The long-suffering burghers of London and New York are well-used to dodgy diplomats exploiting their much-vaunted immunity to park their motor cars in outrageous fashion, but now a billionaire Saudi oil and gas titan may be planning to take the abuse of diplomatic immunity one stage further.
It is widely suspected that Sheikh Walid Juffali, 60, is scheming to use his immunity to avoid paying up in a costly divorce settlement with his American ex-supermodel wife, Christina Estrada, 53, an American Pirelli calendar girl (and an old flame of Britain’s Prince Andrew).
Avoiding fines, maintenance payments and other tedious official sanctions with impunity is, of course, one of the many perks of being a diplomat, but in this case, Sheikh Walid Juffali is not even an ambassador for his own country—he has instead been made a diplomat by the tiny island of St Lucia, with special responsibility for the country’s negotiations with the International Maritime Organization (IMO).
Juffali, 60 is coincidentally embroiled in a high-profile divorce case in London, and a potentially expensive tussle over his £4 billion (almost $6 billion) fortune.
Curiously, it was shortly after the divorce proceedings began that Juffali was awarded diplomatic status by the island nation of St Lucia.
There is no public record of Mr Juffali attending any meetings of the IMO, “nor does he possess any known qualifications in maritime law,” according to a tart report that first questioned the convenient arrangement in The Telegraph in November.
Mr Juffali and Ms Estrada split after Juffali married a young Lebanese TV presenter, without getting divorced first. He is permitted to take four wives under Islamic law, and made no attempt to hide the nuptials which took place in November 2012 in Venice, in front of hundreds of guests, including the rapper Akon of ‘Don’t Matter’ fame.
The bride, then 22, wore a diamond encrusted necklace reportedly worth £1.9 million and a Karl Lagerfeld wedding dress.
Ms Estrada, was, unsurprisingly, less than thrilled when the pictures hit the international media, and instituted divorce proceedings in the UK.
She is claiming a significant chunk of Mr Juffali’s wealth, which includes a £60 million converted church in Knightsbridge and estates in Surrey and Dartmouth.
A few months later, Walid Juffali appeared on the London Diplomatic List as St Lucia’s “Permanent Representative” to the IMO, a curiously obscure and eminently unsuitable appointment for an oil and gas billionaire, who is not from St Lucia.
Although countries are technically allowed to appoint foreign nationals as diplomats, it is a very unusual occurrence.
Today, the London Times reports, “Since his appointment a year and a half ago, Mr Juffali has not attended any of the 27 meetings held by the organization. His appointment effectively grants him diplomatic immunity, which could mean that Ms Estrada will not be entitled to any of the financial settlement.”
Professor Craig Barker, Dean of Law and Social Sciences at London South Bank University, and an expert in diplomatic law, told the Daily Beast that the British government should revoke Juffali’s immunity immediately by declaring him persona non grata.
However, Barker pointed out Juffali’s appointment to specifically represent St Lucia at the IMO might make that a more complicated matter and indicated that the plan had been carefully thought out.
“For the law relating to diplomats appointed from third countries—i.e. a Saudi representing St Lucia in the UK—the Vienna convention of 1961 talks about the consent of the receiving state being required,” Professor Barker said.
“In the relevant 1975 convention for organizations [eg, the IMO], the convention allows a receiving state to object to the appointment of a national of that state, but makes no mention of the national of a third party state. That they have gone down the ‘representative for an international organization route’ to get the immunity does suggest to me that it is even more thought-through and manufactured than just making him a diplomat. They have thought hard about how he can have the maximum protection.”
Professor Barker is an expert on the siege of the Libyan embassy in which a gunman with diplomatic immunity shot British policewoman Yvonne Fletcher and was allowed to leave the country.
“The point is that the United Kingdom needs to review its whole attitude to the granting of diplomatic immunity,” Professor Barker said. “This is fundamentally the issue at the heart of the Yvonne Fletcher case. What happened in that case was that the British government was inept at checking up on who was coming into the country and who was being given diplomatic immunity.
“This guy who was arrested recently was in his fifties. If you calculate back, he must have been in his mid to early twenties when he was being granted diplomatic status and firing guns out the Libyan embassy. The British government has a history of not taking enough care about who gets diplomatic immunity.”
When it comes to abuse of diplomatic immunity, the most obvious manifestation is illegal parking. Professor Barker says the failure of the British government to act on this problem is symptomatic of a wider inertia and ineptitude around the whole issue.
“The British government have repeatedly said they will take action against Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and one or two others who are continual parking violators, running up tens of thousands of fines each year. But they don’t. And I’m not quite sure why. A parking fine seems unlikely to threaten a secret oil deal. It doesn’t ring true.
“My work for 30 years has been driven by the knowledge that we need diplomatic immunity. We need to give immunity for one reason only—so we protect our representatives who we are sending into some fairly difficult places Iraq, Syria.
“Diplomatic immunity basically means you don’t shoot the messenger. It is a long held principle, dating back to Greek and Roman times, but this kind of manipulation of the system brings diplomatic immunity into disrepute.”
Andrew Rosindell, a member of the foreign affairs select committee, told the Times of Mr Juffali’s appointment: “Diplomatic immunity is a huge privilege, and should only be exercised in the most demanding and relevant instances. To use it for personal benefit risks making a mockery of diplomatic privileges.”
But Mr. Juffali has now effectively gained legal immunity in Britain, and it will be impossible to enforce any legal sanction against him if he does not adhere to the terms of whatever the court rules.
Mr. Juffali represents the most extreme end of London’s Arab playboy culture.
In 2005, he paid £220,000 at a Christie’s charity auction for a nude photograph of Tamara Mellon, the co-founder of Jimmy Choo, and £270,000 for a nude photograph of Kate Moss.
If Mr. Juffali is seeking legal immunity to prevent a big legal bill, he may be attempting to avoid history repeating itself.
In 2000, he divorced his first wife Basma al-Sulaiman and paid her £40 million after their marriage of 24 years ended.