Who is Nadhim Zahawi? From Baghdad Boy to British Chancellor and Hopeful Conservative Leader

While Nadhim Zahawi was aiming for the vacant post at the head of the Conservative Party, the Iraqi-born entrepreneur had to fight against the “dirt” on his private fortune.

One of the founders of polling agency YouGov, Mr Zahawi is proud of his rise from a boy who fled his homeland to become one of the main contenders for prime minister in the leadership race current.

Those ambitions were given a boost last week when he was named Britain’s new Chancellor of the Exchequer and, following the resignation of Boris Johnson, a favorite in the field of contenders for the crown.

The Conservative leadership aspirant must first weather the sudden rush of reports that his own personal finances have come under scrutiny by the authorities.

After it was discovered the National Crime Agency had launched a secret investigation into his finances in 2020, an Inland Revenue investigation into Mr Zahawi’s tax affairs is now believed to have begun. The Chancellor called the claims a ‘smear’ and maintains he has ‘always declared my taxes – I paid my taxes in the UK’.

The Iraqi Kurd’s close ties to his homeland have also made headlines over the years. Mr Zahawi has spent much of his parliamentary career working as an adviser, earning over £1million ($1million) from oil and gas company Gulf Keystone Petroleum, operator of one of the world’s largest major developments in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

Until 2018, and while still a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, Mr Zahawi was the President of the Cercle, an exclusive transatlantic group which organizes gatherings of powerful politicians, businessmen and members of the intelligence services to discuss foreign affairs.

Although there is no obligation to do so, the former children’s minister did not declare his presidency, which the former chairman of the Public Life Standards Commission said he had found “disturbing” at the time.

Mr Zahawi, one of Parliament’s wealthiest MPs, is believed to have a £100million property portfolio and has founded several business ventures, including a riding school with his wife.

In 2013, the former education minister landed in hot water over the spending scandal when it was discovered he had wrongly claimed electricity for his stables. At the time he said he was ‘mortified’ by his ‘genuine mistake’ and paid back part of the nearly £6,000 energy bill.

Going through the candidates’ compromising moments is an integral part of any fierce contest to become the next party leader.

But having fled persecution in his native Baghdad as a child and decades later overseeing the coronavirus vaccination campaign, Mr Zahawi, 55, knows a thing or two about overcoming challenges.

As he toured broadcast studios just after his appointment as chancellor last week, and before officially aiming for the government’s top job, he said he was ‘almost delighted’ to remember his upbringing and the path taken.

Mr Zahawi addressed the UK’s growing economic problems in his campaign. High inflation, weak economic growth and a string of unresolved strikes are just some of the issues the former businessman will face as the country’s finance minister if he keeps the job after the next party competition, or even as prime minister.

First years

Born in Iraq in 1967, the year the Ba’ath political party regained power, Mr Zahawi comes from a relatively large Kurdish family whose influence – and later security – was threatened by the rise to power of Saddam Hussein in the 1970s.

Mr Zahawi’s grandfather had been governor of the Central Bank of Iraq, his signature appearing on the country’s banknotes, but the influence of the Zahawis eventually drew the ire of the ruling elite.

When Mr Zahawi’s father, a businessman, was tipped off that secret police loyal to Saddam, then Iraq’s deputy leader, were coming for him, he quickly organized his escape.

Stating to his colleagues that he was going on a trip to the north of the country, the Kurd packed his bags for Baghdad airport instead.

Mr Zahawi has previously reflected on the ‘traumatic’ moment he saw the plane his father was traveling in prepare for take off, only for a military vehicle to approach the plane.

He said his mother was in tears and the family was terrified the military was going to escort his father off the plane. Iraqi authorities instead took the man sitting behind his father and by the time the secret police raided their home, Mr Zahawi’s father was long gone.

According to the new chancellor, this heartbreaking experience is “etched in his memory”. He still remembers how difficult it was to shake off the terror that reigned in the family home in Baghdad, before the rest of the family left to join his father in London.

From Baghdad to Sussex

Once settled, Mr. Zahawi’s father brought his wife and children and in 1978, 11-year-old Nadhim arrived without speaking a word of English.

The family lived in Sussex and Mr Zahawi was privately educated at Kings College School in west London and later graduated from University College London where he studied chemical engineering.

He described the difficulty he had adjusting to life in the UK, particularly his struggles with the English language and bullies at school, but young Nadhim kept busy with football, mathematics and science studies and horse riding.

As he was about to enter college, however, the family’s fortunes took a turn when a business venture failed and his father “lost everything” except his brown Vauxhall car.

With only one asset left in the family, the young bachelor was about to take a job as a taxi driver when his mother insisted that he continue his studies and pawned his jewelry in gold to pay them.

Business and politics

It was only when he began his studies at UCL that he developed an interest in politics and became actively involved in the Conservative Party.

“They just sounded reasonable and actually were very nice and talked about things like opportunity and freedom – things that got to me,” he says of his fellow Conservative students.

“I just thought, ‘those are my values’.”

It would be a few years before those values ​​sent him to Downing Street, but his early career as a businessman and entrepreneur could stand him in good stead in his current role as UK finance minister.

After graduating, Mr Zahawi set up a business selling Teletubbies products – a business that attracted investment from Conservative politician and later convict Jeffrey Archer.

Lord Archer remembers the young Nadhim Zahawi as “a born organiser” who gets things done, in line with contemporary recognition that the Chancellor is a “sure pair of hands”.

The entrepreneur’s connection to Lord Archer opened a few doors in the Conservative Party and in 1994 Mr Zahawi became a councilor in Wandsworth, south-west London, before standing an unsuccessful candidacy for Parliament three years later. late.

In 2000, he founded YouGov, a leading market research firm that became famous for its political polls.

Starting life in an office in Mr. Zahawi’s garden shed, YouGov now employs more than 400 people on three continents.

Mr Zahawi is said to have cashed in his shares in YouGov after listing the company on the London Stock Exchange in 2005, but fresh questions have been raised about the MP’s declared interests following repeated revelations that a Gibraltar-based company called Balshore Investments, owned by Nadhim Zahawi’s father, is believed to have still held a stake in the company worth over £20m until at least 2017.

In 2018, the polling firm was accused of trying to influence a controversial independence referendum in Iraq the year before. YouGov closed its operations in Kurdistan in 2021.

“Shakespeare’s Deputy”

In January 2010 he resigned from the company he had founded to try again to become an MP, this time for Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare.

After winning the seat, Mr. Zahawi was elected to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills, and later co-wrote a book, Masters of Nothingwith former health minister Matt Hancock, on the human behavior behind the banking crash.

Over the next few years, the father-of-three held various government positions, including on the Prime Minister’s Policy Council in 2013, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in 2014 and as a learning adviser to the Prime Minister in 2015.

In 2018, Mr Zahawi held junior ministerial posts in the education and business departments before being appointed minister in charge of the Covid-19 vaccination campaign in 2020.

Calling it at the time “the most important job I will ever do”, Mr Zahawi, whose uncle died of Covid-19 in England, oversaw the program for 11 months. He was then promoted by Mr Johnson to Cabinet in 2021 to lead education policy.

Mr Zahawi’s promotion to Chancellor of the Exchequer has come with praise and renewed loyalty to his adopted country and the man who bestowed the job on him.

“This country is a beacon of freedom and opportunity for the rest of the world and will continue for a long time under this prime minister,” Zahawi said in talks immediately after his appointment.

Yet a day later the new minister joined a host of MPs calling on Mr Johnson to ‘do the right thing’ and step down before joining nearly a dozen others seeking to take over the leadership of the left.

From Baghdad to boardrooms to benches, the Iraqi-born British citizen has paved the way to becoming one of the most powerful men in British politics.

“I pinch myself every morning, only to wake up thinking that the 11-year-old who arrived on these shores and couldn’t speak a word of English is now Shakespeare’s MP, for the heart of England and Chancellor of the Exchequer in Her Majesty’s Government,” he said. “This is the greatest country on Earth.

Mr Zahawi now hopes his ‘British success’ will persuade Tory members to elect him to the top cabinet post of Queen Elizabeth II.

Updated: July 11, 2022, 5:02 PM

Comments are closed.