While he stopped short of hanging out a "For Sale" sign on such properties as the upscale Costa Smeralda development in Sardinia and Meridiana Airlines, the Aga Khan said he would at "the proper" times and under the right market conditions consider divesting. Earlier this month he sold the Hotel Meurice in Paris to a company controlled by the Sultan of Brunei, and three years ago he sold his interests in the CIGA Group of luxury hotels to ITT Sheraton. Market sources in France estimated the sales price for the Meurice alone was more than $100 million. Future asset sales, however, wouldn't include his thoroughbred race horses or training stables, a traditional holding of three generations of past Aga Khans.
His main private assets are a 49% holding in the company that has developed the Costa Smeralda and a majority share of the growing regional airline Meridiana, also based in Sardinia.
The current Aga Khan , 60 years old, who will in July mark his 40th year as spiritual head of the Ismaili Muslims, said in an interview at his office here that the last four years have seen a dramatic increase in development needs for Ismailis in a growing number of places that previously were cut off from the West, especially in the former Soviet Central Asian republics of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
There are also substantial Ismaili populations in Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Uganda and western China, as well as the U.K., Canada and Portugal.
>From a chateau here in Chantilly, the Aga Khan directs one of the world's biggest private aid networks, which dispenses more than $140 million annually and employs 22,000 people. His development fund, which provides seed money and takes equity stakes in projects throughout the Third World, currently has assets of more than $750 million. The Aga Khan network includes hospitals, health centers, schools and universities in Karachi, Pakistan and Khorog, Tajikistan, among other projects.
He said that he will be "gradually disengaging from all personal activities in the Western world" as the geographical spread of his institutional activities widens. Besides the horses, "I don't want to have any further personal (business) activities in the Western world," he said. "So it's a process of occasional and appropriate disengagement. The policy is to disengage . . . under conditions that make sense." He added that representatives of the Brunei investment agency approached him over the sale of the Meurice.
He added: "Whether leisure or air transport, we're now talking about such powerful globalization forces that it no longer really makes sense for me to stay in these areas, and it's not my role. I've got other commitments, other priorities." He said proceeds from the Meurice sale and future sales will go into the development network.
He added: "I want to strengthen in the future significantly the institutional base that we have. Our spectrum now covers just about all the areas of strategic need that I can see. I'm not envisioning adding new institutions, because the ones I have enable me to do all the things I think the Imammate should be doing."
But, he says, "the end of the Cold War has really changed the dynamics of development. There is now a real sense of being able to talk about real issues, not in the dogmatic world we were locked into. In the 1960s, development decisions were driven not by economics, but by: is this a Russian hospital, is that a Chinese road. Now the road or hospital need a real reason to exist. Resources are being invested in more concrete and realistic manners. There are still some problems, but all in all we're all working in a more positive atmosphere."
And new countries keep opening up. The Aga Khan says he wants to do more for Ismailis in Mozambique and Congo, the former Zaire, and in Afghanistan, "if one day it comes back to a more-peaceful society."
Already, the Aga Khan 's network is devoting much more effort to Tajikistan than it ever could during the Cold War. For example, the Aga Khan was first able to visit the big Ismaili population in the Tajikistan autonomous region of Gorno-Badakshan in 1995. Now his network is funding projects ranging from village schools to a university he hopes will specialize in the study of problems of high-altitude civilizations.
"If the peace process moves ahead in Tajikistan on a more positive rather than a more negative slope, and solutions are found to economic and ethnic issues, this will be a significant region for us, because there are big areas where Ismailis live, and it's a frontier area with China, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. These are high-altitude areas with some similar development problems."
One area of primary focus is now Gorno-Badakshan, which has a majority of Ismailis, who, according to their spiritual leader, hadn't physically seen their Imam "in centuries." As with other isolated peoples, however, many traditions thought dead have been preserved as if in amber. "The elder generations had kept the traditions of the faith very much alive," he said. "Some of these practices go way, way back because of the isolation of these communities. And they all speak Farsi."
The area is Tajikistan's poorest province, and has suffered a near-total economic collapse since the breakup of the Soviet Union. "These are educated, sophisticated people who suddenly found they had no economic base left," he added. "The economic underpinning of society had literally collapsed. It had turned into a barter economy."
The Aga Khan hopes someday to aid not just his people in Gorno-Badakshan, but also the neighboring Ismaili community in China, which is still cut off. He thinks this may eventually come about as regional cooperation crosses national borders. "Most Ismailis in Central Asia live in isolated villages at high altitudes with poor communications. I hope there will be some possibility to develop some regional plans (that might encompass that part of China). I'm hoping that in time political and social relations might be such that these people could move more freely across frontiers that are in any case pretty ill-defined."
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