Saudi billionaire 'secured diplomatic posting in St Lucia to avoid divorce suit'

Sheikh Walid Juffali argued his status meant he had 'general immunity' from being sued in British courts

A Saudi billionaire secured a diplomatic posting with a Caribbean island solely so he could avoid a multi-million pound divorce suit brought by his super-model ex-wife, a High Court judge has ruled.

Sheikh Walid Juffali, 60, whose stake in his family’s business interests is worth £4bn, had argued that his status as St Lucia’s representative on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) meant he had “general immunity” from being sued in the British courts.

Christina Estrada, an American former Pirelli calendar girl, is seeking a settlement from her former husband, who was appointed to his role on the London-based United Nations body in 2014 following his secret marriage to a Lebanese television presenter two years earlier.

Ms Estrada, 53, had claimed Dr Juffali’s diplomatic status was a “flag of convenience” and that he had not attended any of the 25 IMO meetings for which he was eligible since he took up his post. Prior to his appointment, he had no known qualifications in maritime law, the court was told.

Since being appointed to his IMO role, Dr Juffali has pledged to help set up a medical research industry on St Lucia as well as a global diabetes research centre.

Mr Justice Hayden, sitting in the Family Division of the High Court, rejected Dr Juffali’s attempt to have his ex-wife’s case struck out, saying he accepted that the billionaire’s claim to diplomatic immunity was “spurious”.

The judge said: “I am satisfied that what has transpired here is that Dr Juffali has sought and obtained a diplomatic appointment with the sole intention of defeating Ms Estrada’s claims consequent on the breakdown of their marriage.

“Dr Juffali has not, in any real sense, taken up his appointment, nor has he discharged any responsibilities in connection with it. It is an entirely artificial construct.”

The case led to a frosty diplomatic stand-off between Britain and St Lucia, a member of the Commonwealth. The Foreign and Office formally asked the island to waive Mr Juffali’s immunity but the Caribbean state refused, saying there was no “compelling case” to lift immunity.  

Mr Juffali, whose ex-wife asserted that he owns a string of valuable properties across England, insisted he had already made “generous” provision for Ms Estrada and their 13-year-old daughter, including a monthly payment of £70,000.

The billionaire, who has been receiving treatment for cancer in a Swiss hospital, reacted angrily to the ruling. His spokesman Michael Farrant, said: “My client will be appealing this decision which, at its core, he believes to be deeply offensive, not least in its conclusion that his appointment to the International Maritime Organisation is an artifice. 

“He does not believe that the English justice system has performed its duties in an appropriate manner in this case, nor that an English judge has the capacity or right to intrude on matters relating to the diplomatic arrangements and/or appointments of another state.”

Frances Hughes, the lawyer representing Ms Estrada, called the ruling a “notable victory”.