By Rachel Morarjee
In a deeply undignified start to my interview with one of the world’s most famous spiritual leaders, I am pressing my face against the glass of the Ismaili Centre in South Kensington, gesticulating wildly as I try to catch the eye of the dark-suited security man. It seems to me he is, perhaps reasonably, deliberately ignoring the madwoman outside.
As I’ve already tried pushing the locked door, I eventually stand on the street corner and rummage inelegantly in my bag to find my phone. After a long wait, I manage to get hold of a friend who works for His Highness the Aga Khan, who lets me in.
My requests for a lunch or breakfast meeting had been deflected by the Aga Khan’s aides, who gave me the unusual excuse that the leader of 20m Ismaili Muslims guards his privacy so zealously that he would be reluctant to reveal what he eats at mealtimes. So we settle on a coffee.
Tall, in a grey suit and a burgundy tie, the Aga Khan, 71, would blend seamlessly into a crowd of London commuters. He welcomes me with a smile and says, acknowledging our tricky discussions about this interview: “Not breakfast, not lunch, not dinner, but coffee. What would you like to drink?”
The room is impersonal but, as I sit down on a plush chair, I look out and see a lush flower-filled internal roof garden, a courtyard where water flows into a fountain.
I met the Aga Khan twice during my three-year stint as a reporter for the FT in Afghanistan so I am used to the atmosphere of stiff formality that surrounds him. After 51 years, he is presumably used to it too. In July 1957, at the age of 20, he took over from his grandfather as leader of the Ismailis, who are followers of the Shia Muslim tradition.
A woman brings the Aga Khan a white coffee while I opt for a cup without milk or sugar, which I try to balance on the arm of the chair and drink. I am dismayed to see no sign of anything edible.
The Aga Khan’s thoroughbred passion
As the most successful racehorse owner-breeder in France, the Aga Khan has won just about everything, several times over, writes Rachel Pagones. And while racing is a fast and furious sport – the verdict delivered in around two and a half minutes for races such as the Epsom Derby – breeding the horses for these contests can be an agonisingly slow process. Patience is the Aga Khan’s hallmark.
He inherited the business from his father, Prince Aly, and grandfather, the Aga Khan III, who bought his first thoroughbreds in Deauville in 1921 and went on to win the Epsom Derby five times. For his part, Prince Aly became the first owner in Britain to win £100,000 in a season in 1959, the year before he was killed in a car accident outside Paris.
The present Aga Khan’s “families” of broodmares often produce a top-class winner after three or four generations on the backburner. He is the least commercial of the large, independently wealthy owner-breeders, including Sheikh Mohammed, ruler of Dubai, Prince Khalid Abdullah of the Saudi royal family, and John Magnier of Coolmore Stud in Ireland, all of whom promote many of their own stallions for use by other breeders. He has only four stallions on his six properties in France and Ireland.
Money also helps. The Aga Khan’s operation breeds from its own stock, but makes a big purchase when a rare opportunity arises. The most recent was in 2005 when the Aga Khan bought the late Jean-Luc Lagardère’s bloodstock holdings, including two studs and close to 200 horses, for an industry estimate of between €40m and €50m.
The Aga Khan has had four winners of both the Epsom and Irish Derby, including Shergar, the most famous horse in Britain during his lifetime – he won the Epsom Derby by a record ten lengths in 1981 – but this achievement has been largely replaced in the public mind by the memory of the horse’s bizarre kidnapping in 1983, a year after he was retired to stud in Ireland with a valuation of £10m. The most thorough reports conclude it was an IRA plot, and the horse was killed not long afterwards, probably because the kidnappers had trouble handling him.
The Aga Khan’s current star is an unbeaten filly named Zarkava. The favourite for next weekend’s Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe, she descends from Petite Etoile, a grey filly who starred on British tracks just before and after Prince Aly’s death. Petite Etoile’s great-great-grandmother was Mumtaz Mahal, one of the first and most important horses purchased by the Aga Khan III for 9,100 guineas in 1922.
I feel slightly on show now, as there are a lot of people crowded into the room with us. There is a Paris-based PR man, an older Ismaili man and, most disconcertingly of all, a young woman with a notepad, poised to write down everything I say.
The Aga Khan wears a suit even when he’s travelling and working in Islamic countries. It’s not a look that we are used to seeing on Muslim spiritual leaders, so I decide to start by asking whether his clothing attracts criticism in the Muslim world. The woman with the notepad starts scribbling furiously. Uh-oh, I think, and I get the question thrown back to me: “You have lived in a Muslim country. Are you aware of any requirement for an Imam to wear a particular type of clothing? There are traditions but are you aware of any theological requirement?”
I ask again, and this time the Aga Khan replies, “I have never sensed that as a problem. Imams in sub-saharan Africa dress differently than Imams in the Middle East, who dress differently from Imams in central Asia.” He adds that for ceremonial occasions, he wears a traditional robe and Astrakhan hat – a look favoured by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
This question of clothing goes to the heart of the paradox of the Aga Khan. While he’s a spiritual leader to millions of Muslims, he is best-known in the west as the highest-profile racehorse owner in France, where he lives.
The other unusual thing about this spiritual leader is how staggeringly rich he is. The Aga Khan’s personal wealth is estimated at $1bn but the Ismaili community is tight-lipped about how much of the Aga Khan’s money is his own and how much is ring-fenced for religious and development work.
I ask him how he reconciles such great wealth with having so many impoverished followers in many parts of the developing world. “Well, I think first of all you have to reposition the statement about having great wealth. I would say, frankly, that’s nonsense,” he says, smiling emphatically.
What is in no doubt is that the Aga Khan comes from a privileged background. He was born Karim al-Hussayni in Geneva in 1936 and was known as Prince Karim. After school in Switzerland, he went to the US and graduated from Harvard in 1959 with a BA honours degree in Islamic history.
His parents divorced in 1949 and his father later married Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth. The couple were a favourite of the gossip columns, although the marriage did not survive long. The unwelcome spotlight at that time might be part of why the Aga Khan now guards his privacy so carefully.
The Aga Khan title was granted to the family by the Shah of Persia in the 1830s after he had married his daughter to the Aga Khan’s great-great-grandfather. The man sitting opposite me is only the fourth to hold the title. As I sip my rapidly cooling coffee, I settle back and hear how the myth of fabulous family wealth was created when the third Aga Khan, grandfather of Aga Khan IV, was given his weight in gold during his golden jubilee celebrations in 1936.
Although Aga Khan III was only 5ft 5in, he tipped the scales at 220lb and the donations added up to $125,000 – a vast fortune in 1936. The ceremony of sitting on the scales with the gold made a great impression on the British public at the time. “In the west, this was seen as some sort of fantastic ceremonial, and this was because India at the time was ceremonial.” The current Aga Khan did not have to endure anything like this during his own golden jubilee celebrations during 2007 and 2008, not least because the 1930s gold made a solid bedrock for investments.
Ismailis have also traditionally paid a tithe to their Imams. The Aga Khan tells me that money raised by Ismaili followers does not end up in his pocket. “There is a great difference between wealth which comes from the faith and is used for the faith and personal wealth used for the individual. The Imam has responsibility for significant resources but they in no way cover the needs we have, and never will,” he says.
The Aga Khan inherited shares in corporations, banks, trusts and oil from his grandfather in 1957 and, over the past five decades, he has built a vast business development network by investing in poor and conflict-torn parts of the globe. He is the key shareholder in many of the projects but his profits are reinvested in the businesses, which are often run by members of the Ismaili community.
He began with newspaper investments in east Africa in the 1960s and now runs investment ventures tightly linked to development work that funds schools, hospitals and architectural projects.
In Afghanistan, I saw how the success of the Aga Khan’s projects stood in contrast to the bumbling efforts of many western governments. He owns stakes in the country’s largest telephone network, and a five-star hotel but has also renovated ancient mosques, gardens and citadels as well as running educational and agricultural projects.
The Aga Khan says he sees his role as a venture capitalist who specialises in difficult environments, laying the foundations of projects to entice other investors. The Geneva-based Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (Akfed) runs more than 90 for-profit businesses and employs 36,000 people.
“There is no point going into economies that are wealthy and have their own resources, so we go into the really poor ones. If you try to put social development ahead of economic support, it doesn’t work. You have to do both together.
“A community whose economics don’t change is not one that can support community structures, education, healthcare, it doesn’t have the wherewithal,” he says.
The Aga Khan uses a lot of the same jargon used by development workers, mentioning “human resources” and “capacity building”. I am familiar with this way of talking from my time in Kabul but have always felt it a shame that it means that speakers often convey nothing of the real excitement involved in seeing a project take off and become an independent success.
His profits are reinvested in the Akfed businesses and the rest is paid in dividends to the other joint venture partners. These include private equity firm Blackstone, which has co-invested in a hydroelectric damn in Uganda, and Swedish telecoms group TeliaSonera, which holds a stake in Afghanistan’s largest telephone network,
Roshan has gone from strength to strength, its mobile business bolstered by the fact that it is impossible to lay landlines in a country so laced with landmines. But his five-star Serena Hotel in Kabul has attracted criticism for its opulence in a city where most people don’t have electricity and running water.
“The nature of what we do is high-risk,” the Aga Khan says, with characteristic understatement. I ask whether he thinks this long-term view is key to his success and he says that many projects can take 25 years to come to fruition. He cites a hospital in Pakistan that now produces world class doctors a quarter of a century after it opened. It would be hard to find western donors who would remain with a project for that long.
During his 51 years as Imam, he has watched the collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought Ismaili communities in central Asia back into contact with the outside world, as well as the rise of militant Islam. “Communities like the Ismailis don’t live in a vacuum,” he notes, saying that his job as Imam is to think carefully about how to address the problems in the societies his followers call home. The Ismaili diaspora is almost as widespread as the Jewish one.
I wonder whether he sees the clash between Islam and the west as the most serious global problem. “I’m unwilling to say that in these major issues today faith has been the prime driver. In my view it’s political issues that have been the prime driver,” he says. I ask whether that means they need political solutions. “Bang on,” he replies.
He believes ignorance about Islam in the west is a huge problem. “The Islamic world as an important part of our globe has really been absent from Judeo-Christian education in a strange way,” he says, asking how anyone can be considered properly educated in the west when they know nothing about Islam.
We have to finish, so I ask what he thinks his legacy will be, which provokes laughter and the response that he doesn’t have the faintest idea.
As I switch off the tape recorder and prepare to leave, he visibly relaxes and begins talking about Afghanistan in a far more open way, reminiscing about the Mujahideen leaders he knew during the country’s civil war. We step out into the roof garden, where running water blocks out the roar of traffic. The peace lasts only a moment – the Aga Khan always has more meetings – and I have to go in search of lunch.