Middle East Eye

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Leaked documents show how UAE president amassed a £5bn London property portfolio

A secretive UK property portfolio worth an estimated £5.5bn has been revealed as belonging to one of the world’s richest heads of state, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and emir of Abu Dhabi.

Leaked documents and court filings obtained by the UK’s Guardian newspaper, together with analysis of public records, showed how the Emirati ruler, 72, amassed a property empire that included buildings in some of London’s most prestigious locations.

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Among them were Berkeley Square in Mayfair and the freehold of 95 buildings surrounding it; One Kensington Gardens, where apartments are currently on the market for between £18m and £26m; and a residential block in Knightsbridge housing the Ecuador embassy, where WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange spent seven years in hiding.

Included too were the world’s oldest Bentley car dealership, the famous Annabel’s nightclub and the Time Life building on New Bond Street, now home to the Hermes luxury goods store, according to the Guardian.

Khalifa’s London property empire appeared to eclipse even that of the Duke of Westminster, the 29-year-old billionaire who owns swathes of the city.

Yet despite the size of Khalifa’s property portfolio, for many years the identity of the owner was kept secret. Transactions were carried out through a group of companies based in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands, and handled by elite London law firms.

Simply known as ‘the Client’

According to the Guardian, the advisers and lawyers were careful never to name the UAE president, simply referring to him as “the Client”.

“It [the property portfolio] was created in a subterranean way through stealth-like deals, quietly put together over many years,” a source familiar with Khalifa’s business dealings told the Guardian.

The documents show how it is possible in the UK for a wealthy investor such as Khalifa to build up, largely below the radar, a sprawling property empire with about 1,000 tenants, utilising a complex structure of shell companies in offshore havens and administered by some of London’s top law firms.

‘It [the property portfolio] was created in a subterranean way through stealth-like deals, quietly put together over many years’

– source familiar with Khalifa’s business dealings

Khalifa’s UK property interests had first come to light in 2016, with the Guardian’s expose of the Panama Papers. They gave a glimpse into how the UAE’s president had secretly acquired dozens of central London properties worth more than £1.2bn.

However, the recent documents suggest that Khalifa’s holdings were worth almost five times that. In 2005 alone he 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.

Although owning UK property through offshore companies is perfectly legal, and there are no suggestions of any wrongdoing, the UK government has committed to introducing a register of overseas companies owning UK properties to make the market more transparent and to combat corruption.

A spokesman for Lancer, Khalifa’s property management firm, told the Guardian that all of the properties had been “legitimately purchased”. Eversheds, one of the law firms involved, said that it had acted “strictly in accordance” with its legal and regulatory obligations at all times.

Khalifa did not respond to the Guardian’s repeated requests for comment. Source