Last July, a mysterious name ‘Jho Low’ popped up in the inner circle list of newly-appointed Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak compiled by Singapore’s Straits Times, arousing curiosity.
“Who is this ‘Joe’ Low?” many people might have asked after reading the brief introduction that described him as the “key architect” of the Terengganu Investment Authority (TIA), a sovereign wealth fund under the state.
However, a year later, Low has probably become Malaysia’s biggest celebrity after reports about his extravagant partying with controversial Hollywood actress Paris Hilton (right) hit the front pages of newspapers, local and around the world.
His real name is Low Taek Jho, commonly known as Jho or ‘Joe’ Low, and he is a 28-year-old millionaire born in Penang, and the third son of Penang tycoon Larry Low.
Checks by Malaysiakini showed that Low was already a significant figure in local business circles two years ago as a result of his strong links with Middle East investors.
Apart from TIA, which is now morphed into 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB), he played a significant role in UBG Bhd, which is owned by the family of Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud (left).
Appointed director at 26
The takeover of UBG Bhd by Saudi Arabian company PetroSaudi International Ltd seven months ago sparked another round of speculation over Low’s wide influence.
PetroSaudi had in May last year formed a joint venture with 1MDB to invest US$2.5 billion into the energy sector. Some saw PetroSaudi’s takeover of UBG as being linked to the 1MDB joint venture.
The Star in its report on April 8 said that all these business ventures did involve Low, and referred it to the ‘J Low’ factor. However, PetroSaudi later denied that the UBG Bhd deal was connected to its cooperation with 1MDB.
Low was appointed as a non-executive director on UBG Bhd’s board in September 2008 when he was only 26 years old. He was then the representative for Abu Dhabi-Kuwait-Malaysia Investment Corp (ADKMIC), a consortium formed by influential Middle East investors.
The consortium, through its wholly-owned subsidiary Majestic Masterpiece Sdn Bhd, purchased 53 percent of UBG Bhd shares and acquired two construction companies – Putrajaya Perdana Bhd and Loh & Loh Corp Bhd – after hiving off its interests in RHB Bank.
Meanwhile, the stake held by original controlling shareholder, the Taib family through their flagship company Cahaya Mata Sarawak Bhd, was reduced to 32 percent.
Together with Low, the young mover-and-shaker’s best friend Yousef Al Otaiba (right), who is currently the United Arab Emirates (UAE) ambassador to the United States, also sat on the board of directors.
Middle East investors roped in
Not surprisingly, Low’s role in TIA and 1MDB raised eyebrows. When Najib took power last year, TIA was turned into a federal entity and was renamed 1MDB.
In an interview with the local press, 1MDB chief executive officer Shahrol Azral Ibrahim Halmi said the idea of TIA was mooted by the Agong and Terengganu Sultan Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin and that it was modelled after Abu Dhabi’s investment arm, Mubadala Development Company.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of UAE, is among the cities which Low is active in and where he has a number of close friends – many of whom from the days when he was at Wharton Business School in the US – including Yousef, the son of UAE’s first oil minister. Low is presently relocating his business headquarters there.
In an interview with the Star last week, Low revealed that he was invited by the sultan to help set up TIA last year, because of his good relationship with Middle East investors and knowledge in setting up sovereign wealth funds.
However, the young millionaire stressed that he played no role after the authority was federalised.
He has also denied an accusation by PKR that he had been awarded the Sungai Besi air base redevelopment project, which acquired 195ha of prize land from the government.
The redevelopment project is a joint venture between 1MDB and another Middle East investor, Qatar Investment Authority (QIA).
After it was federalised, 1MDB has roped in a slew of Middle East investors, including QIA, PetroSaudi and Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company (Masdar).
According to 1MDB’s website, Low is not a member of its board of advisers and directors or with its senior management.
But it is undeniable that 1MDB’s joint ventures with Middle East investors has Low’s fingerprints all over them.