Who Wants To Be A Billionaire?

Cocky Prince Al-Waleed and his comely nemesis, Middle East fixer Daad Sharab

Bad hair, face in all the papers, everybody wants something. Your partners are only after one thing and you still have to obey the law. The nation that invented fairness and cricket (and irony) is having a tough time accommodating the world’s grumpiest billionaires and keeping them in line.

A penthouse unit in Knightsbridge, central London sold this week for 140 million pounds. That’s $270 million – over a quarter of a billion bucks! For an apartment. With a few windows on the top floor and a lot of traffic outside. It’s still a shell too, no walls or flooring or anything. Fitting it out is extra, and will push the price to an expected $300 million or so.

That is one brave “eastern European buyer”, as the mysterious new owner is known. What if they don’t like how it turns out? They’ll want to move. And they can’t. They’re already in the most expensive property – which surely is one of their purchasing criteria.

There is, at least, a hot tub on the terrace to chill out in if tempers flare. Somewhere a testy oligarch can contemplate the stars and his place in the scheme of things, a place to feel exalted again. Or, if of a more reflective turn of mind, to fantasise about being a commoner perhaps, down below heating up leftovers, or whatever commoners do, and having commoner fears and troubles. Then maybe letting up a bubble or two into the still night air, to celebrate their shared physical nature

Estate agents hope the unit will set a new benchmark price for the area. Buoyed by the wealth of Russian and Chinese tycoons and Arab sheikhs, it would seem the only way is up.

For the same truckload of cash in other cities, you could pick up billionaire Ira Rennert’s sprawling 29-bedroom home in New York that has its own power plant underneath. Or the Ambani family’s building in Mumbai that hosts three helipads and employs 400 people. All clearly serious real estate.

But this, however, is a unit. You have to go downstairs and around the side to walk the dog. You can’t get your newspaper delivered because the eye scanner in the lift that prevents intruders might not let the delivery boy through. Or a pizza. Or, as likely, any friends who’ve recently had a bit of nip and tuck and don’t match their stored profile. They probably don’t want to talk about it, but you’d have to explain why they’re stuck downstairs on the intercom and how they need to upload a new photo.

Meanwhile, in The City That Can’t Say No, another hardworking billionaire has found himself all out for no wickets at the Old Bailey High Court. Justice was squarely served to cocky Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, nephew of Saudi Arabia’s ruler King Abdullah, after he reneged on a deal to pay for the sale of his fancy Airbus jet to Colonel Gadafi. The timing was all wrong from Gadafi’s point of view anyway, who only flew it a handful of times. The plane now sits rusting outside Tripoli. It has a hot tub too.

The broker of the deal was due a cool $12 million. But, Prince Al Waleed’s inner voice repeated over and over, she’s only a woman. A woman! I don’t have to pay her a penny… And he thought the court would agree. After all, he knows Prime Minister David Cameron personally! And Prince William! And he owns the Savoy Hotel!

Many an overseas “investor” mistakes the welcome of our bustling market town for an opportunity to practise some of the backhanding lubrication and loose contract-keeping that makes life smooth in other parts of the world, only to face a stern bewigged judge who sends them down without a second thought.

And lately it’s happening more and more. Political and social unrest elsewhere drives wealth to save havens, especially with interest rates low, where the clash of cultures can end in tears.

In the event, Mr Justice Peter Smith described the prince’s evidence in court as “unreliable, pathetic and hopeless”, and implied he knew he’d lied in the witness box. The prince was ordered to pay the full $12 million plus $4 million interest.

A measly settlement, possibly, in royal terms – a big Saturday night out in Mayfair – but it stood for a mother lode of humiliation. In the words of the prince’s nemesis, Jordanian-born fixer Daad Sharab, who brought the suit, “it was the first time in his life he had lost a case — and to a woman! In the Arab world that is very bad for his dignity.”

We can only imagine what path of redemption this might lead the prince down. When your hosts show you up so fittingly, it’s surely time to mull over a few things. So if you’re visiting Knightsbridge for a Scotch egg at Harrods, perhaps, or for some pedigree window shopping, look up to the top floor of the newest (ugliest) block on the block, and spare a thought for any sulking relic in the hot tub, who maybe can’t quite figure out why everything is so unfair.

. . .

Prince Al-Waleed-Bin-Talal
The prince relaxing at 35,000 feet with his furniture.

One Hyde Park
The most expensive units in the world, in Knightsbridge, London.

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