For the past 25 years, The Arif family has operated unnoticed, but built an empire which has cultivated relationships with Russian mobsters, post-soviet plunderers, wealthy Turks and even presidents.
The source of their wealth is a polluting chrome foundry in Kazakhstan, which has churned out hundreds of millions of dollars in the last decade.
One relationship is key: the dealings with the 'Kazakh trio', three controversial businessmen close to Kazakhstan president, Nursultan Nazarbayev
It is this relationship that the family has spent over two decades trying to protect.
Kazakhstan businessman Tevfik Arif’s letter to the Qatari royals on 30 March 2013 starts with a conciliatory tone:
“I would like to take this opportunity to apologise for our not being able to meet each other in Istanbul. My son, Arif, has informed me of the events that ensued and I was most disappointed and upset to learn how matters had unfolded.”
The cause of the letter was a botched three day, get-to-know-you meeting two weeks earlier. The board of the Qatari royals' venture firm, Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Co (QIPCO) had travelled to Turkey with a couple of billion dollars to invest.
The man who invited QIPCO was Arif Arif, a 27-year-old businessman and face of the Arif family's London-based trading companies, Doyen Capital and Doyen Sports. Arif - who is also known as Arif Efendi, promised the royals the highest-level meetings with government ministers and businessmen.
The Qataris cared only about one meeting, however: Could Doyen get them in the room with Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?
For weeks, the younger Arif desperately tried to engineer a meeting between the Qataris and Erdoğan. But it was all without success. The royal delegation arrived in Turkey expecting to meet with the prime minister - and instead found the leader's door firmly closed.
The Qataris were furious, even refusing to meet with Tevfik who flew from his sickbed in London to try to soothe the dispute.
In his letter, Tevfik tried his best to explain the mishap. Arif, he wrote, has "grown used to the fact that I always took him along when requesting the [Prime Minister’s] audience in the past [but] when trying to do so himself this time around the PM’s office was not so welcoming, largely due to his tender age and the fact that I was not present.”
This wasn’t bravado. Since setting up shop in Turkey, Tevfik had cultivated an impressive cabal of influential friends – and the list was growing.
The dirty dealings of the Kazakh-Turkish Arif family, and their powerful friends, are exposed as the architects of the Doyen Group, the major subject of the Football Leaks data obtained by Der Spiegel and shared with EIC's media partners.
The millions of leaked internal emails, contracts and other company documents from the Doyen Group helped The Black Sea and EIC partners reveal the inner workings of a multi-billion Euro global enterprise founded in the toxic smog and violence of Kazakhstan's natural resources sector in the early 1990s.
It is this cash that for over two decades has helped fund an expansion into Europe, Africa, the U.S., and Turkey, rubbing shoulders with mobsters, plunderers and presidents along the way.
In Turkey, the Arifs’ main base of operations, their influence has grown, almost undetected, through secret deals with the country’s rich and powerful – including those closest to President Erdoğan.
What is clear is that the largest leak in sports history is not only about football.
Pier Pressure on the Savarona
For a family who for decades had largely avoided unwanted publicity, the Savarona scandal in Turkey in 2010 was a dramatic coming out party.
On 28 September 2010, officers from the Turkish gendarmerie stormed the deck of the Savarona, a luxury yacht once owned by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic. On board was Tevfik “Skip” Arif and a cabal of influential businessmen, mostly from Kazakhstan, being entertained by several young 'models' from Russian and Eastern Europe.
Months earlier, acting on a tip from an unnamed source, police began tapping the phones of a group of Turkish pimps and associates of Tevfik. Copies of transcripts contained in the Savarona indictment, obtained by The Black Sea, reveal that police first tracked Arif and his inner-circle when they arranged orgies with prostitutes, one of whom only 15 years old, at the Rixos Hotel Belek earlier in March. Then again as they prepared the bash on the Savarona.
After the police sting operation that morning in September, Arif was arrested on sex trafficking charges. For many in Turkey, it was the first time they had heard of the Kazakh-born businessman now accused of running a prostitution enterprise that included underage girls.
The charges against him might have been ambitious, but the new fame was unwelcome and problematic. The sting had exposed Arif’s powerful, billionaire friends to the media spotlight. [Read in more depth, our investigation here: Kazakh moguls, the pal of Donald Trump, teen models and the yacht of the 'Father of the Turks']
On board the yacht was the ‘Kazakh trio’, Alexander Mashkevich, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov. The three men, none of whom are from Kazakhstan, own the multi-billion Eurasian Natural Resources Company, a mining conglomerate with close ties to the President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
So, too, was Russian-Chechen tycoon, Musa Bazhaev, head of Alliance Group in Russia. Bazhaev’s Chechen family is linked to the mafia wars of the early 90s, say Russian media, when criminal groups battled to gain control of the region’s natural resources, and used forged bank papers to embezzle billions through the post-soviet financial system.
Around the time of the Savarona incident, Bazhaev, who inherited Alliance Group in 2000 following the death of his brother Zia (who was son-in-law of Nazarbayev), was attempting to convince Mashkevich to join a prospective oil deal between Alliance Group and CapFox Congo, owned by Khulubuse Zuma, nephew of the South African president, Jacob Zuma.
Curiously, despite renting the yacht for the week, and not for the first time, Mashkevich, former-president of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, was never questioned by Turkish authorities. Neither were Bazhaev, Chodiev or Ibragimov.
When Arif was acquitted in 2011, the company hired UK firms, Bell Pottinger and Shillings, specialists in public relations and privacy, to cajole news organisation into removing references the Savarona affair.
This was important for business. The Kazakh trio were seemingly crucial to the family's past and future success. It is a strange friendship that going back two decades to the early days of the post-Soviet Kazakhstan and the lucrative metals business.
Astana to Istanbul: The history of the 'Arifovs'
The men behind the Doyen are four secretive brothers from Kazakhstan: Refik Arif, Rustem Arif, Vakif Arif and Tevfik, born Tofic Arifov. Little is known about the other three, but Tevfik, an ethnic Turk born in Cambul, Kazakhstan in May 1953, earned an international relations degree from a university in Moscow. His first known job was in the USSR Ministry of Commerce and Trade in Kazakhstan in the late 70s, serving as the director of the department of hotel management.
With the end of Communism imminent and Soviet state assets ripe to be plundered, Tevfik shifted in to the private sector. During the Savarona trial, Tevfik stated that he “worked in energy sector, chemical sector and metallurgy sector. I was producing coal in Russia and copper in Kazakhstan. Due to lack of coal, it was not possible to make production. I started to organise them”. Indeed, in 1991, he retired from the ministry and started his own private commercial enterprise, called the Speciality Chemicals Trading Co. trading in “chrome, rare metals and raw materials.”
It wasn’t long before Tevfik’s business brought him into contact with the Reuben Brothers, David and Simon. Natives of India living in London, the ruthlessly ambitious Reubens were at the time in the early days of monopolising the region’s natural resource industry through their company, Trans World Group. Tevfik joined them as an “agent on the ground” in Kazakhstan, according to the company’s internal documents.
Trans World started around 1991 as a cooperation between and the Reubens and Uzbekistan-born Israeli oligarchs, Lev and Michael Cherney. It was the successor to Trans Commodities, an import/export business of Ukrainian entrepreneur Semyon “Sam” Kislin, who employed the Cherneys in the late 1980s.
The Kislin family, especially Sam, who emigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union in the early 70s through President Brezhnev’s exit-visa programme for Russian Jews, is mentioned by several FBI and secret service reports as being part of the Solntsevskaya Russian mafia group in New York – more precisely the Yaponchik organization of Vyacheslav Ivankov, a particularly brutal mobster, according to reports.
Over the next few years, The Cherneys and the Reuben Brothers spearheaded Trans World into a multi-billion-dollar behemoth in the natural resources sector, as it became the third biggest seller of aluminium in the world. To get to the top, the brothers played dirty - criminally dirty, say some.
It was during these years that the Arifovs likely crossed paths with the Kazakh trio. In an interview with EIC’s Belgium partner, Le Soir, Patokh Chodiev said that he, Mashkevich and Ibragimov first met the Reubens in Spring 1992. At the time, the trio were making billions selling copper on the international market through their British Virgin Islands company, Kazakhstan Mineral Resources Corporation, with the help of Kazakh officials.
Seeing a mutual interest, the Kazakh trio and the Reubens joined forces. They set up a network of offshore companies in the BVI, including one named KazChrome. It could not have hurt the fortunes of Tevfik, the Reubens or the Kazakh trio that Refik Arif, also born in Kazakhstan, in 1961, was from 1991 to 1999 senior manager at the Kazakh Ministry of Industry, and the “first point of contact for foreign investors wanting wishing to invest in phosphorous and ferroalloy”.
The eye-watering profits available during the post-Soviet fire sale inspired the rise of ‘gangster capitalism’, so-called because of the emerging cross over of business and the mafia. Events in the region turned criminal – and deadly. The ‘Aluminium wars’ of the 1990s were a bloody battleground. Industrialists, like the Reubens and Cherneys, were accused of hiring contract killers to murder their competition in the aluminium sector.
The Reuben brothers would be forced to sell most of their assets in Russia and Kazakhstan. And based on these early deals, mostly with aluminium, a new wave of oligarchs emerged, such as Boris Berezovsky, and, later, Oleg Deripaska and Roman Abramovich.
By the end of the 1990s, the fight for soviet resources had mostly shifted from the streets and into the courts, usually London. These lawsuits provide extensive details of this period of lucrative partnership between Soviet and Russian secret services, high-ranking officials and top mobsters.
Arif during these years is intimately linked to the three main elements gluing post-Soviet’s violent entrepreneurs and secret services together: Trans World and mineral resources; mob organizations in the US and western Europe; and the global financial structures that were built to serve them.
It seemed from the beginning, however, the 40-year-old Tevfik did not have the same taste for blood as some of his peers. Tevfik’s son Arif later told a colleague his father left Kazakhstan “once the business began intertwining with organised crime”.
A toxic fortune
Tofic Arifov moved to Turkey in 1993, where, public records state, he had owned a jewellery business called Alset Dis Ticaret (English) since 1979. Within a year, he obtained a Turkish passport and Turkified his name to ‘Tevfik Arif’. Reliable information about Tevfik’s early days in Turkey is scarce. But in the Savarona indictment, he said that he did some business in the tourist and jewellery sector there, but emigrated with his wife and children to the U.S. shortly after, starting a real estate business that would eventually bring him onto contact with President-Elect Trump.
It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the family began to make its mark on Turkey and the rest of the world. But this expansion could not have occurred without the family’s solid cash source from back home – and its crucial connection to the Kazakh trio. In the mid-90s, the Arifs acquired the Aktyubinsk Chromium Chemicals Plant (ACCP) in Aktobe, located in the Aktyubinsk region of north-western Kazakhstan, near the border with Russia.
ACCP was registered to Refik Arif while he was still an official in the Ministry of Industry in Kazakhstan. Twenty years later, the plant is the only producer of chromium-based chemical products in the country. The Aktobe plant, according to a 2002 NATO Science Committee report, was responsible for pouring toxins into the local water supply, rendering it undrinkable.
Housed in the same town as ACCP is KazChrome, part of the empire established during the Kazakh trio’s ventures with the Reubens in the early 1990s, and which is now solely in the hands of ENRC. It operates one of the biggest chromium mines in the region and likely supplies ACCP with the chromium ore which is vital for its operations – and the Arif’s mysterious wealth.
The baggage of this post-Soviet world of violence and plundering was carried by the family as it set up shop in Turkey and the United States.
Football Leaks documents prove hidden ownership of multi-billion Euro Turkish hotel and construction business, Rixos and Sembol
Sembol and Rixos CEO, Fettah Tamince, signed secret documents to hold shares on behalf of the Arif family
Tevfik Arif's 'Trump SoHo' project, with President-elect Donald Trump, was "mob front" with Russian mafias partners
When Tevfik Arif’s name was plastered on the front pages of newspapers in Turkey following the Savarona scandal, Fettah Tamince, CEO of Rixos Hotels and Sembol Construction, publicly distanced these top brands - and himself - from the Arifs.
In a written statement released two days after the raid, Tamince claims that, although he and Tevfik “had a partnership in 1999 through Labada Hotel in Antalya," their relationship ended in 2007 when Tevfik bought him out of the hotel.
“We have never had any other partnership except for this one,” he added. “Unlike what’s being claimed; Tevfik Arif has no shares in Sembol Construction or Rixos Hotels nor did he contribute to these companies’ capital.”
Documents in the Football Leaks cache show a different story, revealing a hidden arrangement, often assumed, but never proven.
On paper, Rixos and Sembol, two huge companies in Turkey, are owned by Tamince and Turkish architect Aytakin Gutakyn. Rixos has 20 hotels across the world, mostly in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Russia and UAE, and boasts an annual revenue of around half a billion euro.
Sembol is even bigger. Now one of Turkey’s leading construction companies, its turnover is estimated at nearly 1.5 billion dollars, mostly earned through public contracts in Kazakhstan. A presidential library, universities, a train station, mosques, luxury business and sports centres, four Rixos hotels. Sembol built them all. And more.
In Turkey, in addition to Rixos’s ten establishments, it received multi-million dollar contracts for the Istanbul Congress Centre and Zigina Tunnel on the Black Sea coast.
In 2010, the Russian Olympics Committee awarded Sembol around one billion USD in contracts for the Sochi games, including for a Rixos Hotel. During the consruction, the company was accused of exploiting migrant workers.
In September 2012, Arif Arif writes to his PA in the London office of the sports management company Doyen, where he is an unofficial director, to check if Tevfik is around. Arif wants Tevfik “to compile all news for sembol insaat and sochi winter Olympic” and “projects their doing and so on” [sic].
Additionally, copies of the Doyen’s corporate material refers to the Arifs' “controlling interest in Rixos Group of Hotels and Sembol Construction Company”, describing them as “founding investor[s]” and “continuing financial backers”.
The clearest evidence, however, is an email sent to Arif Arif in February 2012, 18 months after the Savarona incident, by Tevfik’s business associate.
Attached to an email titled “Hi Arif. Here are the Rixos documents signed between Fettah and your dad” are a series of legal documents from 2006: a ‘Declaration & Undertaking’ and ‘Memorandum of Understanding (MoU)’ – each signed by both Tamince and Tevfik – and a copy of the Rixos’s company structure.
The declaration, dated August 2006, discusses restructuring Rixos and Sembol entities in the British Virgin Islands. It states that Tamince holds shares in six companies, including Rixos, Sembol, and four others related to the hotel chain, on Arif’s behalf.
“While the Shares are officially registered under the direct or indirect ownership of me, my family and other companies of which we are shareholders,” Tamince attests, “Tevfik Arif is the actual, beneficial owner” of 50 per cent of these Sembol and Rixos shares.
“The reason the Arif Shares are registered to my name,” the declaration continues, “is the confidential relationship between me and Tevfik Arif and that the intent is, was and has always been that I would hold the Arif Shares in trust on behalf of Tevfik Arif.”
The accompanying MoU decrees that a new committee be established to decide on investments.
Among the five men listed to take a seat on the commission, which includes Tevfik and Tamince, are Rixos vice president and Turkish lawyer, Mutlu Simayli, and Eugene Jaffe of Salford Capital Partners. Salford is an investment firm operating out of London at the time and reputedly owned by deceased oligarchs, Badri Patarkatsishvili, from Georgia, and Russian, Boris Berezovsky, both key players in the 1990s aluminium wars.
Incidentally, in 2010 and 2011, the Arifs generously provided Berezovsky – under his new name Platon Elenin - with two unsecured loans totalling 6.5 million GBP (around eight million Euro) to “help with his personal expenses”. The loan, which was supposed to be repaid within 20 days, remained outstanding at the time of the exiled Russian’s mysterious suicide in 2013.
Berezovsky had spent the years before his death locked in an ill-fated legal battle with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. He unsuccessfully sued the Russian businessman in the London courts for, he says, screwing him out of billions of dollars in company shares, including in Rusal, Abramovich's aluminium operation that subsumed the Chernoy's business.
Tamince and Arif have been partners since at least 1999, when Tevfik invested three million dollars in the Labada project - a five-star, all-inclusive hotel on the coast of Antalya, Turkey.
At that time Tamince was already a respectable entrepreneur, famous for escaping his humble beginnings as a teenage carpet seller and establishing himself as a successful jeweller. The Labada was one of his first moves into Turkey’s lucrative tourism industry, and Rixos and Sembol were established to complete the construction.
The same year, Tamince and Tevfik started an import-export enterprise, Sardes Mucevherat Ticaret AS, importing luxury jewellery to Turkey. It was later accused of falsifying invoices to avoid taxes – a charge Tamince denies.