB).

A customer of Graana confirmed that his investment advisor from Graana assured him that Zulfi Bukhari fully backed the project which is why the chances of a loss were minimal due to state backing.

Pictures of the former Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis Zulfi Bukhari, Sheheryar Afridi and Murad Saeed sharing pleasant moments with Shafiq Akbar have been found on social media.

First page of the complaint against Brando Marketing and its affiliates run by Farhan and Arslan Javed.

Transparency International Pakistan (TIP) had taken notice of Brando’s (an affiliated company of Graana) media contracts with the PTI government without following due procedures.

According to the TIP, no tender for “Official Digital Media Partner” was posted by the National Information Technology Board (NITB), which is a clear violation of procurement rules.

Shafiq Akbar who was involved with the Association of Overseas Pakistanis – an NGO that claimed to be the “official channel to facilitate overseas Pakistanis here in Pakistan” – is believed to have collected data from the Overseas Pakistani ministry for the benefit of Graana, according to a report published by The News International and also highlighted by Transparency International Pakistan.

Within a few months of the PTI coming into power, Transparency International wrote to the Federal Government raising a concern that no due process was conducted before offering such a partnership to a virtually unknown company in the Pakistani IT and digital media industry. It then emerged that Brando Marketing was secretly handling the official page of the PTI Chairman and Prime Minister of Pakistan. Transparency International revealed that Brando Marketing’s Director Farhan Javed (currently Director at Graana and Imarat Group) was also managing Zulfi Bukhari’s social media accounts and presence. Shafiq Akbar at the time listed himself as a Director of Brando on his LinkedIn however he has since removed this and denies involvement.

Transparency International found that in addition to personal business with Zulfi Bukhari, Brando was also involved in the management of Overseas Pakistanis’ social media without any contract or bidding.

According to TI, another person linked with AOP was Shafiq Akbar who collected data about overseas Pakistanis from the purported official channel for overseas Pakistani and used the data to sell real estate to overseas Pakistanis via Graana, then a newly launched real estate portal. Farhan Javed confirmed that he was managing Imran Khan’s official page since 2016, Zulfi Bukhari’s media presence and Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis’ social media accounts “free of cost”.

Sources have shared that Brando Marketing was able to obtain the entire data of overseas Pakistanis from the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis under Zulfi Bukhari and the same database is currently being used by Graana to sell properties to overseas Pakistanis.

There has been no inquiry by the government since Transparency International published its findings and Brando and Graana officially accepted their involvement in the matter.

A spokesman for Mr Shafiq Akbar rejected the allegations made by ex-employees. He said: “The claim of ex-Graana employees is totally false and misleading as Graana is not an offering any financial services, Graana is offering real estate inventory to its clients against which we are ensuring ROI (Return on Investment) that you have mentioned in your query, that is the best ROI Graana is offering through its high-end products.”

The spokesperson further clarified that the land of Mall of Arabia has been fully cleared by the relevant authorities.

“Graana doesn’t do construction, it only does the sales of projects via its portal, after having information about project including its NOCs, so Graana doesn’t own any land, just does marketing,” Mr Shafiq Akbar’s spokesperson said.

This claim is different from the sales pitch of Graana sales people who tell prospective investors that the projects Graana offers are its own projects. Many of these projects are linked to Imarat Group which is also owned by Shafiq Akbar. When asked for an exact clarification, the spokesperson said: “Graana says that Imarat Mall or any Mall is Powered by Graana.com (there is a difference between powered by & owned by).”

About the fixed high returns Graana offers and what would happen in case of losses, the spokesperson said: “As we are offering Real estate Inventory against the investment, so there is no chance of loss against developed properties. There is always one option of loss always there i.e Natural Disasters. Graana is giving developed units against any investment through proper documentation, as per normal real estate Practices in Pakistan.”

About Graana’s relationship with ex SAPM Zulfi Bukhari and other PTI leaders and government functionaries, the spokesperson said: “We normally meet with government officials including chairmen of our relevant authorities, President, PM advisers, ministers & we also invite them on all our launch events as our guests and most of the time they do come to show their support for the sake of encouraging the investment in Pakistan. We took all stakeholders on board about our creative initiatives.”

Real estate analysts had raised the question of how Graana could offer rent on projects which hadn’t been completed and no rent was being earned on them.

The spokesperson also denied allegations of overselling.

The Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) in March this year advised the general public to verify the legitimacy of entities before investing their hard-earned money and savings.

The regulator in a statement said that in order to promote the protection of investors and the public interest, it regularly issues warnings and alerts, guiding the general public to refrain from investing in fraudulent investment schemes that promise hefty profits and unrealistic returns.

As clearly covered in Section 84 of the Companies Act, 2017, inviting and accepting deposits from the public is a prohibited activity, and can only be offered by specialized companies duly authorized by the SECP or SBP.

Graana did not respond to allegations that their social media cell was involved in running anti-state trends on Twitter.

The Non Banking Finance Company Regulations of the Security and Exchange Commission of Pakistan can be downloaded here.

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