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London property fetish

Updated July 15, 2017

IT was sometime in 1997 that a visitor from Pakistan requested if we could drive him to Rockwood Estate, a sprawling mansion in the beautiful Surrey countryside, that had made headlines in the United Kingdom as well as at home.

If you are wondering what is being referred to here, this might help. The 350-acre (141 hectares) property is better known in Pakistan as Surrey Palace and was purchased in 1995. The matter came into public knowledge when Ms Bhutto’s government was dismissed towards the end of 1996.

All through his long incarceration, the spouse of the then former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Asif Ali Zardari, denied he owned the property either directly or through an offshore company. It was not until 2004 that the ownership was accepted, and the property was sold for a sum said to be £4 million.

Rich Pakistanis seem to have a fetish for London properties even at a time when many old-time Londoners have to move out.

I remember our drive on a warm and sunny summer afternoon about an hour away from our rented two-bedroom flat in a not-so-leafy part of south London. We stopped at the imposing gate of the property and started to take pictures.

A guard came out and told us to go away. I showed him my BBC ID (I worked in London then) and said there was no way he could stop us taking pictures from the main road as we were not trespassing.

Although visibly unhappy, he moved back towards the gate and stood watching us as we took some more photographs. The mansion itself was, as was most of the estate, set well back from the road so we could hardly see anything other than the boundary wall and lost interest soon and returned to London. But not before my visitor, who was a government officer then, became perturbed when he realised there was a CCTV camera monitoring us, perhaps even recording unwanted visitors. He was worried if the owner somehow found out he was snooping at Rockwood Estate there would be all hell to pay.

Of course, it did not matter to him that the owner was in prison with no prospect of release then. “Bhai, you don’t know. These people can cut deals overnight and get their freedom aur hamare jaise be-aasra loag mare jayeinge [our type of people with no connections will be at the receiving end of their wrath].”

The irony is that while Asif Ali Zardari was being hammered for having purchased this property “beyond his known means”, a number of flats in London’s exclusive and prohibitively expensive Mayfair were also being bought by the family of another politician who would be ascendant soon.

On coming to power again in 1997, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif entrusted his anti-corruption czar, senator Saifur Rehman with the task of pursuing PPP leaders relentlessly and building cases against them. Most of Saifur Rehman’s cases against Mr Zardari and Ms Bhutto covered her last stint in power from 1993 to 1996.

Strangely, four out of five flats featuring in the Panama Papers leaks were also acquired via offshore companies in the same period 1993-96 at the exclusive London address. These companies, it was to be disclosed in the Papers two decades later, were owned by members of the Sharif family.

I have not been inside either the Rockwood Estate or any of the five flats in Avenfield House. The only flat I have been invited to belonged to Ms Benazir Bhutto’s sister Sanam in Queen’s Gate in Kensington.

An alarmed and red-eyed Ms Bhutto had travelled on the overnight flight from Dubai and requested me to record the reaction to the alleged torture of her spouse while he was in custody by Nawaz Sharif-appointed policemen who, it was said, had slashed his tongue to force a confession.

I recall sitting at the dining table with a BBC sound engineer in a small room while some children played in the adjoining room. This was a fairly small flat with nothing ostentatious about it.

It was after I left for Pakistan that Avenfield House and Mr Rehman Malik’s home just on the other side of Marble Arch off Edgware Road would be the setting for negotiations and the signing of the Charter of Democracy by Mr Sharif and Ms Bhutto.

That MQM-L supremo Altaf Husain has lived in Mill Hill, north London for some 20-plus years and a number of other Pakistani politicians have properties in London has been a known fact. You’d be surprised how many affluent Pakistanis have second homes in London. Their number must be in the dozens if not hundreds.

Rich Pakistanis of all denominations seem to have a fetish for London properties even at a time when many old-time Londoners have to move out as they just can’t afford to live in the city anymore. Ask me. We had to as well.

You’d ask what about generals, if I were to be even-handed. Well, I don’t personally know of any who own a property in London apart from Gen Musharraf, who not very unlike the Sharifs, attributes the ownership of his flat to the generosity of Arab royalty in the oil-rich Gulf states.

The other former service chiefs who own estates outside Pakistan are former Navy chief Mansoorul Haq (a ranch in US) and former army chief Gen Kiyani who has not contradicted reports he has bought an estate in Australia.

As for seeing two/three stars in London, most such visitors I know of seemed to have the means to rent pricey flats in central London and devoted their days to shopping, meeting family and friends. Come evening, at least a couple of them were known to head out to the casino without fail.

I am leaving the poor journalist-visitor to London for another time. Suffice it to say this sort of individual used to end up at BBC Bush House’s basement club with us. Liquid refreshments over, there was always the nightmarish commute to the distant (and cheap) suburb for a late night dinner at home.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 15th, 2017