This article was originally published on 31 January 2023 on OCCRP.
Until last year, Rovnag Abdullayev headed Azerbaijan’s state oil company, SOCAR, where he made a modest official salary. Yet his son Rashad purchased an ultra-expensive property in London’s Grosvenor Square at the age of 25.
- Rashad Abdullayev owns the posh London flat through a company registered in Guernsey.
- He was revealed as its beneficial owner thanks to a U.K. law, passed last year, that requires such entities to disclose their ultimate beneficial owners.
- The source of the money used to buy the flat is unclear.
- SOCAR, the state firm Abdullayev’s father led for 17 years, has been widely criticized for corruption and secretive financial dealings.
For the first time, a luxury foreign property has been identified as belonging to a family member of Rovnag Abdullayev, the longtime president of Azerbaijan’s state oil company SOCAR.
The vast state enterprise, which Abdullayev led until last year, has been criticized for its lack of transparency and for enriching Azerbaijani elites, including apparently members of his family, at the expense of public coffers.
Abdullayev, who now serves as a deputy economy minister, has had no known sources of income besides his official salary.
But a new corporate filing reveals that his 28-year-old son, Rashad Abdullayev, owns a luxury flat at Twenty Grosvenor Square, a prominent address in one of London’s most expensive areas. He acquired the property through a secretive offshore company for 17.3 million British pounds ($22.4 million) in 2019.
The storied building was once used by the U.S. Navy and hosted General Dwight D. Eisenhower as he led Allied forces during the Second World War. Starting in 2014 it was converted into an elite residential building featuring a wine cellar, its own sommelier, and a 25-meter swimming pool. The building’s luxurious flats are tended to around the clock by staff from the Four Seasons hospitality brand.
The Telegraph reported last March that some of the flats there had been purchased by prominent foreign businessmen, including Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.
But Rashad Abdullayev’s ownership of a four-bedroom flat on the building’s third floor has only now become possible to trace. It is held through a company incorporated on the island of Guernsey, where corporate ownership information is not public.
However, the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act, passed in the U.K. last year, requires all overseas entities that own properties in the country to declare their ultimate beneficial owners by the end of January 2023.
The Guernsey company, Mount Street Investments PCC, filed its declaration just over a week ago. Its records show that Rashad Abdullayev became the company’s owner in June 2019. According to U.K. land records, the company then bought the London flat that December.
“New transparency rules are revealing how politically connected people from around the world own vast amounts of U.K. real estate via secretive offshore companies,” said Ben Cowdock, Investigations Lead at Transparency International U.K. “When you’ve got an asset whose value far outstrips the owner’s known legal sources of wealth — especially owners deemed a higher corruption risk in law — it really should be a matter for the police to investigate.”
The source of the money used to pay for the flat is unknown. Rashad Abdullayev did not respond to requests for comment for this story. His father Rovnag Abdullayev wrote in an e-mail that he had made no payments in relation to his son’s apartment and knew nothing about the origins of the money used to buy it.
“Even if Rashad Abdullayev has purchased the aforementioned apartment,” he wrote, “I sincerely believe that he has not made any illegal transactions, that he has the necessary documents regarding this issue and that they are in accordance with the law.”
SOCAR’s annual reports show that the annual salaries and benefits for the company’s president and about a dozen vice presidents total less than $800,000, making it essentially impossible for the money for the London flat to have come solely from Rovnag Abdullayev’s official income.
According to his now-deleted LinkedIn profile, Rashad Abdullayev landed a job at SOCAR Trading, the state oil company’s marketing and development arm, at the age of 16. His title was “trade and business development specialist.” His father disputed the information contained in his son’s LinkedIn profile, writing that Rashad had not worked for SOCAR Trading, but as an intern for a different SOCAR-affiliated company.
Just three years later, at the age of 19, Rashad Abdullayev founded a real estate investment, consulting, and property management company while living in Turkey. For several years, he also owned a restaurant in the resort city of Bodrum and co-owned a chain of gas stations in Georgia.
His current place of employment and income are unknown.
SOCAR is the steward of much of Azerbaijan’s oil wealth, but transparency advocates and anti-corruption specialists have repeatedly accused it of extreme secrecy, lack of accountability, and unexplained financial dealings with publically unknown figures. OCCRP has reported on efforts by two of the company’s subsidiaries to siphon $1.7 billion from a major gas project and on apparent plots to enrich insiders, including Rovnag Abdullayev’s father-in-law.
“SOCAR is the leading corrupt state company of Azerbaijan,” said Gubad Ibadoghlu, an Azerbaijani economist who is currently a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics. “They never disclose information, they never published a report about how much money they received, how much they pay taxes.”
The same year his company bought the Grosvenor Square flat, Rashad Abdullayev, then 25, featured in another affair highlighting his family’s extreme wealth. OCCRP was able to confirm a rumored incident — one a SOCAR spokesperson had denied — that he had been robbed of a luxury watch worth $1.35 million in Ibiza. According to an amended police complaint seen by OCCRP reporters, Rashad Abdullayev tried to disassociate himself from the watch, claiming that the luxury timepiece did not belong to him.
He has also reportedly been seen in London driving a rare Mercedes worth over $300,000.
Rovnag Abdullayev was removed from his position as head of SOCAR last year by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. His new position as a deputy economy minister is considered less influential, and President Aliyev seemed to hint at corruption at the state oil giant in a speech in April, mentioning “active reforms” and “new management” that would finally help it become a “transparent international energy company.”
When asked by reporters about allegations of corruption at SOCAR, Rovnag Abdullayev wrote: “I do not have any knowledge or interest in the allegations contained in your letter. The allegations related to me do not reflect the truth.”
Front desk staff at Twenty Grosvenor Square confirmed that Rashad Abdullayev owns a flat in the building and said they would deliver a letter to his assistant.
Finchatton, the developer of the building, did not respond to requests for comment.
iFact Georgia contributed reporting.
Fact-checking was provided by the OCCRP Fact-Checking Desk.