Pricey real estate deals in Dubai raise questions about Azerbaijan's president
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- Even by the standards of a city that celebrates extravagance, it was a spectacular shopping spree: In just two weeks early last year, an 11-year-old boy from Azerbaijan became the owner of nine waterfront mansions.
The total price tag: about $44 million -- or roughly 10,000 years' worth of salary for the average citizen of Azerbaijan. But the preteen who owns a big chunk of some of Dubai's priciest real estate seems to be anything but average.
His name, according to Dubai Land Department records, is Heydar Aliyev, which just happens to be the same name as that of the son of Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev. The owner's date of birth, listed in property records, is also the same as that of the president's son.
Officials in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, declined to comment on how the president's son -- or at least an Azerbaijani schoolboy with the same birth date and the same name as the son's -- came to own mansions on Palm Jumeirah, a luxury real estate development popular with multimillionaire British soccer stars and others with cash to burn. Ilham Aliyev's annual salary as president is the equivalent of $228,000, far short of what is needed to buy even the smallest Palm property.
Azer Gasimov, the president's spokesman, declined to discuss the Dubai real estate purchases. "I have no comment on anything. I am stopping this talk. Goodbye," he said when contacted by telephone and told about the names on the property records. Gasimov did not respond to requests for further comment sent by fax, e-mail and cellphone text message.
Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic blessed with plentiful oil and gas reserves yet blighted by widespread poverty outside its glitzy capital, has long had a reputation for corruption. But the Dubai purchases, which have not been reported before, could provide a rare concrete example of just how much money the country's governing elite has amassed and of the ways in which at least part of this wealth has been stashed overseas.
Problem for Washington
The transactions sharpen a dilemma that has shadowed Washington's relations with Azerbaijan for years: how to reconcile the United States' security and energy interests in the oil-rich Caspian Sea nation with what the State Department, in a report last year on human rights around the world, described as the "pervasive corruption" of its increasingly authoritarian regime.
Azerbaijan has sent troops to support U.S. democracy-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq but at home has retreated steadily from democratic practices, according to diplomats and experts on the region. Transparency International, in a 2009 survey of global corruption, ranked Azerbaijan among the worst at 143 out of 180 nations.
In addition to recording nine properties owned by Heydar Aliyev, the now-12-year-old schoolboy, Dubai's Land Department also has files in the names of Leyla and Arzu Aliyeva. President Aliyev has two daughters with the same names and roughly the same ages. Their exact dates of birth could not be established, but various reports indicate Leyla's birthday is the same as that of the Azerbaijani woman who figures in the Land Department records.
In all, Azerbaijanis with the same names as the president's three children own real estate in Dubai worth about $75 million, property data indicate. Dubai real estate dealers with knowledge of some of the transactions said the purchases were made by a buyer representing Azerbaijan's ruling family. The dealers said the properties were paid for upfront.
Ali Kerimli, chairman of the Azerbaijani Popular Front, an opposition party, said in a telephone interview, "We all know that our country is one of the most corrupt." But when told about the Dubai purchases, he added that he was surprised at the apparent lack of effort to conceal them.
Azerbaijan's leaders, Kerimli said, "face no danger" because the judiciary, anti-corruption bodies and most of the country's media outlets are firmly under their control.