Saturday, June 06, 2015

Is The 'Qatari Sheikhs' Trying To 'Buy' The 'British Royals'?

Arab State's Mega-Rich Rulers Will Be Feted at Epsom by the Queen - who's using their millions to repair one of her castles... but what will they want in return?

Of one thing the Queen can be sure as she and Prince Philip are driven up the Epsom racecourse on Derby Day today — the warmest of greetings from her increasingly good friends and fellow horse-racing enthusiasts, Qatar’s ruling family.

Unlike at Royal Ascot later this month, the Queen does not have official guests on Derby Day. But the gas-rich al-Thanis, who have made London their second home and bought large slices of the capital, will be there in numbers.

Far from stepping quietly out of the limelight as the Fifa bribery and corruption clamour reverberates — focusing in particular on the breathtaking decision to award sweltering Qatar the 2022 football World Cup — they seem to be bolstering their social profile.

The al-Thanis have four runners in today’s blue-riband big race, including the fancied Elm Park. So salutations between the two royal families will be flowing when the Queen, who adores horses, makes her customary pre-race visit to the paddock.

Of course, friendly relations with the Qataris are important for Britain, even though they are suspected of financing jihadist terror groups to promote the cause of Sunni Islam — a charge that they strenuously deny.

They supply about 20 per cent of our natural gas, which arrives by ship in liquid form and is held in a vast storage facility at Milford Haven in West Wales. The last emir, who stood down in 2013, was invited to stay with the Queen at Windsor Castle during his state visit in 2010.

But today’s Epsom greetings will be all the more effusive now it has emerged that Sheik Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani, first cousin of the new Emir, is generously helping to pay for the upkeep of one of the Royal Family’s personal treasures, the Castle of Mey, a charming Scottish retreat that the Queen Mother bought after the death of George VI.

Indeed, as Sebastian Shakespeare revealed in the Daily Mail Diary this week, Sheik Hamad has even become vice-president of The Friends of the Castle of Mey.

Yet this flowering relationship could be hideously compromised if the gathering forces of the football world — urged on by the Queen’s grandson Prince William, president of the Football Association — try to take the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar, especially now that the British Government has offered to hold it in England.

William, possibly the only senior royal not yet sucked into the Qataris’ social orbit, called this week for a reformed Fifa which ‘put the sport first’. And some bookies at Epsom today have shortened the odds on Qatar losing the World Cup it so covets to a tight 5-4.

It would be particularly embarrassing if the young Harrow and Sandhurst-educated Sheik Tamim, 35, Emir since 2013 of the tiny state of just 300,000 people (along with two million immigrant labourers and domestic staff), asked the royals for help in keeping the World Cup in return for past favours.

After all, in 2010 an anxious Prince Charles wrote personally to the then Emir of Qatar (Tamim’s father) for help when £3 billion of Qatari money was invested in the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks into a steel-and-glass monstrosity of homes.

The Prince objected to the architectural plans and, at his request, the Emir helped. The modernist scheme was scrapped at considerable cost, and new traditional plans were drawn up, of which Charles approved.

But it’s not just Chelsea Barracks. With billions of pounds to spend, the al-Thanis have bought up landmark properties in London including Harrods, the Olympic Village, Camden Market and Europe’s tallest building, the Shard.

They are so deeply embedded in Britain that they know they have more clout than the royals, notwithstanding Charles’s infamous ‘black spider letters’ to ministers, in which he gives his views on a range of issues.

Indeed, they know our royals welcome help — hence the fulsome thanks that the Queen smilingly proffered to Sheik Hamad at the annual Castle of Mey party in London’s Goring Hotel a fortnight ago, for the money he is putting into preserving the 16th-century castle.

Why our royals cannot pay for its upkeep themselves — especially as Prince Charles, who received £19 million from his Duchy of Cornwall estate last year, stays there for a week every summer — is not clear.

The veteran columnist Charles Moore said in The Spectator that he saw the Qataris’ involvement in Castle of Mey as a ‘sinister development’.

The Sheik will be rewarded for his largesse not only with a private viewing of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London but also a banquet in his honour.

Of course, the true rewards are much greater than that.

For this is only the latest move by the al-Thanis in what is widely seen as a crude strategy to buy — cynics might say bribe — a central role for themselves at the apex of British life, with uniquely close ties to the Royal Family.

While investing their billions in Britain, they have been assiduously positioning themselves as close to the royals as possible.

When Sheik Joaan al-Thani, brother of the young Emir, wanted an expert adviser for his expanding racing interests in Britain (he paid £5.25 million for an untried yearling, Al Naamah, which ran in yesterday’s Oaks), he appointed Old Etonian Harry Herbert, brother of the Earl of Carnarvon, whose Highclere Castle is the setting for TV’s Downton Abbey.

The Hon Henry Herbert is certainly a top man in the field, running his own Highclere Thoroughbred Stud. He is also the Queen’s godson — his father, the late 7th Earl, was the Queen’s racing manager for many years and someone she talked to almost every day.

Harry Herbert’s brother-in-law — married to his sister Lady Carolyn — is bloodstock agent John Warren, who not only works with the Highclere Stud but happens to be the Queen’s racing adviser. But there are many other ways in which the Qataris’ money has been buying them a place at the top table in Britain’s royal life.

The Qataris, for example, gave Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall a horse — Dark Swan — as a £147,000 gift. In its only race so far, it finished fifth. And last summer, the Qataris’ holding company, Qipco (Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company), whose chief executive is Sheik Hamad, became Royal Ascot’s official commercial partner.

For the Queen, this was an unprecedented step — a financial partner for Ascot for the first time in 303 years.

This year, their sponsorship of the most dazzling week of the racing calendar at Royal Ascot will be increased. Huge Qipco banners will be all over the stands and, of course, in the winners’ enclosure.

As for that other pivotal race meeting, Glorious Goodwood at the end of July, this has now become the Qatar Goodwood Festival, thanks to a ten-year, £25 million sponsorship. And, as ever, it seems the royals will be playing their part.

For the Qataris are planning to stage something new — a polo cup competition at nearby Cowdray Park during the festival — and one of the players expected to turn out is Prince Harry.

So what about other royals and the Qataris? Prince Andrew, never one to sidestep friendships with billionaires, flew to Qatar’s capital, Doha, some weeks ago to attend what was described as a ‘health summit’. Prince and Princess Michael of Kent are also friends.

Then there is the Queen’s first cousin, Lady Elizabeth Anson. The well-known party planner, who is 73, was one of the Qataris’ early appointments as their social fixer.

She is still with them, even though she incurred the wrath of the al-Thani family at last June’s Royal Ascot, the first year that Qipco sponsored the royal race meeting.

On the opening Tuesday, the Queen entertained the Emir to lunch at Windsor Castle, together with Qipco boss Sheik Hamad, a graduate in political science from Coventry University, and his mother the Sheika.

After this, they were all due to make the traditional carriage ride by horse-drawn landau along the course, and the al-Thanis expected to be riding with the Queen. But only the Emir was afforded the privilege of accompanying Her Majesty. Sheik Hamad and his mother learnt over lunch that they would be relegated to the third carriage.

The Sheik is said to have been so upset at this apparent slight, she didn’t go to the racecourse at all. Instead, she retreated to London, as officials anxiously put the word about that she was ‘unwell’.

Poor Lady Elizabeth seems to have caught a fair amount of flak, possibly from both sides, and was in tears. For a while she seemed to have been dismissed by the Qataris, though before long she was back.

Whatever hard feelings there may have been are now dissipated. Since then, the Queen has enjoyed dinner on several occasions with Sheik Hamad — and his mother — at his £250 million London mansion, Dudley House, which is the size of 50 semis and sits on Park Lane, overlooking Hyde Park. It is full of gold leaf and the walls are hung with priceless paintings.

How many times has the Queen visited? ‘A few,’ intimated Sheik Hamad to Vanity Fair magazine — but other royals have dined there too. ‘Mama gets along very well with Prince Charles and Prince Philip,’ Hamad added.

The question on the opening day of Royal Ascot a week on Tuesday will be whether growing Qatari clout means the Sheik will be promoted to the Queen’s carriage.

Another question is whether FA President Prince William and Kate will soon be invited to dinner at Dudley House. And, perhaps more pertinently, will they accept?

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