Moammar Gadhafi may prefer living in tents when he visits the West, but his son Saif likes British red brick. In 2009, he plunked down $18 million for an eight-bedroom mansion in London’s tony Hampstead suburb. Gadhafi, like so many of his region’s oil-rich princes and potentates, knows the value of a safe bolthole in Europe’s banking and retail centre—regime change so often comes without warning. (During the first Gulf War, the Saudi royal family bought 10 homes on “billionaire’s row,” Bishops Avenue. Just in case.)
Indeed, sizable chunks of the most exclusive areas of the British capital have been snapped up by the mega rich of the Middle East, either as investments or for their personal use. The emir of Qatar shelled out more than $55 million for a 200-year-old fixer-upper at 100 Park Lane. His PM, and cousin, signed up for a $65-million-plus apartment at a prime new development, One Hyde Park, which he is backing financially. The head of finance in nearby Sharjah, part of the United Arab Emirates, also bought a flat there. In 2009, a Saudi royal got planning permission to knock three houses in Belgravia into one $80-million “super home,” complete with a two-storey below-grade complex. Gamal Mubarak, son of Egypt’s recently ousted ruler, also owns a piece of Belgravia, namely a luxurious pied-à-terre at 28 Wilton Place.
Mubarak’s home, like Gadhafi’s and those of virtually all other rich foreign buyers, is owned through an offshore corporation. That didn’t stop protesters from recently picketing the house. In Gadhafi’s case, squatters went further and stormed his manor on March 9, renaming it “the embassy of rebel Libya” before releasing pictures of its “more cash than class” party-palace stylings. Less dramatically, when the emir of Abu Dhabi wanted to enclose his entire 160-hectare estate, Ascot Place, near Windsor Castle, with a two-metre-high brick wall, outraged local residents’ associations took him to court.
In the end, the likes of Gadhafi and Mubarak are aware owning property doesn’t mean you can sleep there. Just ask Thailand’s former PM, Thaksin Shinawatra. The controversial billionaire spent a lot of time in his London penthouse after being ousted in a 2006 coup. Then, while he was on an Asian business trip, Britain revoked his visa and banned him from the United Kingdom.