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Chelsea Barracks, home to the Coldstream Guards, is one of the most famous locations in British military history. But now considered surplus to requirements, it was recently put on the market for an asking price of £250m. After a ferocious bidding war among some of property’s biggest names, the site was finally bought for about £900m by a consortium including luxury designers Candy & Candy and Qatar’s state-owned investment group, Qatari Diar. The price - about £70m per acre - made the barracks the most expensive development site ever seen in the UK.
This extraordinary deal was an explosive entry into the London market for Qatari Diar. And with a spate of major projects elsewhere in the world - in Morocco, Egypt, Europe and even Sudan - it seems that the company’s name will soon be increasingly familiar to property investors.
Qatari Diar is chaired by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the state’s foreign minister, who set up the company in 2004. The company’s biggest project is a giant scheme in Doha, the Qatari capital, which was launched in 2004. It plans to build a vast, 35 square km project which will increase the city’s size by more than 30 per cent.
A model of the scheme was on show in March at the annual MIPIM property festival in Cannes, where a host of different projects are showcased to industry peers. The ambition of the project, which includes a light rail system, marina, manmade beaches, thousands of homes and an array of offices and shops, stood out. ”It will be the Beverly Hills of Doha,” claimed a representative.
Also at Qatari Diar’s MIPIM stand was a mock-up display of its spectacular new scheme in Morocco, called Al Houara. This 25m square ft development will be built near Tangiers, on the northern tip of the country.
Previous visitors to Tangiers will know that it is not the most elegant of cities - many tourists find it shabby and unkempt, and dislike the constant hassle from shopkeepers. The town, facing out onto to the Strait of Gibraltar, is a big industrial centre and not necessarily the most romantic starting point for tourists visiting Morocco for the first time.
But Naomi Greatbanks, a director of Savills, the UK estate agents, says the surrounding countryside is beautiful. ”There are some fantastic coastal areas on the Atlantic nearby where there are a number of very good resorts being built,” she says.
Al Houara is 15 minutes out of the city on its own plot covering 230 hectares of coastal land. The estate is set to be built with a distinct character of its own, aimed very firmly at the upper end of the tourist market. Farid Ben Driss, chief development officer of Qatari Diar, claims that the resort will be the ”finest, most luxurious” in Morocco.
Al Houara will feature its own 18-hole golf course, equestrian club and convention centre, and will include two five-star hotels, a four-star hotel, beach villas and apartments. There will also be golf apartments and golf villas, a stable and club house, and homes set around a forest. At the most expensive end, there will be ”castles” costing an estimated £10m, aimed at globe-trotting multi-millionaires who may already have other homes dotted around the world.
”There is a definite niche for the very high end,” says Qatari Diar. ”Rich people want to feel exclusive, increasingly they don’t want to do something that everyone else can do.”
The project is a joint venture called Qatar Real Estate Partners with NorthCourse, a leisure consultancy. The group says it wants to combine the best of ”traditional Moroccan villages” with more contemporary property design. John Ward, chief operations officer for the joint company, says he wants to build a community ”that reflects the history and culture that has been synonymous with the great city of Tangiers.”
Construction is expected to take about 24 months, with work set to finish in June 2009. Sales will be handled by Sotheby’s International.