The Queen rarely – if ever – accepts invitations to dinner at private houses, no matter how grand. But in the summer of 2014 the oil and gas rich Gulf state of Qatar became the first ‘official partner’ of Royal Ascot and secured branding rights for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II stakes. The Qataris also agreed to pay for the upkeep of the Castle of Mey which is owned by the royal family.
And so breaking with tradition the Queen accepted a dinner invitation and joined the ruling family of Qatar and assorted guests. The Qataris had just spent an estimated £75 million on their London mansion at Dudley House, Park Lane, and so were delighted. As she walked into the gilded hallway resplendent with gold and priceless antiques and paintings, the Queen paused, looked around and reportedly remarked that the property was more grand than Buckingham palace.
One of the honoured guests that historic evening was Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, known as HBJ, a prime minister and foreign minister of Qatar. While the Queen's courtiers were aware of his political power, few knew the extent of his wealth and influence. He has accumulated an estimated fortune of $1.2 billion, although private assessments are adamant that it is closer to $50 billion. As the former Emir of Qatar once reportedly remarked: I rule Qatar but HBJ owns it.
In the Middle East that level of wealth is not unprecedented. But HBJ is unique in how he has used that fortune to cultivate and influence the most powerful pillars of the establishment in Britain, notably the royal family, arms manufacturers, banks, a former MI6 chief and a former prime minister.
And so, while the story of Prince Charles accepting €1 million in cash in a Fortnum and Mason carrier bag from HBJ for his charity is bizarre and grubby, it is consistent with the ambitions of Qatar to use their vast wealth to buy influence and status in Britain. And HBJ has been at the forefront of that campaign.
The former Qatari prime minister personifies the influx of Middle East petro dollars into London. He has been the pivotal figure in the buying up of properties for exorbitant prices which has so distorted the London property market, notably as joint owner of One Hyde Park with the Candy brothers. As head of Qatar's $250 billion sovereign wealth fund, he oversaw the Qatari acquisition of London's most prestigious trophy assets, notably Harrods, the Shard and Claridges, Connaught, Berkeley Hotels and London's Olympic Village. And he owns UK-listed companies like Heritage Oil.
All this wealth has been accumulated despite the fact that the Qatar constitution states that ‘ministers shall not use or exploit their official posts in any way for their own interests.’ HBJ has suggested, in an interview, that ‘the wealth which I have – like any Qataris have – might be some of it legitimate but by your standards, you will say that there is a question.’
A rare glimpse into HBJ's private deals emerged in 2001 when documents revealed his role in an arms contract. After a coup in 1995 to overthrow the Emir (in which HBJ played a crucial role) Qatar awarded a £500 million arms deal to BAE. The secret role of HBJ to choose the British bid rather than the French was revealed when Jersey reluctantly released documents which showed that BAE had made payments into Jersey bank accounts which had HBJ listed as a beneficiary.
Like any oligarch, HBJ has parked hundreds of millions of dollars in property in London via offshore companies. Indeed, it was his investment in One Hyde Park that first triggered the debate about the use of offshore entities to buy London property. He paid over £100 million for an apartment at One Hyde Park. He has also spent another £80 million on a townhouse off Belgrave Square using a BVI company and two houses on Trevor Place in Knightsbridge.
Behind the scenes HBJ has been active in cultivating establishment figures to secure a cloak of legal protection and enhance his influence in the Foreign Office. As chairman of Qatar Holdings, he was instrumental in using Sir Tony Blair as a middleman to negotiate the purchase of Claridges, the Connaught and Berkeley Hotels. He has also recruited Sir John Scarlett, former Chief of MI6.
Later this year the vast wealth and influence of Qatar will be on full display when they host the World Cup. Unsurprisingly, HBJ was at the forefront of lobbying to win the vote and hold this prestigious event. But it will be the new revelations of the former Qatari Prime Minister handing over three installments of €1 million in cash in suitcases to the heir to the throne that will revive claims of the Middle East trying to buy influence. It is a safe bet that the Queen will not be accepting any more invitations to dinner at Dudley House.