By Andrew Higgins
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (Washington Post) — 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 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.
Azer Gasimov, the president’s spokesman, declined to discuss the Dubai real estate purchases.
Azerbaijan 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.
The transactions sharpen a dilemma that has shadowed Washington’s relations with Azerbaijan: how to reconcile US security and energy interests with what the State Department described as the “pervasive corruption” of its increasingly authoritarian regime.
Azerbaijan has sent troops to 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, 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 ages.
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.
The rush to move assets overseas, often with scant regard for returns, is a common feature of many oil-producing nations, where corrupt elites seek to ensure that their wealth is safe just in case political winds at home change. When Dick B. Cheney visited Baku as vice president in 2008, he not only held talks with Aliyev on energy but also met with executives of BP and the US oil company Chevron, both of which have operations in Azerbaijan, as do Exxon and other foreign oil companies. Azerbaijan and the United States.