A day after attending a lavish wedding reception of his cousin brother Abdus Samad Labu’s son at Bangladesh’s army-developed Sena Kunjo complex in Dhaka on September 18, one of Bangladesh’s most controversial but powerful businessman Mohammad Saiful Alam took a flight out of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. His destination was Delhi.
After a brief and comfortable flight, Alam, whose business interests are spread over Chittagong, Dhaka, British Virgin Islands, Singapore, Cyprus and Dubai, landed in Delhi. He did not check into his favourite hotel in the upscale diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri, but proceeded straight to meet a small group of officers in India’s national security bureaucracy.
The agenda for discussion was the “business difficulties” Alam was faced with in Singapore and the forthcoming Bangladesh elections. Alam had met the same set of Indian officials during a previous visit in August when he flew into the Indian capital from Dubai where he now resides and leads two key businesses.
Bangladeshi sources with deep knowledge of Alam’s business dealings revealed that “of late he has been not been able to live and work out of Singapore since he is reportedly barred from entering the city-state”. Alam’s business empire – he is into commodities trading, finance, power, engineering, energy and media among others – is as massive as it is controversial.
Most recently, the Northeast News revealed (on September 8) the confessions made by Proshanta Kumar Halder, a former employee of Reliance Finance Ltd, of which Alam is chairman, to the Indian Enforcement Directorate (ED), claiming that his former boss paid kickbacks to the tune of Taka 1,500 crore to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son Sajeeb Wazed Joy in 2014.
A Bangladeshi national, Halder, along with five other associates, was arrested by the ED at Ashoknagar in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district on May 14, 2022. After being charged with cases under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), he made the disclosures to the ED on May 18 and 19, 2022. Halder admitted that he was managing director of Reliance Finance Ltd and NRB Global Bank Ltd, both “owned and controlled” by Alam.
Halder, who was managing director of Reliance Finance Ltd between 2009 and 2015, disclosed in his supposed confession to the ED that Alam has “effective control over six banks, one non-banking financial institution, two general insurance companies and two life insurance companies. While Alam, according to Halder, owns two merchant banks, in four banks – First Security Islami Bank Ltd, Union Bank Ltd, Global Bank Ltd and Social Islami Bank Ltd – “about 60 percent of the total credit facility has been given to different dummy companies/entities of Md. Saiful Alam”.
Alam’s close links with Bangladesh’s dreaded Directorate General of Forces Intelligence (DGFI), many of whose officers are believed to have been “hit” by the US visa restrictions, is well documented. The opening paragraph of an April 2017 report in The Economist is chilling. It said, “It was an odd job for a spy agency. On the morning of January 5th military intelligence operatives phoned the chairman, a vice-chairman and the managing director of Islami Bank Bangladesh, picked them up from their homes and brought them to the agency’s headquarters, in Dhaka’s military cantonment.
Police officers presented the bankers with letters of resignation and asked them to sign. They did so. A few hours later the bank’s board, meeting under the noses of intelligence officers at a hotel owned by the army, selected their replacements”.
Halder too disclosed to the ED that the Islami Bank is among six banks that are controlled by Alam, who is alleged to have close links with the Jamaat-e-Islami, “by way of ownership of shareholding which is held in his own name as well in the names of his other family members”.
Bangladeshi sources revealed that Alam’s links with the DGFI go back several years and the relationship remains “strong and durable”. During his tenure as DGFI chief, Lieutenant General Molla Fazle Akbar is said to have “backed” Alam and following retirement from service in February 2016, he and his wife were appointed as vice chairmen in one of the banks controlled by Alam.
In the course of taking effective control of the six banks, Alam received unstinted support from a few other top bureaucrats and army officers, including the then DGFI chiefs, including one who now heads a premier defence academic establishment located at Dhaka’s Mirpur cantonment.
While the ruling Awami League has successfully muzzled the Bangladeshi press, particularly the print media, the English language Daily Star still commands some independence. On August 4, the newspaper published a story which said that the “S Alam Group owner Mohammad Saiful Alam has built a business empire in Singapore worth at least about USD 1 billion, although there is no record of him taking permission from Bangladesh Bank (the central bank) to invest or transfer any funds abroad”.
Daily Star’s investigation revealed that the “Bangladesh central bank has so far allowed 17 companies to invest outside the country, and this Chattogram-based business giant is not on the list. Yet in Singapore, Alam bought at least two hotels, two homes, one retail space, and other properties over the last one decade, all the while seeking to remove his name from the paper trails, documents show”.
The newspaper found that “As of January 10, 2023, the central bank has cleared roughly about USD 40.15 million to be invested abroad globally, a BB document shows. The figure is 10 times less than what Alam has spent just to buy two hotels and one retail space – worth over USD 411.8 million – in Singapore since 2009”.
In August this year, Alam allegedly utilised his clout in Bangladesh to effect a judicial stay on a high court judgment that had earlier ordered the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) and the police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID) to probe allegations against him and examine some of his offshore businesses.
Of late, however, Alam has stopped living in Singapore – spending more time in Dubai where he runs three establishments – after authorities there debarred his entry to the city. He lived in a ninth floor apartment in a condominium complex on Newton Road, Singapore.
However, one of his establishments in Dubai is Focus Foundation which was incorporated on October 31, 2022, located at Currency Tower 2, Dubai International Financial Centre. Alam’s second company in Dubai, Draycott Commodities is located at DMCC (Dubai Multi Commodities Centre) Business Centre, and it deals in precious metals such as gold and silver and precious stones and pearls. Draycott Commodities was incorporated on September 7, 2021.
Alam’s intricate web of businesses, both in Bangladesh and other countries, is at once complex and mystifying. A glimpse of this was given by Halder to the ED when he said in his statement that while the “total deposits in the banking sector of Bangladesh (in 2022) are around Taka 12,50,000 crore, Md. Saiful Alam has borrowed almost 10 percent of it. This figure points towards the huge clout exercised by Md. Saiful Alam in the economy of Bangladesh. It is reiterated that majority of this loan amount has been taken through dummy firms with no real business on the ground”.
Towards the end of his statement to the ED, Halder made a telling observation: “A change of Government (in Bangladesh) will provide him an opportunity to negotiate from a clean slate and also result in lesser spending on payoffs/expenses on Government authorities to keep his business running”.