19 Oct 2020
The row of 1960s-built houses with untidy gardens on a quiet cul-de-sac near Richmond upon Thames appears to have little in common with Ecuador’s red-brick embassy in Knightsbridge, where Julian Assange spent seven years in hiding, just across the road from Harrods.
The unassuming suburban dwellings also have little in common with the site where the Queen was born in central London, or Sexy Fish, a seafood restaurant where diners sit among Damien Hirst mermaid sculptures.
The properties, however, all form part of a secretive £5.5bn real estate empire owned by one of the world’s wealthiest heads of state, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi.
For all of its conspicuous addresses, the portfolio’s ownership has been shrouded in secrecy for decades. “It was created in a subterranean way through stealth-like deals, quietly put together over many years,” said a source familiar with Khalifa’s business dealings.
Now, leaked documents, court filings and analysis of public records have enabled the Guardian to map Khalifa’s property holdings in the UK, revealing how the oil-rich nation’s president became a major landlord in London. Khalifa’s London property empire appears to surpass even that of the Duke of Westminster, the 29-year-old billionaire aristocrat who owns swathes of the city.
Khalifa’s personal property portfolio, which spans some of London’s most expensive neighbourhoods, is largely comprised of “super prime” commercial and residential properties. Flats in one of the portfolio’s luxury blocks are on the market for about £20m each.
The documents highlight how it is possible in the UK for a deep-pocketed investor such as Khalifa to build up, largely undetected, a sprawling property portfolio with about 1,000 tenants – thanks to a complex structure of shell companies in offshore havens administered by some of London’s top law firms.
Khalifa’s UK property interests first came to light in 2016 when the Guardian’s reporting on the Panama Papers provided a glimpse into how the UAE’s president had secretly acquired dozens of central London properties worth more than £1.2bn.
However, documents seen by the Guardian suggest Khalifa’s holdings are worth almost five times that. In 2005 alone the sheikh spent £1bn on five properties, according to court filings. By 2015, the portfolio had swelled in value to £5.5bn with annual rental income of £160m.
Analysis of Land Registry data suggests Khalifa’s commercial and private property portfolio includes about 170 properties, ranging from a secluded mansion near Richmond Park to multiple high-end London office blocks occupied by hedge funds and investment banks.
There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing and owning UK property through offshore companies is perfectly legal. But the UK government has committed to introducing a register of overseas companies owning UK properties to make the market more transparent and combat corruption.
Khalifa did not respond to the Guardian’s repeated requests for comment.
The sheikh’s properties are now at the heart of a high court dispute that has thrown his UK interests into sharp relief. Earlier this year, the court heard claims the UAE president had installed tanks filled with Evian drinking water at his 18th-century mansion near Windsor. But details of his lifestyle have been upstaged by claims that since a stroke in 2014, Khalifa, who was re-elected as UAE president in 2019, has been “mentally incapacitated” – claims his lawyers have denied.
Lawyers for his former property managers, Lancer, claim the legal case, concerning the approval of certain payments, has been brought as Khalifa’s family members compete for control of his assets. Lancer’s lawyers cited a document they claim shows control of his assets was secretly handed over to a special committee in 2015.
The document, first reported by the investigative website the Sarawak Report and seen by the Guardian, appears to install Khalifa’s half-brother Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan as the committee’s chairman, suggesting some of London’s prime real estate is now in the hands of the owner of Manchester City football club. Lawyers acting for Khalifa have denied he has “surrendered control of his assets”.
The notarised document purports to be signed by Khalifa but the signature appears to belong to his brother Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, de facto leader of the UAE and one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East.
Since the late 1990s, Khalifa’s personal property interests have been managed from a seven-storey townhouse overlooking the Dorchester Hotel in London’s Mayfair district. The building, according to a person familiar with the sheikh’s London operations, is “deliberately slightly shabby looking” but is in fact the “inner sanctum”, housing a secretive Liechtensteinian company, Holbein Anstalt, which manages the royal family’s private affairs.
The company began acquiring property in the UK in the 1970s on behalf of Khalifa and his father, UAE’s first president, as well as catering to the family’s lifestyle, three sources said. According to a former employee, this included arranging Harrods shipments to Abu Dhabi. “They’d have the whole private plane full of whatever they wanted,” they said.
By Harry Davies, The Guardian, 18 October 2020
Read more at The Guardian
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