He has the clout to summon Tony Blair to Claridge’s for late-night business negotiations, helped engineer the downfall of the Libyan despot Muammar Gaddafi and orchestrated his tiny desert country’s successful bid to host the World Cup.
But until this year, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, Qatar’s former prime minister turned billionaire investor, might have escaped many people’s notice.
In June 2022, it was claimed that the Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, had accepted €3m in bags full of cash between 2011 and 2015 – donations to his charity, from the man known variously as HBJ and “the man who bought London”.
The report, by the Sunday Times, threw a spotlight on a 63-year-old whose remarkable network of political and business connections is evidence of guile and staying power amid political turmoil.
He not only survived the 1995 bloodless coup against the regime he had served but remained at the heart of Qatari domestic and foreign policy, as the tiny emirate – whose citizen population is akin to that of Coventry – thrust itself on to the world stage.
His links to the UK go back decades and have not been without controversy. Thani was foreign minister in 1996, when Qatar signed a £500m arms contract with the British defence company BAE Systems. It later emerged that the deal involved the transfer of £7m into two Jersey trusts that he owned.
When the Jersey authorities launched an investigation into the payments, according to reports by the Observer, the British government warned them to back off or risk harming UK-Qatari relations.
Thani ended up paying the Jersey authorities £6m voluntarily, without admitting any wrongdoing. Blair’s government denied reports that it put pressure on Jersey officials to drop the case.
Blair and Thani would go on to develop a close working relationship. Between 2004 and 2009, a period during which Thani graduated from foreign minister to prime minister, Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase became a staging post for US and UK military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After Blair was succeeded by Gordon Brown in 2007, Thani would play a critical role in British financial stability too. Qatar invested in Barclays during the financial crisis in 2008, when Thani was prime minister, sparing the government the expense of bailing out the bank, as it had to with Royal Bank of Scotland, Lloyds and Halifax Bank of Scotland. Thani’s personal investment vehicle, Challenger, took a stake in the bank too.
Three former Barclays executives were later accused of devising fraudulent advisory services agreements to disguise payments worth £322m to Qatar in exchange for the investment. They were found not guilty in February 2020 and there was no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Thani or Qatar. Barclays is now appealing against a regulatory fine over the deal.
With the globally influential Thani at the helm, the emirate became a pivotal player in political upheaval in the Gulf.
Thani also allegedly conceded that under his premiership Qatar “maybe” financed the al- Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, without his knowledge.
Before leaving office, he was reunited with Blair in 2012, when a weary group of bankers and executives reached an impasse over the proposed £50bn merger of the mining firms Glencore and Xstrata.
The former British PM was called to late-night talks at Claridge’s hotel in Mayfair to help broker a deal with Thani, who controlled Qatar’s stake in Xstrata and was demanding improved terms on the deal.
Blair broke the deadlock and reportedly walked away with an advisory fee of up to $1m from the negotiating parties for a few hours’ work.
The incident epitomised what one person who has done business with Thani described as a relentless will to win, deploying his unrivalled connections to achieve his goals.
It also showed that he could pull strings in the highest places to leverage his country’s vast gas riches.
Not only did he preside over Qatar’s controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup, but he masterminded the purchase of prestige assets such as Harrods, the Shard and stakes in blue-chip companies such as the London Stock Exchange and the British Airways owner IAG.
Although he stepped down in 2013, his personal business dealings have run in parallel with those of the Qatari state. He has amassed a valuable portfolio of London property and hotels – useful for a man who reportedly has two wives and 15 children. The network of British business interests is run from 67 Brook Street, a Mayfair address that was once home to the Bee Gees.
The flagship of his portfolio is the Maybourne Hotel Group, including Claridge’s and the Connaught, which he owns in partnership with the former emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, his friend and ally. In 2021, he also bought a £200m stake in Richard Caring’s Caprice Holdings, which includes the Ivy and Sexy Fish restaurants, and the private members’ club Annabel’s.
His London residential property includes Forbes House, a mansion he is said to be developing into the capital’s first £300m home and a triplex apartment at the One Hyde Park development that he financed in partnership with the Candy brothers. Both are owned via offshore companies, Land Registry records suggest.
His interests outside the UK include a stake in Deutsche Bank and extensive business interests in Qatar. Khalifa famously said that while he ran Qatar, Thani owned it.
At times, it has been unclear whether Thani is a businessman, a diplomat, or a mixture of the two.
In 2014, he bought an 80% stake in Heritage Oil, despite being listed as a “counsellor” at the Qatari embassy.
In theory, diplomats are prohibited from commercial dealings for personal profit but his lawyers argued the purchase did not constitute ongoing trade activity.
Two years later, the UK high court ruled he could not be sued in London over claims that agents acting on his behalf falsely imprisoned and tortured a British citizen who claimed that his land, in Qatar, had been wrongfully seized. Thani invoked diplomatic immunity but also denied the claims. “Mr al-Attiya’s extremely serious allegations are, without exception, a combination of distortion, exaggeration and wholesale fabrication,” his lawyers said.
According to the Panama Papers leak of offshore secrets, Thani used a shell company to the 133-metre Al Mirqab yacht in 2002. The vessel, worth $300m, reportedly has a helicopter landing pad, Jacuzzi, cinema, gym and spa.
In May 2015, he bought Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version O) for $179.4m including fees, then a record price for a painting at auction.
The Guardian has approached him for comment.