Dubai: After stealing a football club, breaking into a bank and conning governments around the world, a convicted international fraudster - described by the BBC as a ‘Trillion Dollar Conman’ - has struck Dubai.
In an act of pure evil genius, the Bahrain-based serial swindler Russell King has raked in millions of dollars in advertising revenue and barter deals by launching a magazine and passing it off as the Middle East edition of the internationally renowned Financial Times.
Illustration and animation by: Dorski B.
The scam was pulled off with such meticulous planning and attention to detail that everyone from luxury retail brands to top hospitality groups fell for it.
FT denies association
The fact is the Financial Times has nothing do with the bogus FT Business Arabia whose first and last issue was released in July 2017. “FT Business Arabia is not an FT publication and has never been authorised by the FT,” a spokesperson of Financial Times clarified in an email statement to XPRESS from London.
Yet to this date, most UAE businesses that have been conned remain clueless.
The inaugural and only edition of FT Business Arabia
Investigations by XPRESS show that deals for FT Business Arabia were struck as add-ons in barter agreements between retailers and Gulf Digital, the publishers of Food and Travel Arabia, another Bahrain-based magazine helmed by King.
Staying in the shadows, King has been running the Middle East edition of the well-known Food and Travel magazine for almost four years now using various aliases and fabricated circulation statistics.
Food and Travel GCC Awards
Still from BBC documentary: Russell King caught on camera in Bahrain
In March 2017, the magazine hosted the Food and Travel GCC Awards at a five-star hotel in Al Jadaf, Dubai.
Russel King’s wife Paula Frances King even attended the gala where she introduced herself as Francesca Jackson.
The unsuspecting hotel was so impressed by the sweet talking woman that it didn’t think twice before signing a barter agreement with Gulf Digital for deliverables worth nearly $80,000 (Dh293,000). The hotel bore all expenses of the awards night besides paying for several VIP rooms. For good measure, it was also conferred the ‘Best Destination Hotel’ and ‘Best Casual Chic Restaurant’ awards during a ceremony attended by top industry professionals.
Others that got similarly sucked into King’s elaborate web of deceit and signed deals in lieu of editorial coverage and advertisements include a high-end coffee brand (Dh128,000); the Middle East franchise of a Swiss luxury confectionery manufacturer (Dh60,000) a beach resort in Jumeirah (Dh58,000) and a local group (Dh91,500) which paid 25 per cent upfront as part of a $100,000 agreement. XPRESS has a copy of FT Business Arabia with FT’s famous salmon-pink logo and advertisements of the duped UAE business entities. Financial Times said their legal team is investigating the misuse of their logo.
Foray into Fujairah
Meanwhile, flush with money, King now wants to make the UAE his stomping ground. XPRESS can reveal that the conman’s wife has opened an office in Fujairah Creative City. Her registered company, GLM FZ LLC, is mentioned as the parent company of FT Business Arabia. GLM is an acronym for Greenline Marketing - a subsidiary of Gulf Digital which published Food and Travel Arabia.
The magazine, which is supposed to be a monthly, ceased publication about seven months ago. “The last issue distributed by us was July 2017,” confirmed Nobel Ravindran, general manager, Media & Publications, Jashanmal which was retailing the magazine in the region.
Staff and freelancers working for the magazine in Dubai said they haven’t been paid for months. A journalist, who was part of the launch team and worked closely with King, said she quit when she chanced upon BBC Panorama’s documentary on her boss. “At that time he went by the name of Steve King. He was very gregarious and convincing,” she recalled.
All this notwithstanding Food and Travel Arabia is now preparing the ground for a second industry awards night in Dubai - curiously in the same Al Jadaf hotel - on March 14.
To lend itself credibility, the magazine has this time partnered with the Global Restaurant Investment Forum (GRIF) which hosts hoteliers, restaurateurs and F&B brands from all over the world.
Whether GRIF would want to associate itself with them after reading this remains to be seen.
Who is King?
As scam artists go, there’s perhaps no one in the world who comes remotely close to serial swindler Russell King.
Sentenced to two years in prison in 1991 for insurance fraud after trying to get £600,000 in theft claims for his Aston Martin that never left his garage, King pulled off a scam so big it earned him the sobriquet of ‘The Trillion Dollar Conman’ by BBC which featured him in its Panorama documentary.
In 2009, King founded a company called Swiss Commodity Holding, which claimed it had assets worth $2 trillion besides the rights to all the gold, iron ore and coal in North Korea.
The fraudster then engineered the takeover of British investment bank First London. By falsely claiming he was managing billions of dollars for the Bahraini royal family, he got the bank to turn over 49 per cent of its share to him.
The sweet-talker’s next step was to gain control of Notts County Football Club – where he lured former England coach Eriksson to be director of football with promises of shares worth £10 million.
With Eriksson on board and the backing of First Bank of London, Notts County FC agreed to be sold to King.
The scamster then took Eriksson to North Korea where he signed a deal with the communist leadership which gave one of his front companies the rights to mine all the country’s gold, oil and iron ore, in return for £1 billion from Bahrain.
When the money dried up, King was on the first plane out of England. King denies any involvement in the running of Notts County or First London.
But emails and testimonies obtained by BBC Panorama show he was secretly pulling the strings at Notts County.
King never puts his name on bank accounts, shareholdings, or directorships. At Notts County he took the moniker Lord Voldemort, after the character in the Harry Potter books also known as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”.
Investigations made by XPRESS show he is currently in Bahrain and goes by the names of Barry Appleby and John Taylor.