Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a handsome young prince who wasn’t really a prince at all and, subjective though these things are, wasn’t really that young or handsome either. His people called him young and handsome because there existed in his country an ancient custom called ‘toadying shamelessly’. And they called him a prince because the heels of his shoes were encrusted with diamonds, his wardrobes contained 3,000 designer suits, his toothbrush was made of gold…
Fairytale is the only genre for the life and times of Dr Moosa Bin Shamsher, or Prince Moosa, as he is unofficially known; fairytale with a dark twist. For Dr Moosa, probably one of the richest men on the subcontinent, lives in one of the world’s poorest countries – Bangladesh. And he has made his one (or two) billion pounds (or dollars) mostly from trading in tanks, fighter planes, ICBMs – things that cause, as the euphemism goes, ‘significant collateral damage’.
Our story begins more than a year ago, when Dr Moosa approached The Telegraph through a Birmingham-based Irish intermediary who, in unilateral recognition of the knighthood bestowed upon him by the Catholic Order of St John, prefixes his name with the title ‘Sir’. Would we, asked the Irish knight, be interested in an interview with a Bangladeshi prince who in 1994 offered Tony Blair £5 million to help him win the general election (it was declined); who, in 1996, loaned his Gulfstream jet to Bob Dole to help him fight his (unsuccessful) campaign for the United States presidency; who was on such chummy terms with Boris Yeltsin that they chat regularly on the phone and send each other gifts? Rather.
A visit arranged for last spring was postponed because Dr Moosa’s 20-year-old daughter Nancy was marrying the first cousin of the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. The arrangements included covering Nancy – from head to foot, while lying down – in a dowry of gold and jewels. Dr Moosa’s private jet flew in flowers from Holland, olives from Greece, cheese from France, mineral water from Ireland. The Irish knight was sure I’d understand. He arranged another visit for December, when Dr Moosa was in (unsuccessful) negotiation to buy Luton Hoo, the Bedfordshire stately home, for £25 million. This trip fell through because Dr Moosa was ‘distracted by’ the Asian stock-market crash – in which, according to the Hong Kong financial press, he lost $270 million. And so, in the spring of this year, having resisted Dr Moosa’s entreaties to fly me out first-class and put me up in his palace for as long as I wanted, I arrived at Dhaka airport on Telegraph expenses – incorruptible, impartial, giddy with integrity…
Three armed bodyguards have been assigned to me. Intimidating in black suits and ties, they greet me with flowers and a gold-framed plaque welcoming ‘the Honourable Mr Nigel’ to their country. Before there is a chance to visit the bureau de change, the bodyguards chauffeur me to the Sheraton (where I discover I’ve been mysteriously upgraded to a luxury suite, at no extra charge), and press into my protesting hand a wad of crisp new taka – local currency, which I am to distribute among the poor should I have no need of it. They also introduce me to Saiful, the liveried butler provided for my convenience by Dr Moosa. The bodyguards stand in the corridor outside the door all night; every so often, to reassure myself I haven’t imagined it, I look through the peephole to check they are still there.
Next day, I am greeted outside Dr Moosa’s office in the diplomatic quarter of Dhaka by about 20 members of his staff. They are lined up along a red carpet, and as I walk along it half of them (prepossessing young women in green saris) place garlands of flowers around my neck, while the other half (self-conscious looking men in suits) shower me with marigold and jasmine petals. A video cameraman walks backwards to record my arrival and, once inside, he switches on a blindingly powerful tungsten light which enables him to carry on filming. His cables get everywhere, and everyone has to clamber over them, squinting and groping up the stairs. The confusion is compounded by the whine of metal detectors, set off by the handguns of my bodyguards.
Dr Moosa’s office is very James Bond baddie, circa 1974. There are 12 clocks on one wall, giving the times in a number of capitals. On the desk there is a bank of telephones of varying hues, denoting levels of urgency. On the wall behind the desk is a map of the world, with Dhaka, not Greenwich, at the centre. On the other walls are photographs of Prince Moosa, some with eminent figures – Dole, Forbes, Bush – others of him alone, apparently seated on a throne, with his chin held high. On a central table there are some autobiographies to browse – Lady Thatcher’s, Sir Edward Heath’s, Nelson Mandela’s, Sir David Frost’s – all with handwritten dedications to Prince Moosa. Mandela’s says: ‘To Prince Moosa. Best wishes to a wonderful friend. Mandela.’
Dr Moosa has not yet arrived – he’s on his way back from the Middle East – so I am greeted by Miss Dil Afronze, who has a degree in English literature and is director of the Datco Group, Dr Moosa’s umbrella company. Miss Afronze tells me how proud she feels to greet me, an eminent journalist from the famous London Telegraph, to her beloved motherland Bangladesh. She looks thoughtful for a moment, then adds that it is her esteemed chairman’s wish that I should enjoy my time in Dhaka and that, on his behalf, she would very much like me to know how eagerly she has been looking forward to my August visit. ‘Likewise I’m sure,’ doesn’t really seem an adequate response, so I waft the hand, as if to say, ‘Think nothing of it, old thing,’ then surreptitiously raise it to shield my eyes from the glare of the tungsten light. Filming continues for the next 15 minutes, as Miss Afronze and I exchange pleasantries. The temperature in the room rises with the heat from the portable floodlight, and the garlands begin to wilt and to weigh heavily around my neck.
Miss Afronze tells me she cannot believe how tall and handsome I am. I’m saying something along the lines of her seeming jolly nice too, when, craning over my floral neckbrace, I notice a brochure on the table next to me. It has pictures of tanks and missiles and American flags on its cover as well as a company name, Textron. When I ask Miss Afronze about it she smiles winningly and says that these are subjects about which I must ask Prince Moosa in person. She does tell me, though, that her esteemed chairman is the fountainhead of a vast business empire operating in more than 30 countries; that he runs most of his companies anonymously, and manages some of them from such off-shore tax havens as the Cayman Islands. Along with arms dealing, his main interests are in the construction industry, manpower services and the hotel trade. He bathes every day in rosewater, she adds, and owns 3,000 suits. ‘One can’t expect him twice to be seen in the same very apparel.’
Two hours pass before Dr Moosa arrives, in a cloud of expensive cologne, and embarks on a handshake that lasts a good half minute. In its dying moments he tells me how tall and handsome I am. Entering into the spirit of the thing, I return the compliment – although, as he has to look up quite a long way to meet my eye, I substitute ‘young’ for ‘tall’. He looks a dandy, though, in his finely tailored Italian suit and ruby rings. His belt buckle winks with clusters of diamonds. There are rubies and diamonds, too, on his gold Rolex, and when he notices me squinting as my retinas adjust to their brilliance he tells me that it is the most expensive watch in the world. That it cost $1 million.
He sits down on the tall chair behind his vast desk and invites me to sit opposite, on a low sofa, partially obscured by the fronds of a rubber plant. He doesn’t want to talk with the tape recorder on just yet – that can wait for a couple of days. But for an hour or so he chats amiably about his childhood, explaining in a soft, ponderous voice that he is a simple, modest, generous man from a humble background. It was his friend, the late, self-styled Prince Alexis II, claimant to the Russian throne and resident of Spain, who started calling him Prince Moosa, and when Boris Yeltsin joined in the name stuck.
Dr Moosa shows me an article in Nation Today, a Bangladeshi magazine, which claims that he is anyway descended from an Indian king and that DNA tests will one day prove it. With a serene smile and a shrug, he adds that he does not know where the story came from. After we’ve nibbled our way through a light lunch of what seem to be sausage rolls, he pops the latches on his crocodile skin briefcase and shows me the specially commissioned Mont Blanc pen he uses to sign his business deals. It is, he relates, solid gold, encased with 4,810 diamonds – the most expensive pen in the world.
In the evening I am invited to a banquet at Dr Moosa’s new ‘palace’ in the Gulshan district of the city. Called The Palace, this spacious white building nestles between the Russian and American embassies, and its gate is guarded by two aging soldiers with plumage in their caps. This time the gauntlet of greeting is formed by 20 or so dinner-jacketed servants, and the chap with the video camera is here, too. More garlands are proffered, more petals thrown. Dr Moosa, wearing a dinnerjacket, wing collar and a maroon-coloured ready-made bow tie with matching hankie, introduces me to Fatima, his wife of 22 years; Zubi, his ten-year-old son; and three friends – the editors of two local papers and the Irish knight from Birmingham, who would prefer not to be named in this article. They are the only other guests, but the dozen servants who stand silently with their backs to the walls give the impression that the function is well-attended.
There are about 15 fish and meat dishes of varied provenance. At one point, between courses, I assume some kind of postprandial game has begun as the Irish knight leaves and then returns to announce, for the benefit of the assembled company, that a General Vladimir is on the phone from Brussels. ‘Tell him I’ll ring him back later,’ says Dr Moosa with a theatrical wave of his bejewelled hand. Later, on a tour of The Palace, it transpires that Dr Moosa changes its interior design every six months or so. The silk Persian carpets are currently red, the lighting fluorescent, the paint on the walls a graduated canary yellow. There are two giant widescreen televisions along one wall. There is also a chandelier the size of a Ford Escort and, on the wall above the stairs, next to another row of 12 clocks, a gigantic gold-framed photograph of Dr Moosa, about 12ft by 18ft.
As we walk from room to room we keep coming across the two uniformed soldiers, the elder of whom shoulders his rifle and like Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army stamps to attention two seconds after the other one. Upstairs, there are indeed many suits – but not, even at a generous estimate, 3,000 of the blighters. There are dozens of bottles of rosewater around the bath, though. And in the bedroom – which I had read in the local press was 1,200 ft sq but is closer to 20 ft sq – are stacks of presentation boxes housing a footwear collection – by Gucci, Dior etc – that makes Imelda Marcos’s look amateurish. Normally, I am told, the more expensive examples are kept in a safe in Switzerland, along with Dr Moosa’s collection of 40 or so watches, but these shoes have been brought out for me to hold up to the fluorescent light, so I can appreciate the twinkling of the crushed diamonds in their heels and the chunky diamond pendants on their tongues. It is not clear where Mrs Moosa keeps her clothes. Or her shoes, come to that.
It is 11am, and a call is put through to my hotel room: someone who won’t give his name but insists that he and three of his colleagues have to meet me because there are things they think I should know about Dr Moosa. I agree to meet the caller by the swimming-pool in half an hour. He doesn’t show up. There is one more banquet to go, lunch this time, before Dr Moosa is prepared to sit and talk in earnest. At this, I am presented with more gifts: matching watches for my wife and me; matching silk folk costumes; two crates of oranges; a silver-plated salver with a dedication engraved on it from Prince Moosa to the Honourable Mr Nigel of the esteemed Telegraph; a trophy-like object with Prince Moosa’s image on it. As I have mentioned that my wife is just about to give birth, there is also a gold spoon for the baby. I consider mentioning my 17 nieces, nephews and godchildren.
I am told that giving presents to visitors is a custom in Bangladesh and that not to accept them is considered an insult. But with its shades of Asil Nadir and Mohamed Al Fayed, and the implication that a flattering profile is expected in return, it seems more appropriate to offer them to charity. Dr Moosa makes matters worse by saying that he has heard from ‘his media friends in London’ that I am an honourable man who cannot be bought. ‘I have made enquiries about you,’ he says. Instead of adding the expected ‘and I know where you live,’ he adds that he has declined repeated requests for interviews from CNN, the BBC, the Times and the Guardian, and has agreed to this one only because he has heard that I am ‘harmless’. I splutter into my coffee and ask him to elaborate. By ‘harmless’ he means that he is sure I want to write a balanced profile, rather than to cause him harm by conducting an investigation into his business interests.
To help me research my ‘balanced profile’ he shows me some articles that have already been written about him in the South-East Asian press. ‘I am in awe of Prince Moosa’s personage itself,’ one writer enthuses, ‘his unusual talent, his strength of mind, his hard labour, his patience, his humanitarian qualities, his taste, his versatility…’ Another says: ‘He is not only a tycoon, a billionaire, a philosopher, and a raconteur, but a masterful fashion setter of immaculate taste…’ Others refer to his ‘architectural body’, his ‘poetic prose’ and his ‘film star handsome face aglow with the beauty of his thoughts’.
As we head for the television hall I reach for my tape recorder – but Dr Moosa shakes his head and gives a pained expression. First we must watch his favourite programme, World-Wide Wrestling, on an American satellite channel. After this I ask about his arms dealing and he gives the pained expression again, looks imploringly at his wife and son sitting nearby, and says, ‘These things, Mr Nigel, I do not talk about in front of my family.’
And so we head off again through the dusty, overcrowded streets of Dhaka to his office, a mile or so away. We drive in his 4×4 which is, he points out, inevitably, the most expensive vehicle in the country. Here the international man of mystery does talk about ‘these things’, but in such a cryptic, elliptical way I’m never quite sure if we are talking about the same subject. He tells me, for instance, some fascinating stories about a certain Middle Eastern leader – but he says I am not to use them. He has, he explains, many enemies in Bangladesh, so he has to be careful. And he cannot let it be known which countries he does or does not do business with, because one might be the enemy of another and therefore take its trade elsewhere. He adds that the less he says, the longer he lives.
But he can elaborate on where his arms come from. ‘It depends on the customer. During tender, some specify the manufacture should be so-and-so country. It depends whether the countries have export or import licence.’ Asked if he has any qualms about making his fortune from arms trading he pulls a face, lips downturned, and runs a finger along his collar. ‘The question is whether your business is with legitimate government or with illegal people,’ he says. ‘Mine is all taxed. I have no conscience about this. If a government needs something and I am in a position to supply it officially, then I do. I do not dream of doing illegal arms dealing. Now it is much better than before. There are strict regulations. As long as civilisation is to exist, every country must have its defence system, its air force, army and navy.’
There is a Prince Moosa website on the internet which refers to him as the ‘Prince of the Cosmic Era’. When I ask how a cosmic prince gets into a rather shadowy business like arms dealing I get his version of his life story. He seems a bit touchy and vague about his age – presumably because he likes being described as the world’s youngest self-made billionaire – but he was born on 15 October ‘about 40 years ago’ in Faridpur, 100 miles from Dhaka, in what was then East Pakistan. He has four brothers and two sisters. His father, who died a couple of years ago, was a government official and didn’t have much money. As a schoolboy, Moosa Bin Shamsher – which translates as Moses, Son of Sword – knew he was different from the other children. ‘I was more charismatic, confident and intelligent. I never stood second.’
One of his formative experiences, he says, was when the Governor-General of Pakistan was on a visit to his district and the young Moosa, aged nine, stopped the cavalcade on the roadside, recited an English poem and begged him to help provide materials for his impoverished school. Provisions were duly made. And the President of Pakistan was so impressed when he heard this story that he invited the boy to meet him for tea in Dhaka and told him he was the ‘pride of his country’.
Dr Moosa started in business when a friend of his introduced him to a foreigner who wanted to buy textiles from Bangladesh. He started trading in cotton, formed a company and made his first million in five months. ‘In 1973 someone advised me to go to Calcutta to get a better price, better product. From here I moved to international markets and sold millions of dollars of goods to Syria and Britain.’ The jump from textiles to arms was an easy one, especially as his mentor in arms dealing, the Syrian-born businessman Akram Wajeh, worked with Aristotle Onassis and Adnan Khashoggi and was a friend of the Saudi royal family.
In 1995 a Bangladeshi newspaper hailed Dr Moosa as the ideal prime minister of the caretaker government. He dismissed the idea, and now says, ‘I don’t have political ambition. Not at all. My only ambition is to see my fellow countrymen happy. I want the world to see Bangladesh as a country not to be pitied but as a country that can feed and clothe its people properly.’ Dr Moosa makes no mention of East Pakistan’s successful war of independence from West Pakistan which, in 1971, claimed three million Bengali lives. According to an article published in the Daily Mail in 1994 at the time of Dr Moosa’s offer of £5 million to the Labour Party, Moosa had supplied stores to the West Pakistan army during the war of independence and at the end of it had had to flee Faridpur to escape lynching for his alleged collaboration with the enemy.
Quite the contrary, Dr Moosa tells me. He was held in a Pakistani concentration camp, and was twice on an execution list. Each week 15 people were arbitrarily selected and executed, pour encourager les autres. He escaped death the first time because the grave he had been forced to dig for himself filled with water during a monsoon. On the second occasion he tripped, fell and bashed his face so badly that he was freed – ‘because there is a tradition in our country of showing mercy to the sick and the old’. He has an awkward way of holding his right arm – because, someone has told me, of the bayonet injuries he sustained during his internment. But there was an article in the Guardian, also at the time of the Blair offer, which said he was beaten up after complaints about a manpower exporting business he had set up in the late Seventies. Moosa had vanished from Bangladesh, it said, resurfacing in late 1982 after General Ershad seized power in a military coup. The Guardian added that Dr Moosa was wanted in Malaysia, where he was alleged to have committed a fraud. A spokesman for Dr Moosa was quoted as replying that he had never even been to Malaysia, let alone committed fraud there.
When I call the Malaysian Embassy in London, they can find no record of this alleged fraud. Other calls paint a similarly opaque picture. The editor of Forbes magazine says Dr Moosa is not on their list of the world’s billionaires. ‘But that doesn’t mean he isn’t one,’ he adds. ‘There are more secret billionaires out there than you can ever imagine.’ A call to Mont Blanc reveals that Dr Moosa does indeed own the world’s most expensive pen – one of several Meisterstuck Solitaire Royals, each costing £97,500. Another call, to Pacific Western University in the United States, establishes that it awarded Moosa a PhD in 1988 after a correspondence course.
What about the strategically placed books and photographs? All genuine. There is even a biography of Tony Blair lying around, signed by the subject, although not specifically dedicated to Dr Moosa. I am shown another article from the local press. ‘Dr Moosa gave Tony Blair the greatest gift he could,’ it says, ‘a mirror to reflect his inner qualities for the people to applaud in the best way they knew how – through the ballot box. In a way he’s Tony’s best friend.’
So what does Dr Moosa have to say about the donation he offered to his best friend? ‘This thing, Mr Nigel, it is difficult for me to talk about. All I say is that Mr Tony Blair is one of the best prime minister. He is honest. He is not greedy for anything. I respect his principles in declining offer. I don’t know why all that fuss made of £5 million, though. Was it considered a big donation? Or was it ethics?’
Dr Moosa says he donated ‘large sums’ to help the victims of the terrible floods in Bangladesh in 1986 and 1988. And last winter, when 18 homeless people a night were dying during freezing weather, he distributed several tons of clothes around Bangladesh. Asked if he thinks it would help solve the nation’s problems if he donated all his money to the poor, Dr Moosa shakes his head. ‘No. Too big a problem. One Moosa alone cannot solve world problem. We have 120 million people. Most of them are poor. If you give them cash money, it will be spent overnight. It is better to help by creating jobs.’
It may be bad form to go on about money, but the rings he is wearing at the moment are – yes – the most expensive in the world, he says, the ruby alone worth $1.2 million. The emerald cost $700,000. I ask him how he feels when he looks at his rings and then at the grinding poverty in Dhaka. ‘I don’t have bad feeling,’ he says with a shrug. ‘Because I do a lot for them. I do a lot.’ He adds that the cause of the poverty is bad government. ‘Democracy is a luxury Bangladesh can’t afford because the people are too illiterate and corruptible. Britain and West should impose a government. Had there been no British rule worldwide the human civilisation wouldn’t have reached the present astounding stage. I want that the British should dominate the world and I wish that Mr Tony Blair could control this world domination. Many politicians I meet are of the opinion that the world would be better place if Downing Street still ruled waves rather than White House – because Americans are decadent with their nakedness.’
In his obsession with all things British Moosa reminds you of ‘Al’ Fayed. With a wry smile, he hints that he would have no problem getting British citizenship if he wanted it. ‘They look at your bank balance,’ he says. It is his love of the British way, he adds, that makes him a stickler for gentlemanly conduct. It is not easy to get the measure of this man, to glimpse beyond the obfuscation, inconsistencies and hyperbole, but it is clear that, in person, Dr Moosa has a certain composure and flamboyance which may add up to charisma. The impression of breathtaking vanity and egotism may be just a matter of nuance being lost in translation. Asked if he would be content if he had no money left, for example, he says, disarmingly: ‘No. But the chances of it happening is nil.’ On the legacy he would like to leave to his eldest son Bobby (who is studying at the University of Texas), he says, ‘I am still very young. Around 40. I have many years to go. But my legacy will be my lifestyle. My cleanness. My morality. My modesty. My simplicity. My large heart for many people.’
One of the ways in which his large heart does its stuff is in the various offers he makes to the people of Bangladesh. He wanted to donate £125 million worth of fertiliser, he says, as well as build a $1 billion hospital. Both offers were declined. He says he cannot understand why: ‘Did they think I was trying to smuggle ICBMs in the fertiliser?’ When I ask a spokesman for the Bangladeshi Embassy in London about this, he explains the offers were refused because Dr Moosa seems too shadowy. ‘I’m sure we would accept his offers but we just don’t know enough about him. We wish we did.’
Because of the powerful fluorescent lighting in his office, it is easy to lose track of time. It is now dark outside, 9.30pm, and Dr Moosa has been talking since lunchtime. It may be because my resistance has been worn down, but I have reached a sneaking admiration for his chutzpah. He takes a (staged?) phone call as we are talking, for instance. It is, he says, from General Vladimir and concerns – I hope I wasn’t hallucinating at this point – a loan of $500 million that a certain Latin American country want him to make them. ‘We wait till after the elections,’ Dr Moosa says, ‘because the new generals will fire the old ones.’ A fax arrives moments later which he shows me, after carefully folding over the top of the page to hide the headed notepaper. It is, apparently, confirmation of the requested loan.
Exhausted and bewildered, I return to my hotel at midnight to find an anonymous typed note has been pushed under my door. It informs me that Dr Moosa is a stranger in Bangladesh. He is not a fair taxpayer. It requests that I ask myself if the documents shown me by Dr Moosa’s office are true or fake, and whether I know what his real business is inside and outside the country. It ends: ‘Don’t forget minimum professional ethics only because of unusual reception and gifts. Please don’t disclose this letter or quote a name. I trust you for your newspaper’s reputation. We don’t want to see a Western journalist is purchased by a so-called Bangladeshi TYCOON. Thank you.’ I like to think Dr Moosa would approve of the word ‘tycoon’ being in capital letters.