Jordanian security forces arrived unexpectedly at Moayyad al-Majali’s home one day in October 2019, detaining the lawyer, confiscating his laptop and phones and accusing him of one of the kingdom’s most serious offences.
His crime was slandering the country’s ruler, King Abdullah II, simply by asking a single question: how much land does the king own?
In a country propped up by billions of dollars in international financial aid – and where unemployment has nearly doubled over the past seven years – the topic is considered too sensitive for the Jordanian public to know about.
But today, the Guardian can reveal part of the answer, thanks to documents that form the Pandora papers, the largest ever trove of leaked offshore data.
The files expose that the Arab world’s longest-serving current monarch has spent the past decades amassing an international luxury property empire worth well in excess of $100m (£74m), with its footprint stretching from the clifftops of Malibu, California, to Washington DC and on to central London’s most exclusive postcodes.
Abdullah built this property empire showing the same zeal for secrecy he has demonstrated when asked about his finances at home. He has disguised his ownership through a series of offshore companies incorporated in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) , according to records shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists with the Guardian, the BBC and other media outlets around the world.
The multimillion-dollar properties were acquired as US economic and military aid to Jordan quadrupled and Jordanian citizens were subjected to austerity as part of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for the resource-poor country.
Using offshore companies to acquire property is not illegal and it is sometimes done to protect privacy or security. But the secrecy the offshore system confers on those wealthy enough to keep their purchases from public view can also open the door to money laundering.
Perhaps the most palatial – and certainly the most expensive – of the king’s purchases revealed in the Pandora papers is a vast clifftop property on California’s Malibu coast. It is described as a “resort hotel-like mega mansion” containing 26 rooms, overlooking a stretch of coastline made famous as the location of the dramatic final scene in the original 1968 Planet of the Apes film.
Public records show the home passed from Hollywood producers to dotcom billionaires, before, the Pandora papers reveal, it was bought by Abdullah in August 2014 for $33.5m, estimated to be a record price for property in the area. The king then acquired the two neighbouring properties. In the previous two years, Abdullah had acquired three condominiums in Washington DC for a total of $13.8m.
The leak of papers also reveals how the Jordanian ruler secretly acquired a portfolio of seven luxury UK properties – including three in Belgravia, London. Purchased between 2003 and 2011, the UK properties are estimated to have a current market value of about £28m. The UK was sending up to £100m a year in bilateral aid to Jordan during much of the time covered by the papers.
The monarch says he owns his property in a personal capacity – but while there is no evidence of any wrongdoing, the king’s net worth and source of his income remain closely guarded.
The king’s lawyers said: “HM [His Majesty] has not at any point misused public monies or made any use whatsoever of the proceeds of aid or assistance intended for public use … HM cares deeply for Jordan and its people and acts with integrity and in the best interests of his country and its citizens at all times.”
Jordan appeared to have blocked the ICIJ website on Sunday, hours before the Pandora papers launched.