For a man who has Evian water sluicing through the pipes of his Ascot mansion, he owned a property in Spain, but not only had he never visited it, he did not know exactly where it was. Possibly near Madrid?
Agent Andrew Lax claims that when he finally located the hilltop villa 40 miles north of the Spanish capital on behalf of its owner, the fabulously rich Emir of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the permanent staff of 15 lined up to greet him like royalty and revealed he was the first visitor in 17 years.
In the kitchen — where no meal had ever been cooked — there were appliances still wrapped in the manufacturers’ cellophane. Once a week the sheets that had never been slept in were stripped from beds in the 11 bedrooms and, along with towels — monogrammed with the United Arab Emirates ruler’s personal motif — that had never dried a pair of hands, laundered by the devoted retainers.
The single visitor those 17 years ago was the Sheikh’s son who pronounced it ‘too quiet’ and left without even staying a night. The property was named Al Dhafra after an oasis town on the Persian Gulf.
Just maintaining it with its open-air summer house lined with bullet-proof glass, patrolling guards and staff, was allegedly costing the Sheikh in the region of £450,000 (more than Shs 2bn) a year.
Not that a man with a fortune of £18 billion — the world’s fourth richest royal after the King of Thailand, the Sultan of Brunei and the King of Saudi Arabia — would even notice!
But this would be by no means the only monument to mind-boggling wealth and profligacy of the rarely-seen president of the oil-rich UAE.
Last week, the High court in London heard how Sheikh Khalifa was accused of reckless extravagance in a complex legal battle between him and the former managers of his £5.5 billion London property empire which includes the Berkeley Square estate in Mayfair, where tenants include Hermes, designer Alice Temperley and Annabel’s.
The case has revealed the eye-watering indulgence of the Sheikh, whose half-brother Sheikh Mansour owns Manchester City football club.
Principal among his properties is Ascot Place, a Grade II-listed 18th century pile on the edge of Windsor Great Park. He bought it in 1989 for a then record £18m from Mick Flick, the Mercedes Benz heir.
Set in 400 acres of parkland with a lake, grotto and estate cottages, its tranquil beauty seemed to offer the perfect address for someone who prizes his privacy — with the Queen at Windsor Castle among its closest neighbours.
Nonetheless, Sheikh Khalifa decided it needed considerable upgrading to meet his exacting standards. His priority was to build a 6ft 6in high wall around the four-mile perimeter. The ambitious project, estimated to cost £2 million, required enough bricks to build 150 five-bedroom houses. But it failed to meet the approval of local planners, who refused him permission.
So, he turned his attention to the house itself, installing vast underground tanks which were filled with mineral water shipped from the spa town of Evian-les-Bains in the French Alps, where the Abu Dhabi royals own other homes.
“The tanks were as big as a multi-storey car park,” claims someone who has visited. “Apparently he didn’t like the local water so he had his own shipped in by tanker and pumped through the pipes.”
The directors of Lancer Property Asset Management claim that, “apart from the occasional daytime visit”, 71-year-old Sheikh Khalifa has never occupied the property.
Ascot Place was, according to a source, never “big enough to become a royal palace”.
When the emir travels, it is on his own private 747 jumbo jet, and an entourage flies separately on a 737 — 100 staff including his personal beard trimmer. Another ‘very grand’ home had been purchased for £5 million in 1980: Ham Gate, a Regency property adjacent to Richmond Park in southwest London. But this, too, was said to be too small to house all his staff and security personnel.
In that instance, court papers say, he instructed his agents to buy a neighbouring property, only for the owner to refuse to sell. In 2013, when a lavish party to mark an official visit to the UK was planned at the Ham address, staff were allegedly given four months to landscape the grounds, cutting down mature trees and replacing them with new pre-grown ones.
They were also required to buy several nearby homes to accommodate guests for the night of the party and the subsequent night. Documents filed in the High court claim that Sheikh Khalifa also owned several properties worth an estimated £30 million in a fashionable enclave overlooking Cannes in the south of France, one of which had its own private funicular connecting the house to the beachside resort.
Not far along the Riviera, there is understood to be another home at Antibes, while on the shores of Lake Geneva is the Sheikh’s main French residence at Maxilly-sur-Leman near Evian.
When he is in residence, it is claimed, the house is restocked with supplies flown in from his Gulf state every other day. Sheikh Khalifa’s property empire extends way beyond Europe. In the Seychelles, he has built a vast seven-storey mountain-top palace having appeased local opposition by pledging £100 million in aid to the island after its builders were accused of causing massive pollution to rivers and water systems.
And, of course, there is a royal yacht, the Azzam. At 590ft, it is the largest private ocean-going yacht in the world. The court papers also disclose how Andrew Lax was instructed to locate and buy a house close to Washington for the use of Sheikh Khalifa, who was scheduled to make an official visit to the USA but did not like staying in hotels.
For this one transaction, Lax was given a budget of £20 million. According to a source, the Sheikh’s only requirement was that the property should possess underground parking so that he could move from his bullet-proof car into the house unobserved.
Several would-be homes were identified but after trouble erupted in the Middle East, the visit was scrapped and the planned purchase cancelled.
These revelations are among the latest disclosures from the court battle between the directors of Lancer Property and Berkeley Square Holdings, a set of companies registered in the British Virgin Islands, whose ultimate owner is Sheikh Khalifa and his family.
For 16 years, Lancer Property was employed as real estate manager and adviser to the Abu Dhabi royal family. The High court heard that the Sheikh’s assets have included about 140 properties in the most affluent areas of London, including Mayfair, Marylebone, Knightsbridge and Kensington.
In 2017, Lancer were sacked and have been accused of ‘siphoning off’ around £32 million while managing the Sheikh’s London estate. Lancer’s directors, including founder Andrew Lax, deny the allegations and are counter-suing for £11 million in unpaid fees. In their amended defence to the court, the firm say they ‘witnessed profligacy’ that dwarfed the sums it charged.
Since suffering a stroke in 2014, Sheikh Khalifa has largely withdrawn from public life. Day-to-day control of the UAE’s affairs are handled by Sheikh Mohammed, known by his initials MBZ, who is the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
Khalifa’s father and former UAE ruler Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004, also had a string of homes. In 1988, he bought Tittinghurst Park, once owned by John Lennon before he sold it to fellow Beatle Ringo Starr.
By the time Zayed had finished with it, the pretty house that inspired Lennon to write Imagine had undergone a gaudy transformation into a gold and marble palace straight from the pages of Arabian Nights.
- Edited from the MailOnline