The most extraordinary feature of the latest Sunday Times Rich List, published last weekend, is its diversity. When it started nearly 30 years ago, the list was, as you might expect, dominated by British aristocrats who could trace their origins – and their wealth – all the way back to the Tudors. Not any more: the Hinduja brothers, who top the list at £16.2bn (Dh76.93bn), were born in India, as were the Reuben brothers, David and Simon, who rank third with a fortune estimated at £13bn.
The second richest man in Britain, Len Blavatnik, was born in Russia, brought up in the US where his parents emigrated to when he was a child, and is now more passionately British than the Duke of Edinburgh. To prove it, he has given Oxford £75m to establish the Blavatnik School of Governance, the biggest donation in the university’s 500-year history.
Further down we have the Weston family (Canadian-Irish), the Rausings (Swedish), Roman Abramovich (Russian), Lakshmi Mittal (Indian), Ernesto Bertarelli (Italian), John Fredriksen (Norwegian) and Alisher Usmanov, who ranks No 5 at £11.8bn and was born in Uzbekistan.
Some of the British connections on the list are tenuous, to say the least. Four South Africans – Nicky Oppenheimer (No 19 at £5.5bn), Christo Wiese (22 at £4.62bn), Natie Kirsch (27 at £4bn) and Manfred Gorvy (151 at a mere £854bn) – are included, although to my certain knowledge only two, Mr Oppenheimer and Mr Gorvy, claim London as their home. The other two have houses in London, which is good enough for The Sunday Times to claim them as Brits.
At a glance
What: The Sunday Times Rich List shows how the UK attracts rich families
Why: London is the residence of choice for wealthy families
Home-grown aristos still make it on to the list, of course – inflation and the rise and rise of London property prices have seen to that. The new Duke of Westminster, a weedy 26-year-old, has recently inherited large chunks of the most expensive parts of London and is worth, according to The Sunday Times, about £9.5bn. His fellow aristocrat, the Earl of Cadogan (number 17 at £6.5bn), is another big London landowner, as are the Howard de Waldens and the Portmans, and there are other instances of old British money on the list: the Keswicks, proprietors of the Hong Kong-based Jardine Matheson, are worth more than £5bn, and some of the great banking families, the Schroders and the Flemings, are up there too. So are a couple of Rothschilds, Evelyn and Jacob, both there in their own right – which is just as well, as they haven't spoken in years.
London has always been a magnet for rich families from the Middle East but remarkably few are claimed on the slightly dubious criteria employed by The Sunday Times. The highest ranking Qatari, who own some of the most famous buildings in London, including Harrods and the Shard, is Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, or HBJ as he is more familiarly known, the Sandhurst-educated former Qatari PM and chairman of Qatar Investment Authority. He is accorded a fortune of £2bn, which I just don't believe – he's an awful lot richer than that. Mohamed bin Issa Al Jaber from Saudi Arabia outranks him on the list, with a fortune of £6.7bn (number 16). Mahdi Al Tajir, born in Bahrain but with a palatial house in London, a 24,000-acre Scottish estate and one of the most beautiful houses in Buckinghamshire, comes in at number 75 with £1.67bn.
And we must not forget such Middle Eastern stalwarts of London life as Egyptian-born Mohamed Al Fayed, who sold Harrods to the Qataris for a couple of billion (number 73 at £1.7bn), the Syrian-born Wafic Said (93 at £1.4bn), or Farhad Moshiri, Iranian-born and No 69 at £1.9bn.
If you want a social study into how British society has changed in the three decades since the list started (and I can claim the dubious honour of conceiving it in my tenure on the paper), this list is a good starting point. There are six female billionaires and 20 women in all worth more than £500m each – 20 years ago there was one (the Queen). Quite a few genuine Brits on the list now come from penniless backgrounds: Jim Ratcliffe, the founder of the Ineos chemical company, was born in a council house but is now worth £5.7bn (number 18) and two of his colleagues now also make it into the billionaire category.
Richard Branson, of course, came from relatively humble beginnings and both Bernard Lewis and Philip Harris started work in their fathers’ tiny London shops, and Chris Dawson (number 67 at £1.9bn) began his career selling ice-cream at the age of seven, before he moved on to “anything I could sell off the back of a lorry”. John Boor – value £1.45bn – is the son of a Derbyshire miner.
London now has 134 billionaires, more than any other city in the world.
It has long been the residence of choice for Middle Easterners, and Greek shipowners have probably been around even longer – as have wealthy Indians. But then in the seventies came the Australian mining magnates followed in the eighties by Russian oligarchs and, post-apartheid, white South Africans. Now it is the turn of Malaysians and Chinese seeking a home for the vast fortunes they have accumulated in recent years.
No other major city, not Paris or New York or Berlin, has the same fascination for the very rich. And Brexit is not going to change that.
Ivan Fallon is a former business editor of The Sunday Times.
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