Sheikh Hamid: the renegade after London's prime trophy assets

With Qatar the biggest international property investor in the world, and London a favoured stamping ground, we're about to see a lot more of the shadowy Sheikh Hamid.

The Chelsea Barracks case at the Royal Courts of Justice has shed a remarkable light on how two royal protagonists the Prince of Wales and the Emir of Qatar "use their clout when it comes to matters of public interest". We're about to see a lot more of the shadowy Sheikh Hamid. According to property adviser Jones Lang LaSalle, Qatar is now the biggest international property investor in the world: "a new global powerhouse". And London is the Emir's favoured stamping ground.

The Chelsea court battle centres on Britain's most expensive building plot, bought by one of the emirate's many investment arms, Qatari Diar, for £959m in 2007, says the Daily Express. The Qataris hired the Candy brothers to redevelop the site into a £3bn apartment complex with architect Richard Rogers. Enter an outraged Prince of Wales, who reportedly expressed his disgust during a tea party at Clarence House. According to Christian Candy, the Emir "went mental" at the prospect of offending a fellow royal and ditched the project. The Candys are now suing for £81m in breach of contract.

But although it may suit the Emir's critics to portray him as a royal patsy in thrall to the House of Windsor, his history suggests otherwise. The Sandhurst-educated sheikh who seized power from his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995 is actually one of the most progressive rulers in the Gulf, with a genuine flair for business.

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Qatar was already oil-wealthy when Sheikh Hamid took control, notes The Daily Telegraph. He has made it the world's richest country per capita. His genius move was to focus on liquefying the country's abundant supplies of natural gas. That opened up new markets and filled a war-chest for Qatar's subsequent global investment spree (see below).

Among gulf rulers, Sheikh Hamid is seen as a renegade, mainly because of his role in founding (and funding) the iconoclastic Arab TV station, Al Jazeera, in 1996.

The Emir's championship of Al Jazeera is "a testament to his liberal thinking", says the Sunday Express. So too are Qatar's tentative experiments with democracy and equal rights for women. The latter cause is championed by the Emir's "razor-sharp" second wife, Sheikha Mozah a favourite on royal and diplomatic circuits.

The sheikh also has a progressive outlook when it comes to Israel: for years, Qatar was the only Gulf state with formal Israeli representation typically enough, a trade office.

Arab opponents claim that the Emir is in the pocket of the Americans. Western critics insist that, for all the democratic window-dressing, he remains an absolute ruler. But his growing reputation as an international political fixer and business mastermind makes him a player to be reckoned with. "Despite its small size," says Theodore Karasik of the Institute for the Near East and Gulf Analysis, "Qatar's foreign influence is becoming immense."

The rise of an 'opportunistic' emirate

Sheikh Hamid represents a key principle of Gulf politics: "the intertwined nature of personal, royal and state wealth", says The Daily Telegraph. As well as being chief executive of the sovereign wealth fund, Qatar Investment Authority, and chairman of the state's investment arm, Qatar Holding (which recently bought Harrods for £1.5bn), he invests his own money alongside the funds he manages.

However, the latest dispute with the Candy brothers has blown the Emir's cover in the London property market, where his "sphere of influence" (via stakes in development firms such as Chelsfield and Songbird) stretches from Canary Wharf to Camden market, notes The Guardian. A Qatari consortium is developing the £2bn "shard of glass" tower near London Bridge; and the sheikh has recently taken advantage of bombed-out property prices and the low pound to snap up trophy assets, including the old US embassy in Grosvenor Square.

He's also rumoured to be interested in The Savoy. The Qataris are "after assets that have a story, that are meaningful for them", says one Gulf financier. But they're also hard-headed bargain drivers: as shown in the deal, last October, to rescue debt-laden Songbird, which owns most of Canary Wharf. And while other sovereign funds have shunned the limelight, Qatar has emerged as a far more "opportunistic player" internationally, says Una Galani on Reuters Breakingviews.

Its latest deal is an agreement to boost "Silk Road" trade with the Agricultural Bank of China, which includes a $2.8bn investment in AgBank's massive initial public offering.

But will Qatar come unstuck? The fund is still sitting on heavy losses from its 2007 investments in J. Sainsbury and the London Stock Exchange, although there's evidence of better timing in its subsequent forays into Barclays and Volkswagen. As for the current round of investments, "it's too early to tell".