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Pandora Papers: Qatar's ruling family avoided £18.5m tax on London mega-mansion

Family paid $160m through 'elaborate offshore structure' for three properties facing Regent's Park to be combined into mansion
Cornwall Terrace is thought to be the most expensive row of houses in the world (Creative Commons)

Qatar's ruling family bought three of the UK's most expensive houses across from London's Regent's Park, in a deal that allowed them to avoid £18.5m in stamp duty, according to newly leaked financial documents.

Details of the sale of the properties, 1, 2 and 3 Cornwall Terrace, were revealed within the Pandora Papers, a massive leak of more than 11.9 million confidential files to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)

Using what the ICIJ described as an “elaborate offshore structure", Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the mother of the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, bought the three properties in 2013.

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The family paid more than £120m ($160m) in two separate purchases and applied to make the houses into a 17-bedroom "mega-mansion".

Stamp duty is a tax paid by buyers of commercial or residential properties in the UK selling above £150,000 ($205,000) and £125,000 ($170,000) respectively. 

The method used to purchase the houses was not illegal but highlights a practice wealthy property owners use to avoid tax when buying property in Britain. 

The Qatari government did not respond to questions from the BBC who published a story about the findings on Tuesday.

The freehold of the properties is owned by the Crown Estate, the Queen's extensive property business that is managed by the UK's Treasury. 

It told the BBC that "given the issues raised" it was now looking into the matter.

World's most expensive terrace

According to the investigation, Qatar's emir, along with former prime minister and billionaire Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, are revealed to be behind offshore accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Tamim bin Hamad was tied to at least two companies registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) investing in property in the UK. 

Hamad bin Jassim, who also previously served as foreign minister and head of the Qatar Investment Authority, has used offshore companies in tax havens such as the BVI, the Bahamas, Panama and the Cayman Islands, the probe revealed.

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Cornwall Terrace is thought to be the most expensive row of houses in the world.

Sheikha Moza, wife of the then-emir of Qatar, purchased 1 Cornwall Terrace for £80m ($109m), while neighbouring 2-3 Cornwall Terrace was bought for £40m ($54.5m).

The houses were bought through property-owning shell companies, known as "special purpose vehicles" (SPVs), which are commonly used in tax avoidance.

The Grade 1 listed buildings were designed and built in the 1820s by Decimus Burton, the protege of John Nash, the architect who designed Buckingham Palace. The terrace was named after King George IV, whose titles included the Duke of Cornwall.

An application to knock through both properties was rejected in 2015, but a second application in 2020 appears to have been granted.

One Cornwall Terrace alone has seven bedrooms, 11 reception rooms, nine bathrooms, a private gym and a garage with number-plate recognition that can accommodate two limousines. 

The adjoining property - formed by combining 2 and 3 Cornwall Terrace - has six bedrooms.

Further analysis of the Pandora Papers by the BBC revealed there were numerous other property assets owned by Qatar's royal family in the UK through offshore companies, with an estimated value of over £650m ($885m), though it said it was unclear whether these purchases involved tax avoidance.