What the ultra-wealthy want for their customised bunkers as UAE inquiries surge

Experts reveal why there's a global uptick and what money-doesn't-matter customisations are requested

An architect's rendition of the kind of sprawling underground doomsday bunker that today's billionaires build. Photo: Oppidum Bunkers
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Is the bunker a savvy investment for ultra-high-net-worth individuals, or indicative of something sinister happening soon, which the masses aren't privy to? Or is it just how those with the means approach modern well-being?

"The increase in demand for luxury bunkers can be attributed to a growing awareness among ultra-high-net-worth individuals about the importance of personal safety and well-being," a representative for Swiss company Oppidum Bunkers says. "Many now view a luxury bunker as an essential component of their comprehensive security strategy and a means to ensure peace of mind for themselves and their families.

"The largest market and most significant growth by far has been in the US. However, it's important to note that the demand is not limited to any specific region. We have witnessed a surge in inquiries and projects even in some of the safest places on Earth, including Switzerland and the UAE."

Shelters and secret rooms have long been a part of human society. The keep inside a castle was built to be the safest place to hide during an invasion or siege and, in 17th-century England, “priest holes” were dug for Catholic priests to escape persecution.

Storm cellars are built beneath homes in the paths of cyclones and tornadoes, and bunkers – both public and private ones in gardens and back gardens – were built during the Second World War to escape bombing raids.

The proliferation of nuclear fallout bunkers during the Cold War in the 1960s, '70s and '80s led to people digging them in their gardens.

Bunkers go mainstream: 'Being able to defend and conquer is gaining strong interest'

The panic room boom among the rich and famous of the '80s and '90s went largely under the radar in the pre-internet years. Then, the idea of bunkers and secured rooms was viewed as the preserve of ardent survivalists, conspiracy theorists or doomsday cults.

Mainstream introduction to the concept came via the 2002 film Panic Room starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart.

In the film, Meg Altman (Foster) and her daughter Sarah (Stewart) retreat to a steel-enforced panic room in their Manhattan home when intruders break in.

“It’s nothing new for the elite,” says Al Corbi, founder of US company Safe, which designs and builds state-of-the-art protective systems including bunkers. “Castles have always had moats. Today they are simply a bit more effective.

“Back in the earlier days, concerns about nuclear holocaust isolation in protective lairs was the order of the day. Now, with civil unrest at the top of the list, being able to defend and conquer is gaining strong interest.”

Dante Vicino at Californian underground shelter company Terra Vivos adds: "The world is feeling increasingly dangerous by way of any number of factors lately.

"The concerns are all out there, whether it be related to politics, the environment, the economy, civil unrest – you name it. Interestingly enough, for us Americans, whoever is in the White House seems to have little to do with people's concerns and subsequent interest in bunkers."

What people are putting in their bunkers: majlis, spas and snow rooms

As interest grew in home bunkers, so too did the size, scope and modifications available.

“The increased interest has been in the general public and the newly affluent,” says Corbi. “The elite have always included high security as a part of their lifestyle. This recent wave of interest can be attributed to social media’s ability to spotlight the general sense of global dissatisfaction, unrest and threats such as our vulnerability from civil unrest in the wake of an electromagnetic pulse or other uncontrollable disaster.”

Basketball star Shaquille O’Neal and Microsoft founder Bill Gates reportedly have underground bunkers at their homes, while Lady Gaga, George and Amal Clooney and the Beckhams are some of the celebrities rumoured to have panic rooms in their houses.

"Our clients are the primary source of inspiration for new amenities, often matching the features they would choose for their homes and superyachts," says Oppidum Bunkers' representative. "Popular requests include full-scale spas, Turkish baths, snow rooms, golf simulators, racing simulators and shooting simulators, which are replacing previously popular live-fire gun ranges."

They add: "Other sought-after amenities include state-of-the-art home cinemas, art galleries, majlis, prayer rooms, inner gardens with artificial skylights perfectly mimicking the outdoors, garages and vintage car collection museum-like displays. Vaults displaying various valuables and collectables, such as luxury and rare handbags and watches, are also in demand. Additionally, private or corporate secure server rooms have become increasingly popular among our clients."

Mark Zuckerberg’s top-secret Hawaiian compound

The founder of Meta, whose wealth is estimated to be $170 billion, has tried to keep whatever he is building on and beneath his $270 million Hawaiian compound a secret.

Buying up land on the island since August 2014, Zuckerberg now owns 566 hectares, dubbed Koolau Ranch. He has reportedly built a 5,000-square-foot underground bunker with its own electricity, food and water supplies.

“Nobody working on this project is allowed to talk about what they’re building,” reported technology magazine Wired. “Almost anyone who passes compound security – from carpenters to electricians to painters to security guards – is bound by a strict nondisclosure agreement.”

The report added: “Detailed planning obtained by Wired through a series of public record requests show the makings of an opulent techno-Xanadu, complete with underground shelter, and what appears to be a blast-resistant door.”

Oppidum Bunkers' representative adds: "Even ultra-high-net-worth individuals are not immune to the fear of missing out. When they see their peers investing in bespoke bunkers, it can prompt them to explore similar options for themselves.

"However, our clients' decisions to invest in a bespoke reinforced concrete bunker next to their residence(s) are primarily driven by their personal considerations and the advice of their security experts and advisors."

Zuckerberg's above-ground compound is thought to include 30 bedrooms and 30 bathrooms and comprises two mansions totalling 57,000 square feet, which are connected by a tunnel that leads to the bunker.

The tech mogul posted a video to Instagram earlier this year titled: “When your wife catches you in the ‘bunker,” showing Priscilla Chan finding him and his friends playing video games in a cinema-sized home theatre.

Kim Kardashian prepares for 'worst-case scenario'

The reality TV star went bunker shopping with sister Khloe during a 2020 episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, saying: “We are going to a bunker that we might very necessarily need.”

The pair tried out a small no-frills bunker with three beds, a compact kitchen and a seating area, before tasting the dehydrated food on offer.

The lifestyle mogul hasn’t publicly revealed she is building a bunker beneath her Hidden Hills home, however in 2021, legal documents showed that her neighbours had asked a judge to halt construction on her grounds – said to include an underground bunker, spa and parking – claiming that it “may cause loss of a life” due to nearby gas lines.

“In addition to survival, the shelters are a reflection of the client’s sensibilities,” says Corbi. “Some want fitness centres and rifle ranges. While others want greens and spas. And, of course, theatres and posh decors with elaborate art collections are commonplace.”

He adds: “The US has been inundated with bunker or shelter projects over the past five years. Safe has completed some of its most impressive projects in India and the Ukraine. The demand and growth is widespread.”

Kardashian, who was tied up and robbed at gunpoint in Paris in 2016 by thieves who stole $10 million worth of jewellery, has expressed her fears of feeling unsafe in her home and in holiday homes, saying: “Ever since Paris, I go through this worst-case scenario mode in my head.”

Vicino says concerns like hers are fuelling the demand for bespoke, and ultra-safe, options.

"Let's be real, it's a bunker, not an iPhone, so there's always a specific reason someone chooses to get one and that reason is rooted in concern for safety for whatever may come," said Vicino. "It's not your typical off-the-shelf commodity. With that being said, our clientele is not what you would imagine to be the typical 'Capital 'P' Prepper' as I like to say. They are not 'crazy' nor are their concerns unreasonable or exaggerated. They're normal people like you and me who simply have a concern and care for their families and loved ones."

He adds: "They see this as something of an insurance policy in case things go south, and much like an insurance policy of any kind, they hope to never have to use it. However, the peace of mind they get from having a bunker is what makes it all worthwhile."

Updated: March 31, 2024, 3:51 AM