Monday, February 14, 2011

London calling Mubarak

Is Egypt's ex-president, Hosni Mubarak, about to join the long list of political exiles who have sought a safe haven in the capital, asks Michael Burleigh.

London calling Mubarak; Shopping around: London's exclusive stores are an attraction for those seeking sanctuary; PA
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Shopping around: London's exclusive stores are an attraction for those seeking sanctuary Photo: PA
It was reported at the weekend that a Pakistani court has issued a warrant for the arrest of the former president, Pervez Musharraf. The authorities apparently wish to question him over the protection – or lack of it – surrounding Benazir Bhutto, the opposition leader assassinated by the Taliban in 2007. Leaving aside the merits of the case, it is telling that if they want to find Mr Musharraf, then the place to look is London. Sharp-eyed browsers in one of the capital's smarter stores recently saw him shopping for sofas with his wife. He has joined a long line of foreign exiles who have found a home in the capital, some more welcome than others.
Indeed, the next on the list could be Hosni Mubarak, ousted from power in Egypt. He is currently living in his palatial villa in the resort town of Sharm el Sheikh, and several Arab countries have offered him a bolt-hole should he need to leave the country. But he might consider London to be a more tempting destination (if we'll have him, that is).
The ex-president's family, including his half-Welsh wife Suzanne, already have close connections to the capital. Their son Gamal – nicknamed "Jimmy" by his British chums – has often been sighted in London, where he owns a six-storey, multi-million-pound Regency townhouse a short walk from Harrods. Gamal has a liking for the hospitality of Belgravia's finest restuarants and private clubs, and his wife enjoys shopping in Selfridges.
Mubarak Jnr, a former banker, was being groomed to succeed his father before the Egyptian people took a hand, and, at the height of the popular uprising, he was allegedly seen at Cairo airport with his wife and daughter loading 97 bags on to a private jet bound for London, though this was denied by the embassy.
So, if Mubarak himself is finally forced into exile, will he too be Belgravia-bound? With an estimated $30 billion salted in various foreign banks, he will be any estate agent's dream client – provided he can get his hands on the money.
But should we as a nation be welcoming deposed dictators here? And what is it about London that draws such figures?
This country rightly prides itself on its generosity towards political exiles, a record that owes much to the welcome Protestant England once extended to the Huguenots. Nineteenth-century Englishmen of all classes enthused over the arrival in their midst of such liberal nationalist revolutionaries as the Hungarian Lajos Kossuth and the Italian Giuseppe Mazzini, even though Queen Victoria was not so keen on these fervent republicans. By way of balance, the exiled French Emperor Napoleon III spent the last three years of his life at Chislehurst's Camden Place.
We have also routinely found a space for more extreme revolutionaries. A corner of the original British Library reading room will forever be associated with Karl Marx, who lived in this country from 1849 until his death in 1883. Late-19th and early-20th-century London afforded asylum for a host of bomb-throwing anarchists. It took a foreigner, the great Anglicised Polish novelist Joseph Conrad, to warn the natives that their hospitality could strike others as naïve complacency in his novel The Secret Agent. Of course, our modern-day intelligence agencies and politicians haven't read Conrad. If they had, they would not have allowed a rag-tag-and-bobtail of Islamist malcontents and murderers to set up shop in what has been dubbed "Londonistan".
As the case of Napoleon III shows, this country has long given refuge to exiled rulers, and this tradition is alive and well today. As the case of the former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet amply demonstrated 13 years ago, sovereign immunity trumps extradition warrants, something for which Pervez Musharraf might be thankful if the Pakistani courts continue to pursue him.
Unlike many other national leaders who have made their way to London, he was one of the few to exit without a huge fortune, so he lives relatively modestly – though by no means on his uppers – in a flat estimated to be worth about £1 million. Inside he displays such mementoes as the Time magazine cover that describes him as having "The Toughest Job in the World". The only indication that Musharraf is not your typical visiting businessman is the presence of teams of former Pakistani commandos and diplomatic protection officers who shadow him.
Should the current Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, ever be forced to flee, he also has plenty of hideaways to head for. Nicknamed Mr Ten Per Cent for his alleged habit of skimming off millions in kickbacks, he has a country club and polo ranch in Florida, and an estate in France called The House of the White Queen.
Until recently, he owned a series of apartments in Knightsbridge's exclusive Pont Street, accompanied by a spread in Surrey called Rockwood. This had such vulgar touches as LED lights over his four-poster bed in patterns that mimicked stars in the night sky. A Lalique glass dining table seating 30 cost £120,000. Most bizarrely, having taken a fancy to the neighbouring Dog and Pheasant Pub, Zardari tried to purchase it. Thwarted by the pub landlord, he recreated the pub's interior, beer pumps and all, inside Rockwood.
Several dictators have come to know London by repute through their sons and heirs, who they have sent to study in Britain, or who regularly sojourn in its luxury hotels. These scions include Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi, who, after receiving a PhD, generously gave £10 million to the LSE.
London offers despots and dictators opportunities for "fun", too. While a student here, another currently serving Middle Eastern president apparently developed the eccentric pastime of collecting the cards that prostitutes leave in telephone kiosks. He has display cases of these things in his palace, although – so I am reliably told – he apparently never availed himself of the numbers.
Indeed, London has many of the amenities that appeal to the global rich in general. A house in Belgravia, Chelsea or Hampstead will massively increase in value, especially if – regardless of the neighbours – one digs down to install home cinemas and swimming pools.
The capital has innumerable specialist firms selling such expensive toys as fast cars, yachts, sporting guns and so on. For leaders and their wives used to summoning the "shopping plane" – as Tunisia's first lady Leila Trabelsi dubbed her official transport – there are stores including Chanel, Swakrovski and Prada. Leila Trabelsi was a fan of them all, judging by the empty bags Tunisian protestors found all over her husband's deserted palace when he had to flee last month.
London is also a haven for those whose lifestyle is constrained by living in such puritanical societies as Saudi Arabia. They can let their hair down by touring London's nightclubs in their Ferraris and Lamborghinis. There, they will encounter another useful set of foreigners – namely the Russian and East European working girls who congregate in such places.
From time to time, these charmlessly hypocritical aspects of Saudi society have been revealed whenever people who imagine they are above the law find themselves in British courts: domestic servants being assaulted with irons and locked in cupboards, for example. In the most extreme case, Saudi Prince Saud Abdulaziz bin Nasser al Saud murdered his servant in a sexually-motivated killing in London's swish Landmark Hotel last February.
In addition, London is also a favoured refuge for thousands of Russians, including legitimate businessmen weary of police-backed mafia shakedowns at home, or those who have otherwise fallen foul of Vladimir Putin's FSB-Mafia state. Of course, Prime Minister Putin will claim that London is a haven for people he himself regards as crooks and gangsters.
But there is a price to pay for London's attractions. When they were in power, Mubarak, Musharraf and others protested that London had been used as a base by those trying to subvert or overthrow their governments. Their presence always risks a "blowback" in the shape of Islamist terrororism on our soil. Indeed, we may find that the presence of exiled foreign
"celebrities" can actively harm our relations with whatever government emerges in their wake, especially if they seek some sort of redress from their erstwhile leaders. After all, ex-president Mubarak's huge fortune did not come from his modest official salary but was siphoned off from the Egyptian people or from massive amounts of US aid pumped into a country where many people survive on £1.50 a day.
We should remember them the next time we catch sight of a large car, bodyguards and well-groomed figures striding into Bond Street shops.