King Abdullah II. (Illustration by Frank Hulley-Jones/The Washington Post; Photograph by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
While billions of dollars in American aid poured into Jordan over the past decade, a secret stream of money was flowing in the opposite direction as the country’s ruler, King Abdullah II, spent millions on extravagant homes in the United States.
Using an extensive network of offshore accounts that disguised his transactions, Abdullah purchased lavish properties on both coasts with funds whose origin remains unclear, according to a trove of financial documents obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and reviewed by The Washington Post.
Between 2014 and 2017, companies associated with the king spent nearly $70 million on three adjacent homes overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, according to the files and other documents, forming one of the largest bluff-top complexes in the celebrity enclave of Malibu.
At the center is a 14,000-square-foot Mediterranean-style mansion that has seven bedrooms and nine baths and is outfitted with a gym, theater, outdoor spa and infinity swimming pool — all set on more than 3½ acres of prime coastal property.
The acquisition of these homes followed similar transactions in Washington, D.C., where documents show that Abdullah spent nearly $10 million on luxury condominiums with expansive views of the Potomac River in Georgetown.
The purchases in the United States were part of an international buying spree. Abdullah also acquired at least three multimillion-dollar residences in London, according to the files, properties that he combined with a fourth he already owned to create a residential monolith near Buckingham Palace. This flagship holding added to a collection that already included two residences in the Kensington area and a country home near Windsor Castle.
Overall, the king has spent more than $106 million on properties that are held by shell companies registered to him alone rather than to the royal family or the Kingdom of Jordan.
He made the majority of these acquisitions over a 10-year stretch that has been marked by mounting economic hardship in Jordan, rising public frustration with suspected corruption surrounding the king, and growing political instability that culminated this year in an alleged coup plot. The king’s half brother and 18 others were detained in a crackdown that exposed internal divisions that threaten Abdullah’s hold on power more than at any other time in his two-decade tenure.
“This comes at a very bad and awkward time for the king, in the wake of an alleged coup plot that exposed deep concern in Jordan about corruption,” said Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA official and expert on Jordan. “This will only reinforce those concerns.”
Abdullah’s spending may not be outlandish by the exorbitant standards of Middle Eastern monarchs. “You could probably pour all of his profligate purchases into one afternoon of MBS’s shopping bill,” one former U.S. official said, referring to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who once reportedly spent $450 million on a Leonardo da Vinci painting that he displayed on his yacht. The official was one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of U.S.-Jordanian relations.
But unlike the rich Persian Gulf monarchies, Jordan is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. It has no significant oil and gas reserves, scant arable land, an inadequate water supply and a single seaport too remote to be of much economic advantage.
Instead, Jordan survives to a large extent on billions of dollars in aid that it receives for its role as a source of stability in a conflict-plagued region, as well as for its willingness to accept millions of refugees from neighboring wars.
Jordan received $1.5 billion from the United States alone last year, making it the third-largest recipient of American foreign assistance, trailing only Israel and Afghanistan. U.S. officials said that this funding is tracked assiduously and they have seen no evidence that any money was diverted from its intended purpose.
A law office in London representing Abdullah acknowledged his ownership of foreign properties for personal use and vigorously defended his actions. “Any implication that there is something improper about [Abdullah’s] ownership of property through companies in offshore jurisdictions is categorically denied,” the firm, DLA Piper, said in a letter responding to a request for comment from the ICIJ, The Post and other partners.
Abdullah, the letter said, “has not at any point misused public monies or made any use whatsoever of the proceeds of aid or assistance intended for public use.”
The revelations in the financial documents raise questions about where Abdullah got the money and why a king who might argue that he is entitled to royal residences abroad appears to have gone to such lengths to conceal that they belong to him.
The documents show that Abdullah’s financial adviser contested even minimal disclosure requirements and that the law firm used to set up the king’s offshore accounts ignored, if not violated, international standards calling for special scrutiny of clients who hold positions of political influence.
Even among themselves, Abdullah’s offshore handlers seemed allergic to any mention of his name or title. On one spreadsheet listing several of his companies, the king is referred to only as “you know who.”
DLA Piper said Abdullah’s use of offshore companies was necessary for security reasons. Abdullah and his family “are the subject of threats from terrorist and other destabilizing groups,” the firm’s letter said. “It would be a clear threat to the security and privacy of [Abdullah] and his family if their ownership of particular properties were known.” The firm also cited a financial advantage, noting that sellers might seek inflated prices if they became aware of the identity of “a high profile purchaser.”
Key questions to better understand the offshore system
Luxurious perch in Malibu
The documents revealing Abdullah’s purchases are part of a collection of more than 11.9 million records obtained from law firms, accounting offices and trust administrators based in some of the world’s most secretive jurisdictions. The files, dubbed the Pandora Papers, were shared with The Post by the ICIJ.
The documents show that Abdullah, 59, has spent years assembling a network of at least 36 front companies, trusts and other entities with the help of accountants and lawyers in jurisdictions including Switzerland, Panama and the British Virgin Islands.
Many of these entities remain a mystery, with no clear indication in the files of why they were created or what they contain. Specific properties owned by the king were identified by searching for the front companies in publicly available real estate data and other records.
The king’s connection to this network of offshore companies is revealed in several key documents. Among them is a memo written by a compliance manager at Alemán, Cordero, Galindo & Lee, a Panamanian law firm known as “Alcogal” where Abdullah appears to have been a client — through intermediaries — for years.
The Alcogal memo identifies one of its clients as “Abdullah al Hussein,” with a 1962 birth date that matches the sovereign’s and an address, “Raghadan Palace,” that corresponds to his palace in Amman, the Jordanian capital.
Elsewhere in the files are a copy of Abdullah’s passport and records linking him to wealth management firms in Switzerland — including Sansa S.A. and FidiGere S.A. — that worked with Alcogal to set up the companies used to hold Abdullah’s assets.
In some cases, the names of the companies created for Abdullah appear to have religious or regional significance. Tigiris Investments Ltd., for example, was likely named for the ancient river of Mesopotamia, and Zayer Ltd., uses the term for tourists who visit Muslim holy sites.
Other names are oddly incongruous. Nabisco Holdings S.A., a shell company with no apparent connection to the global food brand, was the firm used to make the purchase that gave the king his first and most luxurious perch in Malibu.
A stone wall blocks any view of the residence on Cliffside Drive from the road. Satellite images and photos from property listings that predate Abdullah’s purchase show a winding driveway that arrives at a set of wooden doors behind massive columns. More recent images show that the property has undergone extensive renovations.
Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows frame panoramic views of the Pacific between Point Dume and the Los Angeles coastline. There is a gym, theater, outdoor spa, infinity pool and, according to one listing, an “industrial grade” data network and security system.
According to property records, the house was built in 1999 and was first owned by a television producer, Arthur Silver, whose credits include the sitcoms “Laverne & Shirley” and “Married With Children.”
Abdullah’s Nabisco Holdings company bought the house in 2014 for $33.5 million, according to public records, a sum described in online real estate coverage at the time as the highest price ever paid for a property in the vicinity of Point Dume.
Next, a compound
For Abdullah, it was only the first piece in what became a multi-parcel compound. A year later, documents show, he bought a neighboring property for $12.25 million. Then, in 2017, he purchased another for $23 million, making him owner of the three connected parcels bordering a state park at Point Dume.
One of the added properties is a seven-bedroom mansion with a swimming pool and lush gardens overlooking the Pacific, according to real estate listings. The other is a sprawling, four-bedroom stucco home with a three-car garage, floor-to-ceiling windows and a private patio at the edge of the bluff.
On paper, the properties are owned by three separate companies: Nabisco Holdings, Setara Ltd. and Timara Ltd. Public records provide no indication that these companies are related, let alone connected to Abdullah. But all are listed on spreadsheets and other files in the Pandora trove that catalogue companies controlled by Abdullah.
Presented with a list of companies and properties associated with Abdullah, DLA Piper, the firm representing the monarch, said the information is “inaccurate and out of date” but declined to elaborate or clarify. The firm cited its desire to “limit the risk to which our client and his family will be exposed” due to disclosures of the locations of properties.
To many in Malibu, the ownership of the properties on Cliffside Drive has been a mystery. “If you figure it out, you’re a genius,” said Dan Sandel, who has owned a home across the street for several decades. He said the purchases and subsequent construction at the sites have fueled speculation about movie stars and tech billionaires, “any name in the world you can imagine.”
The properties are among the most coveted in the city, exceeded only by a stretch known as “billionaires’ beach,” where entertainment mogul David Geffen and others have owned structures right on the sand.
Jeff Jennings, the chairman of the Malibu Planning Commission, said that he was not aware the properties were owned by Abdullah but that aspects of renovation plans submitted to the commission in recent years had raised eyebrows.
A proposal for one of the properties called for the construction of so many bedrooms that Jennings grew concerned it was no longer a single-family residence. When he raised the matter with city staff, he was told the rooms were for “the security detail of whoever lives next door,” he recalled in an interview, noting that speculation centered on “a Middle Eastern potentate.”
Abdullah is among a class of anonymous, absentee owners who, Jennings said, have “changed the character of the city.” The homes are vacant for months at a time, he said, and their owners don’t shop at local stores, send their children to local schools or interact with neighbors.
Cliffside Drive is a particular draw for those seeking privacy. “You have to look at the area we’re talking about,” Jennings said. “Large homes on large lots fenced in with hedges you can’t see past.”
Abdullah has made only brief visits to the United States in recent years, including a trip this year that included stops in Washington, D.C., and Idaho. U.S. officials who know Abdullah said he is fond of the California coast.
The only known reference online to Abdullah and the Malibu properties is on the Facebook page of a Southern California company, Bradford Sheet Metal, that did renovation work at one of the houses. The 2019 post shows employees on scaffolding surrounding the structure, with the caption: “The King of Jordan’s place in Malibu…My Guy’s [sic] doing what they do.”
When called by a Post reporter and asked about the Facebook entry, a person identifying himself as the owner of Bradford Sheet Metal quickly hung up the phone.
An ‘unusually sensitive’ client
The Pandora Papers reveal the unusual extent to which the financial team went to protect Abdullah’s secrets.
In 2016, a financial adviser to Abdullah pressed to revise language in a “terms of business” memo with the Alcogal law firm to restrict when and to whom the king’s name would be disclosed, according to documents. The changes were demanded by Andrew Evans, a Switzerland-based adviser involved in managing the king’s money.
When a draft of the agreement indicated that the king’s name might under certain circumstances have to be shared with authorities in the British Virgin Islands, Evans wrote in edits still visible on the draft: “Please would you define who is covered by the ‘authorities.’ ”
Evans demanded that records containing the names of his “unusually sensitive clients” not be stored on computer systems but only on paper. “Currently we only have one client who fits this category,” he said, in an apparent reference to Abdullah.
A year later, in 2017, Abdullah’s financial handlers argued over how to interpret new financial transparency laws in the British Virgin Islands, emails show. The laws, enacted in the aftermath of the Panama Papers investigation, required firms that register companies to provide BVI authorities with the names of the companies’ “ultimate beneficial owners” — that is, the true owners behind the shells. The names would be held in a secure “portal” so that BVI officials could share the information with foreign law enforcement agencies pursuing investigations of fraud or other financial crimes.
Evans moved quickly to relocate his clients’ companies, including those belonging to Abdullah, to new corporate addresses in Panama, documents show. Evans bristled when compliance officers at Alcogal asked him to furnish proof of who owned the companies even as they were being re-registered elsewhere.
“Please could you explain why you are requesting” this information, Evans wrote back, arguing that doing so undermined his efforts at ensuring secrecy. When Evans then proposed that Alcogal use his Swiss firm’s name, rather than Abdullah’s, the lawyers balked.
“I think we have a bigger problem,” one of Alcogal’s compliance officers wrote to colleagues. Under BVI law, the officer wrote, the firm could still be compelled by BVI authorities to reveal true owners’ names for up to five years after their companies had been moved or dissolved.
It’s not clear from the documents how the matter was resolved. The files do raise questions about Alcogal’s compliance with international standards calling for additional due diligence when handling accounts of “politically exposed” persons. The standards are meant to bring additional scrutiny to the accounts of government officials or political figures whose offshore holdings might be an indicator of corruption.
Alcogal checked boxes on internal risk assessment forms declaring that its client — the king of Jordan — was not politically exposed.
Evans did not respond to requests for comment sent to him by email. Approached in Switzerland by journalists taking part in the Pandora project, Evans said that he is now retired and confirmed that he had received the requests for comment but declined to answer questions.
Alcogal responded to questions from The Post, the ICIJ and other partners with an eight-page letter defending its practices. The letter did not acknowledge or address the firm’s business relationship with Abdullah, but disputed the allegation that “we have not classified certain individuals as PEPs, where in fact we have.”
The letter said that the PEP designation “does not automatically disqualify a person from consideration to be a client,” but that enhanced due diligence “is then conducted.”
“We are professional and law-abiding attorneys,” the letter concluded, a firm that has “never been indicted and much less convicted of any illicit activities.”
A well-curated public image
Abdullah, regarded by many Muslims as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, is the leading member of a historic Hashemite clan that still administers key shrines in Jerusalem.
During his two decades in power, he has cultivated the image of an affluent but altruistic public servant, a sovereign who is a member of the global elite even as he steers a country dependent on massive influxes of aid.
The social media accounts of Abdullah and Queen Rania often show them dressed in designer outfits, sitting astride one of his Harley-Davidson motorcycles, or posing for pictures at the palace or in their seats on a private jet.
But they also appear visiting with villagers, touring schools and hospitals, and taking part in charity events. Their curated feed is a reflection of their effort to navigate the tensions in a country where roughly one-fifth of the population is unemployed and incomes have stagnated.
In 2018, protests erupted in Amman after Abdullah moved to raise taxes and impose price increases as part of austerity measures. Economists feared the country was heading toward insolvency — its ratio of debt to gross domestic product had surged from 60 to 93 percent between 2011 and 2015.
After days of protests, marked by chants of “Bread, freedom and social justice,” Abdullah buckled, suspending price increases and accepting the resignation of the country’s prime minister.
But U.S. officials and political observers in Jordan say public anger never fully abated and could be fanned anew by disclosures that Abdullah was spending millions overseas while imposing austerity measures at home.
“There are so many economic challenges and problems confronting the Jordanian people,” said Labib Kamhawi, a former professor of political science at Jordan University. “A normal Jordanian citizen is running a constant deficit in his budget and can hardly make ends meet,” he said, adding that revelations that Abdullah secretly purchased lavish homes would “fuel anger in the country and instability.”
A former senior U.S. official who served in Amman described Abdullah’s conduct as reckless. “It is shocking to be stockpiling residences abroad when you have fundamental issues of keeping your people afloat,” the former official said.
The former official was one of several who said the disclosures raise questions about where Abdullah got the cash.
The United States has provided Jordan with more than $22 billion in assistance since the 1950s, with aid surging to more than $1 billion annually in recent years. That money does not include $1.7 billion the United States has provided in aid to refugees in Jordan since the start of Syria’s civil war.
State Department documents indicate that the money given to Jordan has paid for roads, schools and new water sources, as well as the education of thousands of Jordanians at colleges and academies in the United States. At a more fundamental level, the American largesse is aimed at ensuring that Jordan remains both an ally and a pillar of religious and political moderation in the otherwise volatile Middle East.
In recent decades, Jordan has either stood with or directly supported the United States through wars in Iraq, clandestine CIA operations against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, interventions in Syria, and efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Current and former U.S. officials expressed doubt that any substantial portion of American aid to Jordan had been diverted, citing stringent reporting requirements as well as the potentially adverse consequences for Jordan if it were caught cheating its largest source of international support.
Jordan also receives hundreds of millions of dollars each year from countries in the Middle East, including Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and, at times, Saudi Arabia.
U.S. officials and experts on Jordan said there is far less transparency about that gulf money. Abdullah appears to have wide latitude with the funding, they said, and uses much of it to reward prominent families for their loyalty and political support.
“Money from the gulf is almost never made public,” said a former U.S. intelligence official who worked extensively with Jordan. “Some of that has been in checks made out to King Abdullah — not the Hashemite Kingdom.”
The letter from DLA Piper said Abdullah’s “personal wealth is not from public monies, rather from personal sources.” Abdullah “cares deeply for Jordan and its people and acts with integrity and in the best interests of his country and its citizens at all times,” the letter said. The firm said that, under Jordanian law, Abdullah pays no taxes, but said that “a significant percentage of [Abdullah’s] personal wealth is used each year to fund projects designed to improve the livelihoods of all Jordanian citizens.”
London and Washington
The Pandora Papers do not provide a rationale for the real estate purchases, but Abdullah began moving aggressively to acquire assets outside the kingdom as rulers elsewhere in the region began toppling during the Arab Spring revolts.
In 2011, as those popular uprisings began, Abdullah spent millions on a number of purchases in Belgravia, an area near Buckingham Palace that is one of central London’s costliest real estate markets.
By the end of the year, Abdullah had spent about $13 million to acquire a collection of apartments on a single corner of Eaton Place, according to the documents. The total price he paid may have been higher, because British records show that one property was transferred to an Abdullah front company by the sixth Duke of Westminster with no indication of how much money, if any, changed hands. The units appear from the outside to have been combined into a single residence, with a kitchen and servants’ quarters in the rear.
Records show that each apartment was acquired by a separate shell company. And while the Georgian-style house is on a street where other nations’ flags fly to mark the presence of diplomatic missions, there are no visible Jordanian markings at Abdullah’s address.
The complex is one of at least five Abdullah properties in Britain revealed by information in the Pandora Papers. Some of the purchases date from the early 2000s, but none approach the amount spent at Eaton Place.
In 2012, Abdullah turned to the U.S. market, spending $6.5 million on a riverfront condominium in Georgetown. The property included two units that had been combined to make a sprawling seven-bedroom, seven-bath residence on an upper floor of a brick building overlooking the Potomac.
The apartment has floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of the Potomac and the Key Bridge, according to real estate listings. It came with access to a heated rooftop pool and sun deck. A real estate blog described that transaction as the priciest condominium purchase in Washington in December 2012.
Companies linked in the Pandora Papers to Abdullah then bought two additional apartments on the same floor over the next two years, the first for $790,000 and the second for $2.4 million, records show.
Those transactions overlapped with the arrival of Abdullah’s elder son, Crown Prince Hussein, in Washington to begin studies at Georgetown University, where he earned an undergraduate degree in international history in 2016. Abdullah’s two daughters also attended college in Washington in subsequent years.
From poverty to plenty
The wealth reflected in these secret transactions contrasts with the impoverished origins of Abdullah’s family.
“The Hashemites started out dirt poor,” Riedel said, and they emphasized that humble background throughout the 46-year reign of King Hussein, Abdullah’s father.
“King Hussein’s mother sold his bicycle when he was growing up because they needed money,” said Riedel, who is the author of a book published last month about the history of the U.S.-Jordan relationship. “I’m not sure that Abdullah ever lived in poverty like his father, but he was one generation removed.”
King Hussein came to own estates of his own outside Jordan, including a residence near Windsor Castle in England and a compound on the Potomac River in Maryland that was later sold to Daniel Snyder, owner of Washington’s professional football team, according to property records.
But Hussein’s properties were largely treated as state residences, where U.S. officials met with the monarch. At times, Hussein used those assets to burnish his image as a public servant, prominently selling one of his homes in England in the early 1990s to finance the restoration of the gold-plated Dome of the Rock shrine in Jerusalem.
After Hussein’s death in 1999, some properties and proceeds from sales of certain estates appear to have gone to Queen Noor, his fourth wife, according to public records and contemporaneous news reports.
That arrangement fed speculation in the kingdom about how much Abdullah — who is the son of Hussein’s second wife, Princess Muna, and who was designated heir only days before his father’s death — inherited when he ascended to the throne.
While criticism of Abdullah is rare in Jordan’s repressive political climate, U.S. officials and experts on Middle East politics said he is widely seen as tolerant of, if not complicit in, corruption that has become an increasing source of resentment amid the nation’s economic downturn.
Coronavirus lockdowns suffocated an economy ordinarily buoyed by millions of tourists, and public dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the crisis formed a backdrop for the alleged coup plot this year. Among those detained was Abdullah’s half brother, Prince Hamza bin Hussein, the eldest son of King Hussein and Queen Noor.
In a widely circulated video he posted online during his detention, Hamzah said that the well-being of ordinary Jordanians “has been put second by a ruling system [that] has decided that its personal interests, that its financial interests, that its corruption is more important than the lives and dignity and futures of the more than 10 million people that live here.”
Once the alleged threat to his reign had passed, Abdullah turned to familiar gestures of reform. He announced the creation of a committee to study electoral changes that would give more power to Jordan’s people and launched yet another crackdown on corruption. In June, the government announced a plan to replenish the kingdom’s coffers by hunting down assets hidden from the nation’s tax authorities in offshore accounts.
Even as these measures were being proposed, the king’s contractors were pressing ahead with plans for major renovations on his own offshore properties. Last year, one of his companies, Setara Ltd., submitted documents to the Malibu Planning Commission proposing the teardown of the 3,413-square-foot home he had bought in 2015, to build one more than twice that size in its place.
The commission not only approved the project next door to Abdullah’s centerpiece home on Point Dume but also recommended that it be exempt from coastal environmental regulations.
When completed, the sleek two-story structure will have privacy walls, a swimming pool, a fountain and other palatial touches more than 7,500 miles from the kingdom Abdullah rules.