$1m an hour to schmooze sheiks? No wonder Mr Blair’s preening like the new peacocks on his country estate

Paul Scott – Daily Mail Sept 15, 2012

 They say the best revenge on one’s enemies is to live well, in which case Tony Blair is certainly having the last laugh on his many detractors. Take, for example, South Pavilion, his magnificent country house nestling in the heart of the picturesque Chilterns.

On rising each morning and descending the elaborate staircase into its 50ft drawing room, he is watched over by the framed, brooding countenances of long dead noblemen and women.

The former Labour Prime Minister and his wife Cherie have in recent times been scouring the finer auction houses of London to add to their growing collection of 18th-century portraiture, whose grand subjects’ lives were far removed from those of Liverpool-raised Cherie’s ancestors, or Mr Blair’s own father, who was brought up in a Glasgow tenement.

The pricey wall hangings represent a prosperous past somewhat at odds with the Blairs’ more humble antecedents – the couple’s present-day reality is unalloyed privilege.

By way of illustrating the fact, Mr Blair has recently been overseeing some expensive changes at the grand Grade I-listed Buckinghamshire pile. As well as stacking the inside to the gunwales with hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of Regency and William IV antique furniture, he has been taking charge of elaborate renovations to the already impressive gardens.

The couple have commissioned, at great expense, an elaborate fountain complete with dancing, chubby-faced cherubs. 

Meanwhile, an artist has been commissioned to work on a vast tromp l’oeil on a wall in the grounds, which in turn gives way to a secret garden.

Of course, it is the little touches that all add to the impression of stately home splendour, to which end the Blairs have installed a pair of peacocks, I am told, whose cacophonous calling reverberates atmospherically around the grounds.

At the same time, they have taken delivery of a cockerel and a small flock of hens to provide daily fresh eggs. 

And a large kitchen garden has been planted to supply fresh vegetables for the couple’s full-time cook, whom they headhunted from Chequers, the nearby country retreat of the sitting Prime Minister.

At weekends, a steady stream of guests are put up in two lavishly appointed four-bedroom cottages in the expensively renovated grounds.

And when his busy role as an international businessman allows it, Mr Blair can take his daily dip and indulge his passion for two-hour long gym sessions in a state-of-the-art pool and fitness complex.

To add to the sense of wellbeing, a female instructor makes daily visits to the house – or to the Blairs’ £3.65 million London residence in Connaught Square – to put Tony and Cherie separately through a morning yoga and meditation routine.

No wonder, perhaps, given the no-expense-spared work Mr Blair has paid for at South Pavilion, that the couple were thrilled to learn recently that the house, which used to belong to Sir John Gielgud, is now valued at twice the £5.75 million they paid for it four years ago. 

The mansion is not, however, to everyone’s taste. ‘It’s all monumentally over-the-top,’ one recent overnight visitor tells me. ‘The place needs a curator, not a housekeeper. It simply doesn’t feel like a real home. 

‘But Tony loves the opulence. There is a sense of entitlement about him since he has become rich that was not there before.

‘When I think back to the way they lived at their old house in Islington before he was PM – which was frankly a bit of a dump inside – the change in their circumstances is pretty mind-blowing.’

Such indulgence is made possible by Blair’s growing pre-eminence as the Mr Fix-it of international corporate diplomacy. His skills as a mediator are highly prized. 

Last week he reportedly earned $1 million (£620,000) for three hours’ work when he was called in to broker 11th-hour talks between two of the parties involved in a stalled £23 billion mining business takeover.

Though sources close to Mr Blair do not dispute the figure, one I spoke to this week told me: ‘Actually, it took up no more than an hour of his time.’

Nice work if you can get it, and there are no shortage of takers prepared to pay top dollar for the ex-premier’s conciliation skills and his bulging contacts book.

That said, as we shall see, his lucrative role in these latest negotiations only serves to highlight the sometimes blurred lines between Blair’s money-making ventures, his roles as a Middle East peace envoy and figurehead for his own eponymous charity empire.

‘Tony sees himself as a sort of Red Adair figure (the famed American oil well fire-fighter) who parachutes in to get people around a table and, occasionally, to knock heads together,’ a source told me this week.

‘He’s worked very hard at nurturing business contacts in almost every country on the planet and invariably he knows both sides personally. 

‘It makes him a rare animal and highly prized.’

It goes without saying, perhaps, that the people Mr Blair has so assiduously cultivated since leaving office five years ago almost all have one thing in common: they are vastly rich.

Take, for example, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, who was one of the two parties the ex-PM cajoled into sitting down last week for those late-night talks in a beautifully appointed suite at London’s Claridge’s Hotel. (Al-Thani was representing a major shareholder in one of two companies negotiating the takeover deal.)

The Sheik, who is known to friends by the initials HBJ, is the Qatari Prime Minister, and even more importantly, the man behind the oil and gas-rich Gulf state’s sovereign wealth funds, Qatar Holding and the Qatar Investment Authority.

Indeed, so powerful is he that it’s said that in his homeland ‘all roads and sea lanes lead to HBJ’. And with power comes money. 

The 53-year-old member of the country’s royal family is the proud owner of the blue-hulled Al-Mirqab, a 437ft floating palace that is one of the eight largest yachts in the world, and cost a cool £620 million when it was built in 2008. 

Earlier this year, he pulled out of a deal to buy a £56 million duplex penthouse in the 1,000ft One57 tower being built in Manhattan’s Midtown district – and bought a £29 million townhouse nearby instead.

Before that he’d offered £20 million for two apartments, once owned by a copper heiress, overlooking New York’s Central Park.

The moustachioed Sheik, who has two wives and 15 children, is also a partner in Project Grande, the Jersey-based company run by property developer Christian Candy, which is behind the construction of the prestigious One Hyde Park building in London, where a single flat reputedly sold for £140 million only last year.

The Qatari prime minister, then, is just the sort of influential – not to mention filthy rich – contact that Mr Blair has sought to cultivate through Tony Blair Associates, the money-making arm of his ever-expanding business and charitable empire.

Nor is it the first time Mr Blair, who is a close personal friend, has played a pivotal role in negotiations involving the Sheik. 

During a court case in April, it was revealed that Tony Blair Associates advised on a controversial – though ultimately unsuccessful – scheme for Qatar’s ruling al-Thani family to take control of a group of London’s most prestigious five-star hotels, including Claridge’s, the Connaught and the Berkeley. 

But such is the scope of Mr Blair’s sphere of influence that the Qataris were only one of the various players linked to him in last week’s high-level buy-out negotiations over plans by international commodities trader Glencore to take over Swiss-based mining company Xstrata.

Also set for a large cut of the deal if shareholders – including Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund – sanction it, will be JP Morgan, the Wall Street Bank which pays our ex-leader £2.5 million a year to act as a senior adviser. JP Morgan is one of no fewer than ten banks helping broker the deal, which would create one of the world’s largest mining concerns.

Blair was called in to help on this occasion by another high-profile contact, millionaire banker Michael Klein, a fellow Mr Fix-it who was once a senior executive at international financial conglomerate Citigroup, and is an adviser in the Glencore/Xstrata deal.

In 2008, Klein was paid £6 million to advise now discredited former Barclays boss Bob Diamond on the purchase of stricken U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers. City sources I spoke to this week say Klein and Blair know each other through their mutual connections to Abu Dhabi, where Mr Blair is on the payroll of Mubadala, the sovereign wealth fund that invests Abu Dhabi’s vast oil profits. 

Increasingly, however, it is hard to tell where Mr Blair’s business dealings – which are said to have earned him as much as £60 million – end, and his charitable role and unpaid work in the Middle East begin.

In his job as Special Envoy to the so-called Quartet (comprised of the UN, the U.S., the European Union and Russia), he is expected to be in close dialogue with the aforementioned Sheik al-Thani, who is also the country’s foreign minister, about the search for peace in the region.

Nor is it the only part of the world where there is confusion over his myriad roles.

In Rwanda, one of the several countries where his Africa Governance Initiative charity – which seeks to encourage investment into the continent – is based, Blair has been a long-time supporter of its controversial leader Paul Kagame.

But in July, the U.S. cut aid to Kagame and threatened him with criminal prosecution over his backing of rebels in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kagame is vying to get his hands on the country’s vast mineral resources.

Glencore, meanwhile, which called on Mr Blair’s negotiation skills last week, also has major interests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where earlier this year the conglomerate faced accusations of using child labour in its mines – something the company denies.

Perhaps such complications are simply an unavoidable by-product of Mr Blair’s astonishingly wide array of international contacts.

One thing that’s for sure, however, is that a very large bank balance almost invariably offers an entrée into his orbit.

Yet another exceedingly rich businessman to whom he has become close is Nigerian Tony Elumelu – Mr Blair’s new official partner in an ambitious charity scheme to secure investment in poverty-stricken African countries.

The Africa Governance Initiative, the charity Blair launched in 2008, has joined forces with the Tony Elumelu Foundation to create the Blair-Elumelu Fellowship Programme. The new charity even has its own high-profile section devoted to it on Mr Blair’s website, which pictures the two men beaming for the camera.

Certainly, father-of-five Mr Elumelu, a billionaire who used to run one of Nigeria’s biggest banks, makes for a distinctly colourful bedfellow.

In May, his mother was returned safe after being taken hostage by armed kidnappers, who shot and wounded another woman during her abduction. 

And his brother, Ndudi, a prominent public official in the country’s oil-rich Delta state, faced charges earlier this year of siphoning off up to nearly £12 million meant for bringing much-needed electrification to poor rural inhabitants, though the allegations were later dropped.

But then Mr Blair would no doubt argue that when one is a friend and Mr Fix-it to billionaires the world over, it is only to be expected that you are inevitably going to rub up against some interesting characters. 

Should it all become a little overwhelming, of course, he can always fall back on those meditation sessions or go and visit his hens in a bid to restore his peace of mind.


Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.