Wealth advisers in Switzerland and the Caribbean sought to protect the identity of a client they referred to as “you know who,” leaked files show.
By Will Fitzgibbon
Jordanian protesters took to the streets – again – demanding an end to corruption and poverty in the aid-dependent Middle Eastern monarchy. Masked police broke up the demonstrations and jailed critics of the country’s leaders.
Still, the people chanted for change.
Finally, in a bid to defuse the crisis, Jordanian authorities in June 2020 trumpeted a crackdown on hidden wealth, designed to help stanch the flow of an estimated $800 million a year out of the country.
Then-Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz said the crackdown was especially needed to respond to COVID-19’s impact on the state’s finances. Jordan would track every last dinar that citizens had hidden in tax havens, the prime minister said; No offshore wealth was beyond scrutiny.
None, it seems, except the king’s.
A trove of leaked documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists shows that the country’s long-ruling monarch, King Abdullah II, has secretly owned 14 luxury homes in the United Kingdom and the United States, purchased between 2003 and 2017 through front companies registered in tax havens. Their value totals more than $106 million.
The homes include a house in Ascot, one of England’s most expensive towns; multimillion-dollar apartments in central London and three luxury apartments in a complex in Washington, D.C., with panoramic views of the Potomac River.
Also included are three adjoining beachfront homes under reconstruction at Point Dume, a posh enclave near Los Angeles. One, a seven-bedroom mansion on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, was bought in 2014 through one of the king’s shell companies, Nabisco Holdings (no connection to the cookie company), for $33.5 million.
Advisers to the 59-year-old monarch, who awards an annual prize for transparency in his name, spared no effort to conceal his real estate holdings, the records show. Accountants and lawyers in Switzerland and the British Virgin Islands formed shell companies on the king’s behalf and concocted plans to shield his name from public and even confidential government registries.
On two documents, BVI corporate administrators at the firm Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee, better known as Alcogal, checked boxes to declare that no one connected to one of the king’s companies was involved in politics – even though the king has the power to appoint governments, dissolve Parliament and approve legislation.
Writing to ICIJ on the king’s behalf, attorneys denied anything improper about owning homes through offshore companies. The king is not required to pay taxes under Jordanian law, the attorneys said.
Experts familiar with the region say the timing of the purchases, if made public, would likely have alienated many Jordanians and the tribal leaders who help keep Abdullah in power. Most of the U.S. and U.K. real estate deals – and six of those for more than $5 million – took place since 2011, after Arab Spring protests that toppled governments in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia and posed the first serious threat to the Jordanian monarchy in generations.
Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the region. It has almost no oil of its own and precious little water. The kingdom depends on foreign aid to support its own people and to house and care for millions of refugees. Last year alone, the United States gave Jordan more than $1.5 billion in aid and military funding, and the European Union agreed to provide the kingdom with more than $218 million to soften the blow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Jordan doesn’t have the kind of money that other Middle Eastern monarchies, like Saudi Arabia, have to allow a king to flaunt his wealth,” Dr. Annelle Sheline, an expert on religious and political authority in the Middle East, said in an interview with ICIJ. Sheline, a research fellow with the Quincy Institute in Washington, D.C., added, “If the Jordanian monarch were to display his wealth more publicly, it wouldn’t only antagonize his people, it would piss off Western donors who have given him money.”
Experts say Abdullah, whose subjects mock the way he speaks Arabic with an English accent, has little room for error.
This year, Jordanian police detained 16 people, including a member of the royal family, over an alleged plot to oust Abdullah. Prince Hamzah, the king’s younger half brother, was temporarily placed under house arrest for his alleged role in the coup attempt. In a furtive video issued after a visit from the country’s intelligence services, Hamzah denied being part of any conspiracy.
“I am not the person responsible for the breakdown in governance, for the corruption and for the incompetence that has been prevalent in our governing structure for the last 15 to 20 years and has been getting worse by the year,” Prince Hamzah said. “A ruling system has decided that its personal interests, that its financial interests, that its corruption is more important than the lives and dignity and futures of the 10 million people that live here.”
Jordanian officials accused Hamzah of a conspiracy that threatened national security. Hamzah did not accuse Abdullah of wrongdoing.
U.K. attorneys for the king said Abdullah has crucial legitimate security and privacy reasons for holding property in offshore corporations that have nothing to do with tax evasion or any other improper purpose. The king has never misused public monies or foreign aid, the attorneys wrote, adding Abdullah’s wealth comes from personal sources. Abdullah cares deeply for Jordan and its people and acts with integrity and in the best interests of his country and its citizens at all times, the attorneys said.
The attorneys said that most of the offshore companies either no longer exist or are not related to the king and that some of the properties identified by ICIJ as belonging to him did not. Attorneys declined to explain what the king considers inaccurate due to alleged privacy and security concerns for him and his family.
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