Qaddafi's ghost properties: Crumbling and losing millions due to sanctions

Offices in city's prime areas were bought by the sovereign wealth fund but remain among assets frozen

Jardine House in London should be a prize asset of the Libyan people. The National
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The sign on a table at reception that says “please knock and wait for reply” and the several locks keeping the door shut makes it clear visitors are not welcome.

An office block in the heart of London’s financial district, Jardine House should be a prize asset of the Libyan people but instead has been taken over by squatters after being frozen under sanctions for more than a decade.

When The National paid a visit, the bizarre sight of a headless mannequin propped up on a chair by the door could be seen, while in the background spray-painted murals paid testimony to squatters' creative impulses.

Only a few minutes walk from the iconic "Gherkin", dust is beginning to form in thick layers around the building, on to which legal notices telling the squatters to move have been pinned.

Today, Jardine House is one of a number of properties owned by Libya’s sovereign wealth fund dotted around London, from office blocks in the city centre to apartments tucked away on leafy residential streets, that have been frozen under sanctions.

Another property, in the Holborn area of the city that once housed an office on the ground floor with apartments above it, also lies empty, with newspaper over broken glass on the door.

Their presence in London is a legacy of Muammar Qaddafi’s decision to invest billions of his country's oil wealth across the globe through its sovereign wealth fund, the Libyan Investment Authority, and its subsidiaries. The value of the LIA's holdings has been frequently cited as $67 billion.

In the late 2000s, stories began to emerge of the LIA snapping up office blocks in London for millions, as the UK reeled from a financial crisis and prices for prize property began to look more reasonable.

But as Qaddafi’s regime began to crumble, sanctions were imposed on Libya by the UN in a bid to prevent the country’s assets falling into the hands of him or his supporters, which in practice included properties owned by the LIA being frozen.

The sanctions remained in place as Libya descended into civil war, again with the intention of preserving the country's assets until the international community was satisfied there was enough stability to ensure they couldn't be for any nefarious purposes, and they remain in place to this day.

These properties exist in legal limbo with approval for even basic maintenance having to go through what critics say is an exhaustive and inflexible bureaucratic process, which it is argued has been causing the value of assets ostensibly owned in the name of the Libyan people to plummet.

Jeremy Grey, managing director of property advisers James Andrews, told The National: “I calculated on the three properties we look after that sanctions had cost the LIA circa £200 million [$257 million] in lost opportunities.”

To maintain the properties, permission has to be sought from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI) not only to set rents but even for basic repair work and those who have first-hand experience of dealing with it talk of their frustration.

Mohamed Shaban, the first British-Libyan to qualify as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales, has in the past represented LIA subsidiaries and applied for licences. He is calling for an overhaul of the application of UK sanctions against Libya.

“The way that sanctions are applied is a mess," he told The National.

“The purpose of sanctions is to protect the value of the assets for the Libyan people but in practice that’s not what is happening.

“If OFSI are meant to conduct their operations in the spirit of guardianship of the Libyan people’s assets, then I’m afraid they are failing.

“What they do in practice is to make it as difficult as possible for the LIA or its subsidiaries to obtain the necessary licences to maintain the value of the assets.”

Mr Shaban argues that the preservation of the value of real estate assets requires licences to at least refurbish these properties, as well as to lease them out to cover the costs of maintenance and various outgoings.

“What the LIA have argued for, and I would agree with them, is for this middle ground," he said. "Don’t lift the sanctions completely but give us the authority to manage our assets so they’re not falling in value.”

Mr Shaban said OFSI should “offer greater flexibility and understanding” and “decisions should made at a higher-than-caseworkers level given the complexities involved in Libyan licence applications".

“At present, due to OFSI inflexibility the LIA funds are spending millions in outgoings on rapidly dilapidating properties, without the ability to recoup any of these losses. The lack of refurbishment and absence of quality tenants decreases the capital value of these properties.

“The way sanctions have been applied is devaluing the Libyan people’s assets, which is a breach of the UK government’s primary obligation of protecting the value of the said sanctioned assets.”

Jardine House and other properties are owned by the Libyan Arab Foreign Investment Company (LAFICO) or the Long Term Portfolio, both investment funds owned by the LIA.

Advisers James Andrew look after three other properties on behalf of LIA through subsidiary companies, which are Portman House, on Oxford Steet, 14 Cornhill, near the Bank of England, and Beaufort House, also in the City of London.

They haven't suffered the same fate as Jardine House and continue to be let, though that continues to be a difficult process that has cost millions in lost opportunities.

Mr Grey explained that while the assets are frozen, James Andrew has licences from OFSI to operate and maintain the buildings.

“Suffice to say, dealing with the UK government is less than straightforward,” he said. "Despite the assurances that the assets are frozen to protect them for the Libyan people, the sanctions legislation is the same for them as the Russians, Syrians and any other sanctioned entity."

Mr Grey explained that under the UN sanctions resolution, assets held by subsidiaries of LIA should not be sanctioned but the EU, of which the UK was a member at the time, went further and froze everything.

Had the UN resolution been followed, “subsidiaries could have continued to operate their businesses, but dividends, interest payments or sale proceeds would not have been available to the LIA”.

If OFSI are meant to conduct their operations in the spirit of guardianship of the Libyan people’s assets, then I’m afraid they are failing
Mohamed Shaban

Libya is currently edging its way towards elections and a unified government after the civil war of 2014-20. Its feuding parties have reached an agreement on legal steps to hold long-delayed elections.

A so-called 6+6 committee drawn from Libya’s two rival legislative bodies, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and the High Council of State in Tripoli, agreed on June 6 on draft laws for presidential and parliamentary elections.

Lawyer and sanctions expert Angelika Hellweger said the Libyan properties were likely to remain frozen in their “legal limbo” for a number of years, producing a “huge amount of paperwork” rather than increasing their value.

Hope for Libya?

When it comes to sanctions being lifted, she said only when “there is a degree of stability” could that be achieved.

Dr Hellweger, who works for law firm Rahman Ravelli, said as far as lawyers who work in her field know, there has yet to be a legal challenge and a ruling that could allow the value of an asset under sanctions to be preserved.

Any action brought by the Libyans would be in uncharted territory, though “Russian oligarchs might challenge it”, she said.

“Unless there is a real elected government, then the sanctions won’t be lifted,” said Dr Hellweger, an Arabic speaker who has worked extensively in the Middle East.

“If Libya is able to hold an election by the end of the year or next year, then most probably another year will pass until they get lifted. But that’s a positive outlook."

Dr Hellweger believes one barrier to the lifting of sanctions is the fracturing of the LIA into two parallel authorities and the power struggles between various factions.

“In the meantime the properties are just sitting there and becoming unmanageable, while these sanctions are more seen as a punitive measure,” she added.

In a statement, the UK's Treasury said OFSI prioritises humanitarian cases and those relating to personal basic needs, which are of material impact or urgency, or where there is a risk to life.

Licences can be granted for the routine maintenance of frozen funds and economic resources, said the statement.

"The fees or service charges must be reasonable and result in the routine holding or maintenance of frozen funds or economic resources.

“OFSI has seen an increase in demand for specific licences since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and it continues to work at pace to respond to completed applications as soon as practicable."

Meanwhile, back at Jardine House, a notice shows LAFICO has a date in court in July as it bids to have he squatters removed from the office block before it can begin what would appear to be substantial refurbishment.

Mr Grey said he had been told the owners “have plans to refurbish the property but this is delayed and complicated by the OFSI approval process”.

Updated: July 25, 2023, 5:50 AM