A few years ago, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is reputed to have quipped that while he was running the country, it was his Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who owned it.
Boris Johnson could easily say the same thing about Sheikh Jassim with regard to London, where the 53-year-old Anglophile plutocrat, who owns some of the capital’s most prestigious addresses, is soon expected to take up more or less permanent residence.
In his position as the head of the Qatar Investment Authority – the sheikh is also foreign minister for the moment – he has overseen the investment of billions of dollars of the sand-blasted emirate’s cash, generated by its enormous energy reserves.
Everywhere you look, the Qataris are there, with investments in 30 countries. In this country alone, they have big stakes in some of the London Stock Exchange’s aristocracy including Sainsbury’s, Barclays, Shell and the Stock Exchange itself.
They also own Harrods, Paris Saint-Germain football club, and lots and lots of property including London’s Shard of Glass and Park Lane’s InterContinental Hotel.
And while the property arm Qatari Diar found itself on the wrong end of a campaign by Prince Charles over its planned redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks, it will be working on Shell’s London HQ near the London Eye, in cahoots with Canary Wharf. Several new towers are slated to share London’s skyline with the tourist attraction.
How many of these various projects are ultimately owned by the Qatari state, and how many by members of the ruling elite, isn’t always clear. Nor are the dividing lines between the two, something that has drawn criticism from NGOs.
What is clear is that the fund has enormous resources, estimated at between $100bn and $200bn. It has been the sheikh who has been overseeing their deployment in what amounts to a new type of global land grab.
But change is coming. The sheikh is expected to “step down” from his government roles, as part of the ascent of Crown Prince Tamim, the son of the emir who is ultimately expected to take his place.
Whether the crown prince will take on the role of prime minister first is not yet clear. The incumbent is, however, expected to retain his role as chairman of the QIA after he “steps down”.
There, HBJ, as he is sometimes known, has been responsible for some notable coups, not least the multibillion investment in Barclays, secured during the height of the financial crisis at very generous terms which infuriated existing shareholders. However, the overall strategy – other than a general liking for the blue chip, the prestigious, and the trophy asset – has been hard to discern.
His right-hand man, Ahmad Mohamed Al-Sayed, who holds the title of chief executive of Qatar Holding, one of the QIA’s main subsidiaries, was said to have told a gathering of MBA graduates that “we don’t have a strategy”. That led to consternation among the youthful audience; strategy is what MBAs are all about.
But the Qataris have garnered a reputation as canny dealmakers nonetheless. Said one observer of the Qatari scene: “The sheikh has a keen eye for a deal, and basically if he wants it done, it will get done. He makes the decisions. A lot of people come over here thinking they can deal with the lower levels. That doesn’t work. You have to get to him.”
UK corporates with experience of dealing with the Qataris generally regard the experience as a positive one. “They’re like any institutional shareholder, really. They obey all the norms, and you have to ring them up and remind them to vote at the AGM like anyone else. Most of the time you deal with them via a conference call,” said a source at one of the beneficiaries of Qatari largesse.
But what is clear is that in recent times the sheikh has turned the operation into something more than just a passive long-term investor willing to sit back and let management run companies and cash pay cheques.
The Qataris played a pivotal role in the multibillion-pound marriage of miner Xstrata with commodity trader Glencore. The deal was originally billed as a merger of equals, but City institutions felt that Xstrata was in reality being taken over by Glencore. They believed Glencore should pay a premium as a result. The Qataris agreed, called the bluff of Glencore founder Ivan Glasenberg, and green-lit the deal only after the terms had been sweetened following the intervention of a certain Tony Blair.
The City cheered from the rooftops. The Qataris won lots of friends. That’s something the globetrotting sheikh has been good at doing. It’s called “soft power” and it’s lubricated by tanker-loads full of cash. This didn’t do any harm during Qatar’s successful bid for the World Cup. (The national side play at the Thani bin Jassim stadium.)
It has also seen Qatar, despite a population less than that of Birmingham and a land area less than that of Yorkshire, emerge as a key global power-broker. It played a vital role in the Arab Spring, and has more recently been quietly assisting rebels in Syria.
The Taliban have an office there; the US has a military base. Qatar, under the guidance of HBJ, just wants to be friends with everyone. And it has proved to be remarkably successful at achieving this ambition. (The cash- and investment-starved British Government loves them.)
But it also means questions tend to get glossed over. If Qatar bought the World Cup, nobody’s really making a fuss about it. The links between its favourite rebel group in Syria and al-Qa’ida? No problem. There are even fewer questions raised about what goes on inside Qatar, the austere version of Islam that predominates, the treatment of migrant workers. The Saudis must be green with envy. Perhaps they could do with an HBJ of their own.
Not that issues like this will be of concern to the latter when the widely expected shake-up at the top of Qatar is formalised. There are even questions about how long he will be able to retain his position at the head of the QIA following this.
“The deal with Porsche [where the Qataris sold their 10 per cent stake back to the founding families] will probably be the last for a while now. Don’t expect to see anything happen until after Ramadan,” said a businessman working in the region.
But he doesn’t expect the sheikh to take up the role of the playboy oligarch when he arrives in London, with regular excursions to New York on the agenda where another luxurious property has been purchased (although not without a few bumps in the road).
“Sheikh Jassim likes the trappings of wealth. There’s his yacht, and his properties. You won’t be likely to see him propping up the tables at London casinos. He’s very hard-working. He’ll want to take on a more statesmanlike approach,” said the business source.
So he is unlikely to be putting his feet up. It is believed his estate in Berkshire is up for sale because he wants to spend more time in London, and there will be no shortage of people beating a path to his door, either because they want to do business with him or because they want to talk politics.
That may mean One Hyde Park becoming a little livelier than it has been until now. The sheikh developed the luxurious residential property, but few of its über‑wealthy residents spend much time there, and the room service available from the adjacent five-star hotel is scarcely called upon.
If he is joined there by his two wives plus their 15-strong corps of offspring, plus an army of bodyguards and assistants, things promise to liven up. The swimming pool and other toys will at last enjoy some use.
However, after apparently effortlessly bestriding the worlds of politics and high finance for more than a decade, HBJ is unlikely to take to the role of indulgent patriarch.
We may be hearing more of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani in the months ahead, and it won’t just be as a result of family members once again getting their Lamborghinis clamped while enjoying a shopping spree at Harrods.
A Life In Brief
Born: Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, 30 August 1959, Doha, Qatar.
Family: Fifth son of Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani. Married to Jawaher Al Thani, 1973-2005. Married his current wife, Aljohara bint Fahad, in 2008. He has 15 children.
Career: Director of the Office of the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture, 1982-1989; Minister of Municipal Affairs and Agriculture. Deputy Minister of Electricity and Water. In 1992 became Foreign Minister and First Deputy Prime Minister in 2003, while Foreign Minister. Became Prime Minister in 2007, and is still Foreign Minister.
He says: “We built our constitution. We built the municipality elections. We give the women right to vote and to be candidates.”
They say: “He has contributed significantly to the increase in Qatar’s influence in the international arena.” Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Prime Minister of Turkey
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