Ex-wife of Saudi bil­lion­aire wins right to claim slice of his for­tune

Court of ap­peal ruled that Sheikh Walid Juf­fali’s plea of diplo­matic im­mu­nity was ir­rel­e­vant in main­te­nance bat­tle

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL -

The ex-wife of a Saudi bil­lion­aire has won the right to make a claim on his for­tune af­ter the court of ap­peal ruled that the man’s diplo­matic im­mu­nity was ir­rel­e­vant to the case. Sheikh Walid Juf­fali is be­ing sued by Christina Estrada, a for­mer Pirelli calendar girl, for a share of his £4bn for­tune af­ter the cou­ple, who had been mar­ried for 13 years, split up.

The bench, headed by the mas­ter of the rolls, Lord Dyson, had been forced to con­sider whether the high court was right to dis­miss as “spu­ri­ous” the Saudi busi­ness­man’s claim to have been pro­tected from lit­i­ga­tion be­cause of his role as per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­gan­i­sa­tion (IMO) for the Caribbean is­land of St Lu­cia.

Philip Ham­mond, the for­eign sec­re­tary, took the highly un­usual step of crit­i­cis­ing the high court judge’s de­ci­sion to strip diplo­matic im­mu­nity from the sheikh in the di­vorce pro­ceed­ings. The For­eign Of­fice (FCO) warned that if the de­ci­sion stood, Bri­tish diplo­mats could be hauled be­fore the courts of any coun­try in which they are serv­ing and their po­si­tion “scru­ti­nised, and their sta­tus un­jus­ti­fi­ably cur­tailed”.

Ham­mond bluntly said the court’s rul­ing “should not be up­held or en­dorsed”. In an un­usual step, the FCO sub­mit­ted an opinion from Tim Eicke QC back­ing the Saudi bil­lion­aire. It said the judge had “erred” in at­tempt­ing to “look be­hind” the Saudi bil­lion­aire’s ac­cred­i­ta­tion as a diplo­mat.

Ham­mond ar­gued that only the “ex­ec­u­tive [act­ing through the FCO] as part of the royal pre­rog­a­tive of con­duct­ing for­eign re­la­tions” can de­cide to “ac­cept [or not] a diplo­mat”.

Lord Dyson, head­ing a three-per­son bench, ac­cepted the for­eign sec­re­tary’s ar­gu­ment and said the high court judge, Jus­tice Anthony Hay­den, was “wrong to hold that [Juf­fali] is not en­ti­tled in prin­ci­ple to im­mu­nity from [the] claim”. The court of ap­peal re­versed the de­ci­sion to strip the Saudi busi­ness­man of im­mu­nity, but in­stead said im­mu­nity was not rel­e­vant in this case. The judges found that as Juf­fali was per­ma­nently res­i­dent in the UK – af­ter 35 years and three mar­riages – and “the claim does not re­late to any of­fi­cial acts per­formed in the ex­er­cise of his [diplo­matic] func­tions”, he could not claim im­mu­nity from di­vorce pro­ceed­ings.

The high court rul­ing had de­scribed the sheikh’s role as a diplo­mat as “an en­tirely ar­ti­fi­cial con­struct”, adding that he had “no pre-ex­ist­ing con­nec­tion to St Lu­cia” and that there was no ev­i­dence that he had “any knowl­edge or ex­pe­ri­ence of mar­itime mat­ters”.

It was said Juf­fali, who chairs one of Saudi Ara­bia’s largest com­pa­nies, only sought to be­come a diplo­mat to de­feat “[his wife’s] claims con­se­quent on the break­down of their mar­riage”.

The in­ter­ven­tion by Ham­mond is sig­nif­i­cant be­cause a grow­ing num­ber of lit­i­gants are claim­ing diplo­matic and state im­mu­nity in English courts, with lawyers say­ing Lon­don is at­tract­ing a global su­per-rich partly drawn to the cap­i­tal as a good place to fight le­gal dis­putes.

About 22,000 peo­ple are en­ti­tled to diplo­matic im­mu­nity in Bri­tain, in­clud­ing diplo­mats and their fam­i­lies. Last month, the high court ruled that one of the world’s rich­est men – Sheikh Ha­mad bin Jas­sim bin Jaber al-Thani, the for­mer prime min­is­ter of Qatar – could not be sued in Lon­don over claims that agents act­ing on his be­half falsely im­pris­oned and tor­tured a Bri­tish cit­i­zen, be­cause he is pro­tected by diplo­matic im­mu­nity.

In that case, Ham­mond’s deputy, James Dud­dridge, said: “It is ul­ti­mately for the court to de­cide whether a for­eign diplo­mat in the UK en­joys im­mu­nity in any par­tic­u­lar case.”

Ge­of­frey Robert­son QC, a for­mer UN judge, told the Guardian that UK courts should have the power to rule on diplo­matic im­mu­nity to stop “sham” ap­point­ments be­ing made by for­eign em­bassies and end abuse of the law by rich and pow­er­ful in­di­vid­u­als. He added that abuses of diplo­matic im­mu­nity had grown in par­al­lel with the rise of hu­man rights law. “Take for ex­am­ple the idea that ev­ery­one should have ac­cess to a court. So we are see­ing cases where a rape vic­tim can’t have ac­cess to the court be­cause the al­leged rapist is a diplo­mat. So this im­mu­nity de­stroys our rights to ac­cess to jus­tice which comes from the Magna Carta.”

What diplo­matic im­mu­nity does, said the QC, is put diplo­mats “above the law”. He said: “One of the most marked cases is that diplo­mats are not al­lowed to en­gage in busi­ness, and we know Mid­dle East­ern em­bassies where they do lit­tle else. The gov­ern­ment has turned a blind eye to this be­cause the For­eign Of­fice favours cer­tain gov­ern­ments for trad­ing rea­sons and doesn’t ask ques­tions. Un­til now, the courts have said, ‘Well, the UK gov­ern­ment ac­cepts these peo­ple as diplo­mats and diplo­mats they are.’ That might be chang­ing.”

In com­ments re­leased af­ter the Guardian re­ported the story, a spokesman for Juf­fali said: “Our client is sad­dened and dis­ap­pointed by today’s de­ci­sion to dis­miss his ap­peal.

“Whilst he is grate­ful that the court has vin­di­cated his ap­point­ment as the per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­gan­i­sa­tion and rec­ti­fied Mr Jus­tice Hay­den’s er­ror, he is dis­mayed that the court has con­cluded that he is per­ma­nently res­i­dent in this ju­ris­dic­tion in cir­cum­stances where he does not have in­def­i­nite leave to re­main in this ju­ris­dic­tion, and spends only a lim­ited num­ber of days in the UK each year.”

“[Juf­fali] re­mains com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing his diplo­matic du­ties and is ap­pre­cia­tive that the of­fice of the prime min­is­ter for St Lu­cia has tes­ti­fied first-hand that he has con­ducted his diplo­matic du­ties in an ex­em­plary man­ner.”

A For­eign Of­fice spokesman said: “On oc­ca­sion the For­eign and Com­mon­wealth Of­fice in­ter­venes in cases to clar­ify mat­ters of in­ter­na­tional law, in or­der to as­sist courts in the UK. In the case of Estrada v Juf­fali, we clar­i­fied the prin­ci­ples for the ap­point­ment of per­ma­nent rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the In­ter­na­tional Mar­itime Or­gan­i­sa­tion and the scope of the im­mu­ni­ties that ap­ply un­der in­ter­na­tional law.”

Christina Estrada and Sheikh Walid Juf­fali in 2005. Estrada is seek­ing a share of his £4bn for­tune af­ter their 13-year mar­riage.

Pho­to­graph: Richard Young/Rex/Shutterstock

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