Prince Andrew, Boris Johnson and the prime minister of Qatar gazed through rain-spattered glass on to the streets of London far below as they celebrated the opening of Britain’s tallest building, the Shard.
For Johnson, then mayor of London, the unseasonably cold July day in 2012 symbolised London’s resurgence after the devastation of the global financial crisis.
Prince Andrew marked the occasion by abseiling down a section of the 310-metre tower for charity, saying afterwards that he had easily overcome the “psychobabble” about fear of heights.
But the day was perhaps most auspicious for Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, known colloquially as HBJ. The great steel-and-glass edifice that now loomed over Britain’s capital had been built with nearly £2bn of Qatari investment.
The building served as a totem for a strategy that he pioneered: Qatar – a British protectorate from 1916 to 1971 – was deploying its vast oil-and-gas wealth to buy huge chunks of the nation that once ruled over it.
As an Observer audit now reveals today, the Qataris’ British property empire has ballooned since then into a sprawling portfolio likely to be worth in excess of £10bn.
Qatar and the vast al-Thani clan that rules it have played a real-life game of Monopoly, scooping up trophy assets such as hotels on Mayfair and Park Lane – not to mention properties on Pall Mall, Oxford Street, Bond Street and Vine Street. Prize purchases include ultra-high-end hotels such as the Ritz and Claridge’s, the international finance hub at Canary Wharf, not to mention luxury personal retreats, including rural idylls and London mansions.
But analysis of more than 4,000 land titles shows that Qatar and the al-Thanis’ British interests are larger and more diverse than previously thought, also taking in unglamorous industrial estates, modest seaside hotels and terraced houses in Bootle and Runcorn.
The state of Qatar alone, not counting individual royals’ personal holdings, is the 10th largest landowner in the UK, according to analysts at MSCI Real Assets. The emirate owns nearly 2.1m sq metres (23m sq feet) of property in Britain, more than 1.5 times the area of London’s Hyde Park.
Many of the properties are owned through Jersey, the British Virgin Islands or the Cayman Islands, meaning ownership is often difficult to determine via public disclosures.
Harrods and luxury retail
When Qatar won the right to host this year’s World Cup, in December 2010, it was not that year’s first major coup for the emirate.
Seven months earlier, an investment arm of its sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), had paid Egyptian-born billionaire Mohamed Al Fayed more than £1.5bn for the world-famous Harrods department store, including the imposing two-hectare Knightsbridge premises it has occupied since 1849.
Both were victories for HBJ, who was three years into his tenure as prime minister and spearheading a nascent global investment spree. He did so with the blessing of his ally, the then emir, Hamad bin Khalifa (or HBK), who was developing a taste for luxury retail.
In the years that followed, via the Doha-based investment vehicle Mayhoola, HBK spent nearly £1bn buying the European fashion houses Valentino, Balmain and Pal Zileri, including their outlets on Bond Street and Sloane Street.
Even these salubrious addresses pale in comparison with Qatar’s portfolio of top London hotels.
The Ritz, the Savoy, Claridge’s, the Connaught, the Berkeley, the Churchill and the InterContinental Park Lane are all either wholly, or partly owned by Qatari royals or – in the case of the Ritz – by the current emir’s brother-in-law.
Three, including Claridge’s, are owned, via two Luxembourg-based entities, by Maybourne Hotel Group, whose ultimate controlling parties are registered at Companies House as HBK and HBJ.
The value of Maybourne is subject to a bitter legal dispute between HBJ and the hotelier Paddy McKillen, who claims the Qataris are wrongfully trying to do him out of his share of an uplift in value created by a £800m renovation he oversaw. Although the Qataris dispute the figure, McKillen argues the Maybourne clutch of hotels, thanks to his work, is worth more than £5bn.
The emir of Qatar’s brother-in-law paid £700m for the Ritz while the InterContinental was a £400m purchase for Constellation Hotels, ultimately owned by the QIA, in 2013. The value of the state-owned Katara Hospitality’s 50% share in the Savoy – in partnership with Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal – is undisclosed.
The al-Thani clan also owns more than a dozen of the largest and most lavishly appointed homes in London. Observer analysis suggests their combined residential property portfolio is worth at least £1.5bn.
A sizable chunk of that is accounted for by HBJ’s properties, including a £100m penthouse at the One Hyde Park development in Knightsbridge and Forbes House, a six-storey Georgian mansion in Belgravia, which HBJ reportedly paid £150m for in 2018. The former is owned by a company in the Cayman Islands, the latter by a firm in the British Virgin Islands.
HBJ won a key breakthrough in 2020, when he defeated conservationists who opposed his plans to remove a vast double staircase in the mansion. Victory means he can go ahead and install 25 bedrooms, a cinema, a library, a sauna, a Turkish bath and parking for 32 vehicles, potentially turning the house into London’s first £300m property.
Not far away, in Mayfair, is the area known as Little Doha, after the emirate’s capital, due to its concentration of multimillion-pound Qatari-owned homes and offices.
One of the most celebrated is Dudley House on Park Lane, a 4,000 sq metre palace that Queen Elizabeth II reportedly said made Buckingham Palace look “rather dull” by comparison.
It was purchased in 2006 through a company called Bristol Isles Ltd, based in the Bahamas, and restored under the discerning eye of its resident, Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani, a cousin of the emir.
The Pandora Papers leak – shared with the Guardian by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2021 – revealed that Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, mother of the current emir and wife to HBK, bought two of London’s most expensive properties, on Cornwall Terrace in north London, for £120m in 2013.
Documents from the leak also suggested that the structure of the purchase, using layers of offshore companies based in tax havens, legitimately reduced stamp duty payable on the mansions by £18.5m.
Those two properties overlook leafy Regent’s Park but the quiet of the countryside appears to be appealing, too. One member of the family, Mohamed Khalifa al-Thani, has bought four plots of land at a luxury rural development in southern England that has found favour with celebrities.
But that is a relatively rare foray outside the capital for the Qatari royals, who own at least 30 London properties with an individual value of £10m or more, including mansions dotted around Mayfair, Belgravia and Knightsbridge.
Their wrought iron railings and beautiful facades are a world away from the gleaming towers of the City and Canary Wharf – but Qatar owns many of those too.
It took almost £2bn of Qatari state cash to build the Shard and the emirate still owns the bulk of the Shard Quarter in London Bridge, including the nearby News Building, occupied by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, owner of the Sun, the Times and the Sunday Times.
Two years after the tower’s completion, the QIA aimed high again, buying HSBC’s headquarters at 8 Canada Square in Docklands for £1.1bn. It swiftly followed that up by leading a consortium that bought Canary Wharf Group in a £2.6bn takeover. The group’s flagship property is One Canada Square, the UK’s third-tallest building and a symbol of British high finance. In Tower Hamlets, the borough that includes Canary Wharf, the Qatari state holds 200 land titles, according to MSCI Real Assets.
But thousands of ordinary people, not just in London, unwittingly buy and rent property from Qatar, courtesy of its real estate development business. Qatari Diar, owned by the QIA, is a major partner in a string of massive urban regeneration projects and it jointly owns thousands of land titles as a result.
In London, it has already finished Chelsea Barracks, the US embassy and the Olympic village, and is in the process of transforming Elephant and Castle, with plans afoot for Lewisham Gateway.
It is also behind projects at New Maker Yards in Salford, Merchant City in Glasgow and an area of Leeds that Companies House filings suggest could be named the Holbeck Quarter.
All in all, Land Registry data shows that companies part-owned by Qatari Diar hold 4,000 land titles, including hundreds owned via the British Virgin Islands. Records suggest the titles cost £2bn at the time of purchase but the current value is likely to be significantly higher.
The smaller scale
Some Qatari investments in the UK are rather less grand, particularly those owned by lesser-known members of the sprawling al-Thani clan with their own business interests.
More than 20 of the properties identified by the Observer are owned by Earth Creation, a company whose controlling party is one 30-year-old Hamad Saoud al-Thani.
Its latest accounts, for 2020, show that Earth Creation’s property investments increased in value from £12m to £21m, apparently funded by a loan from Hamad Saoud, whose father was a prominent art collector.
Land Registry records suggest that Hamad Saoud’s portfolio of UK property includes homes bought in Runcorn, Eccles, Bootle and Liverpool for as little as £65,000.
Earth Creation is registered to an address in London’s Covent Garden that also houses Messery Limited, owned by another family member, Hamad Nasser al-Thani.
This business owns property on industrial estates and business parks in Swindon, Rochdale, Nottingham and Wigan.
And in Bournemouth, one Abdulla Qassim al-Thani owns nine properties including half a dozen hotels. Between them, Land Registry titles suggest, they are worth one twenty-fifth of the Ritz.