Don’t mess with rich parents

Profit explains the scuffle between the TPL empire and Bol empire...over a position at a small, elite school

Imagine yourself as a parent. You are a good parent (or at least try to be), you adore your child, and you want the best for them. You also happen to have the means to give them a head start in life. No one can or should hold that against you. So when little Abid, or Majid, or Ambreen or whatever you name your child is born, you decide they will get the best of the best. 

After all, you are the founder and CEO of a corporation that has about Rs20 billion in assets. Your take home salary is Rs25 million a year. You’re not just invested in your child’s grades; you’re now the kind of person invested in which school your child should go to.

But the problem is that every other parent at your child’s elite school is also wealthy. And they have to be; after all, the annual school fees at your child’s school is upwards of Rs2 million.. So when the parents run into each other and small, private, scuffles and tensions outgrow themselves and come crashing into the real world, it is a recipe for disaster. 

This is exactly what happened to Ali Jameel and Sabiha Sultan, the respective CEO and director of TPL Corp., a publicly listed company. In the drama that has unfolded, TPL Corp has come head to head with the news channel Bol.

What happened between these parties? Two powerful business families had a personal dispute over a position at an elite high school. When one of the families (TPL) decided to complain, the other side (Bol) ran a media campaign against them on their television channel. It is a frightening instance of the personal bleeding into the very public, and what should have been a very private affair ending in talks of arrest warrants and clarifications being given in press releases to the Pakistan Stock Exchange. And it all started with a school.  

The Bol connection 

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Here is what happened, at least according to an official press release sent to the Pakistan Stock Exchange, on June 25. A woman named Ayesha Sheikh was appointed as a trustee of the Karachi American School (KAS). So far so good. The only problem was that Ayesha Shaikh is the wife of Shoaib Shaikh, the owner of Bol News, and this did not sit well with Ali Jameel and Sabiha Sultan.  

Yes that is right. The same Shoaib Shaikh you are thinking of. The one that was arrested in 2015 and charged with fraud, forgery and illegal electronic money transfers, after the New York Times broke the news that his biggest money making software company, Axact, was nothing but a front running hundreds of fake online education websites. Axact was one of the larger scams exposed in Pakistan, and it was also one of the more embarrassing ones because the news was picked up and broken by a prominent foreign publication. The government was swift to respond, sealing Axact offices in Karachi and Islamabad, and even requesting help from Interpol and the F.B.I. 

For Sheikh, it could not have come at a worse time. When the news about Axact broke, he was in the process of launching Bol news –  a new television news channel that had already poached some of the biggest names in electronic journalism in Pakistan like it was nobody’s business. Large studios and sets had been created, and two former Presidents (Asif Ali Zardari and Pervez Musharraf) were being given their own shows. It was supposed to be a massive operation. But when the news about Axact broke, the whole empire came crashing down. 

Kamran Khan, arguably the country’s most famous anchorperson, resigned as the channel’s editor-in-chief and others followed. Despite this, Sheikh soldiered on, and Bol limped across its first milestone and began operations in 2016. While the channel continues transmission to this day, it has several problems. For instance, it does not pay its employees for months on end, even when they come out onto the streets in protest. It has also been the platform for some of the most ridiculous moments (Amir Liaquat cooking on live television in a feud with the late Rishi Kapoor)  and ridiculous personalities (both Waqar Zaka and Mathira on the same stage hosting the same show) that Pakistani television has ever seen. 

Schoolyard drama 

Now, to be fair, it was Ayesha Sheikh that was appointed as a trustee of the school, not her husband. And it was her husband, and not she, that was sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

This did not matter to some of the parents that sent their children to the school.  Perhaps some parents thought that the reputation of the channel, and its owner, would rub off on the school, or reflect poorly on the school. That is when several parents, including but not limited to Ali Jameel, and Sabiha Sultan, banded together and wrote confidential letters expressing concern over the appointment. Bear in mind, Ayesha Sheikh also has children enrolled in KAS as well (which would mean that the letters could be seen as direct criticism and an attack on the parents of another child enrolled in the school. At the least, it was enough for Ayesha Sheikh to feel slighted). 

How do we know about these confidential letters? Because somehow the letters were leaked to Ayesha Sheikh, who filed a private complaint against Ali Jameel and Sabiha Sultan. But now, TPL claims that she through her husband initiated a smear campaign against them on Bol News, which included news about Ali Jameel being arrested.

Now, Ali Jameel is a wealthy man, but he does not have a news channel at his disposal. He also has a company whose investors would be deeply alarmed if they saw news that their CEO had been arrested. So to cover their bases, TPL sent out a press release to the PSX in which they would explain the following: “This is to inform the general public that TPL Corp Limited (Company) has come across a smear campaign by a non credible news channel Bol TV regarding issuance of purported arrest warrants against our Chief Executive Officer and sponsor, Ali Jameel. This is nothing but a useless attempt to maliciously defame our esteemed sponsors and Chief Executive Officer by the sponsors of Bol TV. In this regard, The Company reserves the right to seek civil and criminal action against the sponsors of Bol News including lodging a formal complaint with PEMRA for running such a malicious campaign by BOL News against our Sponsor and Director.”

Furthermore, the other notice repeated: “This is an attempt to defame and malign the reputation of Mr. Ali Jameel and Ms. Sabiha Sultan, and has no involvement whatsoever with the Company or any of the group companies of TPL Corp Limited. The said actions are highly condemnable and results directly out of a personal vendetta against the said personalities.”

Why is trusteeship such a big deal? 

All of this – over a seat on the board of trustees. Typically, trustees for schools usually work in a ceremonial capacity and are given the title as an honorary. So, does it matter who is a trustee of a school? Yes, absolutely, said the company secretary Danish Qazi, when contacted by Profit. “The role of a trustee is quite sacred,” he explained, “The school had asked parents of nominees, what their view on nominations were, and some parents raised reservations on Ayesha Shaikh, citing the history of Axact and Bol. In their personal capacity as parents they have every right. This was a matter of school and parents, it was never meant to be leaked.”

In one of the press releases issued by TPL Corp, the explanation they gave for Ali Jameel and Sabiha Sultana sending the letters in the first place was that  “the concern through letters, which were written in confidential capacity to KAS by the parents, was a legitimate concern in order to maintain the sanctity of KAS.” 

It is this idea of “the sanctity of the school” that goes to the heart of why being a trustee is such a huge deal to these parents. Particularly when it comes to a school like the KAS. According to its website, it was founded in 1953, and functions as a selective co-educational day school, which offers an instructional program from Pre-Nursery through Grade 12. ‘Founded to serve American and other expatriate children, Karachi American School has developed into a premier learning institution following an American college preparatory curriculum.’ the website explains. 

To be clear, there are few actual Americans in the school. The historical reason for this, according to one alum, is that after the 1990s, most Americans working in Pakistan came alone, without their families and children. This dwindled even further in the 2000s. The school still has some American and other nationalities’ teachers, but most of its student body is now entirely Pakistani.

And it is a very specific class of Pakistani children that go there. The annual school fees for a child just starting school is $5112, or nearly Rs800,000. By the time the child leaves high school, the annual school fees have shot to $15,321, or Rs2.4 million. Assuming a child attended the school throughout, that is roughly $200,000, or around Rs32.5 million that one would have spent on school fees alone. Not surprisingly, class sizes are small. Since 1979, the average annual graduating class has been just 35 students. According to the 2020 KAS Profile, almost 90% of graduating seniors went to college in the United States or Canada. As one alum told Profit (only half-jokingly), “The stereotype of a KAS kid is the kind of person who is announced as director of a publicly-listed company when they graduate from college.” 

Those fees cover some excellent facilities, even by other private school standards in Karachi, including a gymnasium, squash and tennis courts, playing fields, and a swimming pool, all located on 25 acres of prime real estate in KDA, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city. 

KAS is not just any random school – it is where the children of a tiny elite attend. And typically, elite Pakistanis tend to be on the board. For instance, Miftah Ismail, the former finance minister of Pakistan, used to be a trustee of KAS (he is not anymore). As another example, Sima Kamil, the former CEO of UBL Bank, and current deputy governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, used to be on the board of Karachi Grammar School (another private school in the city). And it matters to schools as well who sits on their board. 

One could perhaps stretch a little and say it matters even more to the Shaikhs. There is little we know about Ayesha Sheikh’s personal financial circumstances, but her husband definitely did not grow up as a child who could afford the fees of KAS, by his own accord. According to a Herald article, Sheikh was the only son among the four daughters of a Sindh High Court lawyer. According to the NYT, he grew up in a one-room house, and he wanted to be “the richest man on the planet, even richer than Bill Gates.”  Never mind, instead that he was involved in one of the largest scams in the country’s recent history. If they had not been, then perhaps parents would have not have raised objections. 

Why prestige positions matter, and who gets to sit on what board, is a conversation about class, wealth, and power that go beyond the scope of this magazine. However, what we can say is that in the realm of business, TPL Corp said that the misinformation caused a reduction in the market capitalization of TPL Group shares. It is unclear why TPL Corp said this: according to the PSX website, TPL share price has only risen from Rs14.03 on June 21, to Rs16.21 on June 23,  to Rs17.04 on June 25, and Rs17.20 on June 28. In fact, this is the best performing share price in the last six months: the share price was hovering around the Rs6 range since February, before spectacularly shooting upwards starting end May, and again starting June 14. The reason for saying this might be because they are planning a defamation case against Bol and want to present their own version of events. 

Even if the claimed fall in market capitalization never happened, that Bol News aired apparent arrests is cause enough for Ali Jameel and Sabiha Sultan to now take legal action ‘against such malicious prosecution’, which includes filing for damages (because of the alleged drop), and lodging a formal complaint with PEMRA for defamatory material aired. 

So to recap, a property tycoon is filing a complaint against a media group for defamation, which was allegedly operating on the instructions of the owner’s wife  – all over the internal politics of one small school. Parents, these days, we tell you.

Meiryum Ali
The author is a member of the staff and can be reached at [email protected]

8 COMMENTS

  1. Meiryum, hum log ELITE class wale log hein, samjhe. Hum log Pakistani paani nahi peetay, humarey liye special Evian wala paani airplane sey aata hein. We are elite, liberal, cosmopolitan and speak fluent English, understand. We are familiar with the most elite Mughaliana, Mughalzada, Lucknowist Urdu. If property tycoon was elite he would file defamation case in the high court of London. As matter of fact, they’d call me and i’d instruct my team of QC’s to immediately begin proceedings after submitting a 6 figure retainer that would cover about a weeks worth of work. Suffice to say one found it a completely trivial and frivolous exercise, a bit like this piece. Oh i do say! Jemima! Break out the Caviar dahling!

    • Comedy for the ages. Arey wah.

      Raffie boy kya huwa beta?

      Author is very mature elite knowing all the thaaangz uh bouwt tha biznasss, and inner gossips of ELITE class wale wannabe gorey tapal tea drinking elite, who wanna get in with w h i t e people, pleasse humey maan lo, mein hogaya tumhara, abhey maaan loo humein librels ko, hum aap ki tara hein, maaaanenegy?

  2. Why is Profit stooping this low? Is this a news worthy article on this business and economic website? How does this concern wrt Pakistan’s economy?

  3. Bhai itnay achay feature BHI to diay is nay. Kabhi banday Kay zehn me aisi topic BHI a jatay hen. Poet ki har verse to apnay matlab ki nai Hoti na. Kuch to bohat so Kay matlab ki BHI nai Hoti.

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