December 2019

The Azerbaijani president’s children and the Dubai property empire

Source : The Guardian

Ilham Aliyev’s daughters are joint owners of company behind hotel resort and luxury villas, sources say

At £400 a night, a stay at the Sofitel hotel on the manmade Palm Jumeirah island in Dubai does not come cheap. Holidaymakers are lured with beachfront suites, a round-the-clock butler service, a choice of six outdoor pools and 500 metres (1,640ft) of white sand reserved for guests.

What has been less well advertised is the identity of the hotel’s owners. The resort apparently belongs to the daughters of Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev. The two plots on which the Sofitel is built are held by a Dubai-registered company called Sahra FZCO, according to records obtained by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).


 Arzu and Leyla Aliyeva at a launch party in London

Sahra is jointly owned by Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva, claim sources who have spoken on condition of anonymity to the Daphne Project, a collaboration of 18 news organisations, including the Guardian, Reuters and the New York Times. Led by France’s Forbidden Stories, it was created to continue the investigations of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in October.

The disclosures are likely to raise new questions for Azerbaijan’s ruling family, who have been widely criticised for a lack of transparency, the imprisonment of journalists and curbs on free speech since Aliyev took power in 2003.

Sahra was reportedly established in 2004 with the daughters holding 50% each.

It appears the president’s children have been overseeing an expanding business and property empire that includes London real estate, mining, telecoms and hotels.

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In contrast to other jurisdictions, such as the UK, the Dubai land registry is not open to the public. The extent of the Aliyev portfolio has only come to light because of a leak of property data to the OCCRP. The information covers the period from 2014 to 2016. Land may have changed hands since.

The Aliyevs did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Besides the Sofitel, Sahra appears to have acquired 16 villas on nearby Jumeirah islands. The development, a manmade archipelago set within a lagoon, is among the most sought-after in Dubai. Its villas, set among water features and lush gardens, cost an average of £2m each.


Jumeirah islands in Dubai

The records also appear to confirm a previous report by the Washington Post that the sisters, and their brother, Heydar Aliyev, bought 17 luxury properties on the Palm. The plots, registered in their names, are worth approximately £70m.

There is no suggestion of wrongdoing, though the disclosures are likely to renew international calls for more transparency from Azerbaijan’s government.

Aliyev disputes any criticisms of his leadership, describing them as smears. He argues that Azerbaijan is a democracy and it holds free and fair elections. Aliyev was returned to power for another seven years earlier this month, with 86% of the vote, in a poll boycotted by the main opposition parties.


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