Libyan wealth fund wins right to seek return of £10.5m investment in failed hotel scheme

Muammar Qaddafi’s UK contact made the investment on behalf of the Libyan Investment Authority

The Royal Courts of Justice in London. AP Photo

Libya’s sovereign wealth fund has been granted the right to try to recoup a £10.5 million ($14m) investment in a failed British hotel venture.

The Libyan Investment Authority in February ploughed the sum into what it believed was a 50 per cent share in a multimillion-pound venture for a 207-bedroom Crowne Plaza hotel in Maple Cross, Hertfordshire, near London.

The project was in partnership with Roger King, a millionaire businessman who owns Stoke Park, a five-star hotel and golf club set in 140 hectares in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.

It featured in films including Goldfinger, starring Sean Connery as James Bond, and Bridget Jones's Diary.

In 2010, London’s High Court heard the LIA was told the complex, which was never built, would be worth £21m and to expect returns of up to £58m.

But the wealth fund’s survey of the land found it to be worth only £5.7m, the court heard.

Despite this valuation, its then UK chief Rajab Layas, a close ally of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, relied on the word of the other investors.

The LIA took the case back to the Court of Appeal to try to recoup the money and seek damages.

Property surveyors King Sturge had been appointed by Mr King’s firm to assess the value of the development and send a letter of that valuation to LIA.

But on Monday, judges rejected the respondents’ argument that the case should be dismissed because of the time elapsed, and allowed LIA’s appeal to resubmit its claim.

“On May 12, 2010 Mr Layas, the then executive director of LIA UK, wrote to Roger King confirming, subject to contract, that the LIA were proceeding with the purchase of a 50 per cent shareholding for £10.5m, with completion expected in June,” Lord Justice Nugee told the court.

“It appears that it was only then that thought turned to the LIA obtaining its own advice on value.

"Mr Layas initially instructed Savills to provide valuations of the hotel and retail sites, but on June 17, 2010 Mr Furze of Savills telephoned him to alert him to a major discrepancy between Savills' initial view [that the hotel site was worth £5.7m] and the price being paid.

“Mr Layas's reaction was apparently to dis-instruct Savills, and on June 18 to ask Mr King to assist.”

The court heard this resulted in the developers sending a letter, known as the King Sturge letter, from their surveyors repeating their claim that the venture was worth £21m.

“This was a lengthy letter which concluded that, based on the information King Sturge had been given, including Strutt and Parker's valuation, they supported the assumptions made and considered an enterprise value of £21m appropriate,” Mr Nugee said.

“Mr Layas forwarded the King Sturge letter to the LIA, and on June 27, 2010, the board of directors of the LIA approved the investment in the joint venture.

"The joint venture agreement was signed and the £10.5m paid on July 19, 2010.

"Over the next six months certain other sums, totalling £1.76m, were also invested by the LIA pursuant to requests for further funding.

“The development, however, did not proceed, nothing was built, and the joint venture companies went into liquidation.

"Relations between the LIA and Mr King broke down in or about 2013. The claimants claim to have lost all or most of their investment.”

Mr Layas was a co-director of a company called CP Maplecross with Mr King’s son, Hertford.

Before entering into the contract, the King family’s holding company, the International Group, had been awarded a five-year contract to manage Al Marg hospital, 95 kilometres north-east of Benghazi.

Mr Layas had earlier set up a business with Saif Al Islam Qaddafi, a son of the Libyan dictator, in Kensington, west London.

At the time of the LIA investment, the UK Treasury had frozen the assets of Mr Qaddafi and five of his children.