Credit: president.az Baylar Eyyubov (circled) accompanies Ilham Aliyev and First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva as they participate in the inauguration ceremony of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 2023.

Family of Ilham Aliyev’s Security Chief Owns Vast Property Holdings in the United Kingdom

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By Kelly Bloss (OCCRP), Olga Loginova (Vlast), Fatima Karimova (Mikroskop Media), Aidan Iusubova (iFact) and Nana Bregadze (iFact)

LONDON (OCCRP) — As head of security for Azerbaijan’s president, Baylar Eyyubov is closely trusted by one of the world’s most authoritarian leaders. Reporters found that his family owns three posh mansions all on one street in north London — and much more.

Few could claim to enjoy the trust of Azerbaijan’s authoritarian leader. But one man could.

He is Baylar Eyyubov, the head of presidential security for the entire two decades of Ilham Aliyev’s rule. In event after official event, the thick-set, mustached Eyyubov can be seen hurrying to remain by the president’s side and personally opening the doors of his limousine.

In fact, Eyyubov, 73, has served in his role even longer than the president himself. He used to provide the same service to Aliyev’s father, Heydar, who ruled Azerbaijan during the country’s first decade of post-Soviet independence.

In Azerbaijan, a resource-rich dictatorship that consistently ranks among the world’s most corrupt nations, access to wealth and power often depends on proximity to the Aliyevs. So it’s no surprise that Eyyubov, who has also married into the ruling family, is widely seen to be influential. But the security chief has always maintained a cloak of secrecy around himself and his relatives.

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In a new investigation based on corporate documents and land records in multiple countries, OCCRP, its Azerbaijani partner Mikroskop Media, and its Georgian partner iFact can reveal his family’s holdings for the first time. The Eyyubovs own real estate in the United Kingdom and Dubai that cost at least $160 million to acquire.

Their holdings are crowned by three mansions owned by Eyyubov’s wife and daughter, Zohra Sultanova and Elvira Eyyubova, all on the same street in an exclusive corner of North London. Elvira also owns two penthouses and a luxury apartment closer to the city center, another apartment in Canterbury, and a house in a seaside Dorset town.

The family holds these U.K. assets through secretive offshore companies that acquired them between 2007 and 2018. Reporters have been unable to trace these firms’ sources of financing, and even the fact that they belong to the Eyyubovs has only now emerged because of a 2022 law that requires overseas entities that own British real estate to disclose their beneficial owners.

In Dubai, where real estate ownership data is normally not available to the public, Eyyubov and several family members own villas and office space in their own names, according to leaked documents.

Eyyubov’s wife also holds shares in two businesses: a well-reviewed London cafe and an upscale hotel in the Georgian resort town of Batumi. Neither of these was in operation before 2014, meaning they couldn’t have contributed to bankrolling the family’s real estate purchases.

So for now, the source of the Eyyubovs’ wealth remains a mystery. At least until 2020, the last year this information is available, Eyyubov’s official annual salary has never exceeded $22,000. His wife’s current employment status is unknown, but in 2016 she was listed as an employee of Azerbaijan’s State Institute of Botany. His daughter Elvira is a U.K.-based life coach.

The couple have at least five other children, but reporters were not able to establish whether any of them have significant independent sources of income. Azerbaijani corporate records do not reveal the owners of companies, and Tax Ministry data, available online until 2012, only reveals that one of Eyyubov’s daughters once co-owned a horse riding club.

Eyyubov also has a wealthy brother named Rafig Hasanov. There is no paper trail showing that he ever gave any money or assets to Eyyubov.

Reporters were able to find just one record of Eyyubov receiving a transfer of cash. In 2007, the same year the family’s U.K. property acquisitions began, a company he owned in the British Virgin Islands received $250,000 from a New Zealand shell company. The origin of the money is unknown, but the New Zealand company has been alleged by Danske Bank, where it held an account, to have engaged in money laundering in a separate scandal.

The corporate records examined for this story contained another interesting finding. In both the London cafe and the Georgian hotel, Eyyubov’s wife and two of his daughters have a notable business partner: a wealthy Georgian businessman named Sulkhan Papashvili with interests in the Azerbaijani energy sector.

Reporters have uncovered no documentary evidence that Eyyubov or any members of his family received any money or assets from Papashvili. But the circumstances raise questions about the nature of the relationship — particularly since companies owned by Papashvili’s longtime business partner and a relative are also involved in managing the Eyyubov family’s real estate.

Eyyubov and his family members did not reply to requests for comment.

In response to reporters’ questions, a law firm representing Papashvili wrote that Eyyubov has never been in a position to exert influence in the energy business and that inferring any connection between Papashvili’s energy business and his interactions with the Eyyubov family is “clearly illogical and thus misleading.”

Raze, Rebuild, Repeat

Courtenay Avenue, which runs between the sprawling green acres of Hampstead Heath and the 18-hole Highgate Golf Club, has been described as one of London’s most expensive streets.

The Eyyubovs’ three mansions on this gated cul-de-sac were purchased for a total of £63 million ($94 million). But in fact that is just a fraction of the money that has been poured into the properties.

Their first house there — a red-brick and timber mansion known as Somerlese that stood at the end of the street — no longer exists. Less than two years after acquiring it for £17 million ($26 million) in 2014, the offshore company that owns it obtained permission to replace it with an even grander residence.

According to photos posted by its architect on Instagram, the new Somerlese was largely completed by January 2023. A planning document for the three-story, six-bedroom home includes an indoor swimming pool, a gym, a wine cellar, a steam room, a cinema, and living space for multiple staff members. The cost of its construction is unknown.

Just one house away is the family’s Branksome mansion. Acquired by another offshore company for £15 million ($20 million) in 2018, it has also been fully demolished and replaced at an unknown cost. Planning documents show that the new six-bedroom “Branksome” includes an elevator, a cinema, a games room, a gym, and a pool with a jacuzzi.

The third of the family’s Courtney Avenue properties — the “Beaulieu” — is next door. Land records show that the mansion was purchased by Eyyubov’s wife Sultanova for £31 million ($47 million) in 2015 and then transferred to yet another offshore company.

Through more offshore companies, Eyyubov’s daughter Elvira appears to own an additional five properties in the United Kingdom, purchased for a total of over £12 million ($20 million). One of them — a 10th floor apartment with floor-to-ceiling windows and views across London — has been offered for rent at £1,925 (over $2400) per week.

According to her website, Eyyubova runs a life coaching business in London called Coach Soaring Wings. Eyyubova’s rates — £120 for six one-hour coaching sessions, or £39 for a single session — do little to explain her real estate holdings. She did not respond to requests for comment about her assets.

The Eyyubov family’s Dubai real estate includes more than a dozen properties held by Eyyubov, Sultanova, and three of his children, including Elvira. Most are villas located on various “fronds” of the Palm Jumeirah, an artificial island in the shape of a palm tree.

The Eyyubovs’ Dubai Properties

Reporters learned about the Eyyubov family’s Dubai properties through a set of leaked 2020 real estate data provided by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS). The current ownership of each property has been independently verified.

Eyyubov acquired four 4-6 bedroom villas here in various years since 2006. In 2023, he transferred one to his wife Zohra Sultanova and another to his son Elnur, while keeping one for himself. The current status of the fourth villa is unclear, but Eyyubov owned it as of 2020. The villas are worth an estimated $26 million today.

Eyyubov’s glittering portfolio of luxury real estate seems worlds away from his earlier years. In the Soviet era, he reportedly worked for the local Internal Affairs Ministry in the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhichevan.

He was already well-connected, having married the grand-niece of Heydar Aliyev, then a powerful Communist Party boss in Moscow. But the family also lived through lean times, particularly after Aliyev returned to Nakhichevan amid the economic chaos of the Soviet collapse. Aliyev once recalled staying at his sister’s home and listening in on conversations between his two grandnieces’ husbands, one of whom was Eyyubov, as they struggled to find meat to feed the family.

But by 1993, Aliyev was president of an independent Azerbaijan and the family’s fortunes were on the rise.

The other grandniece’s husband, Vasif Talibov, became the dictatorial head of Nakhchivan. And Eyyubov was entrusted as the head of presidential security, a position he has retained through the succession of Ilham Aliyev to the presidency and a security service shake-up.

A 2010 report by the International Crisis Group named Eyyubov as one of Azerbaijan’s most influential figures, noting that he “is one of the few people to have constant direct access to the president.”

There have also been claims of impropriety. In a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileak, a French businessman is reported to have claimed that Eyyubov pressured him to sell him a 40-percent stake in one of Azerbaijan’s largest local breweries. Allegedly fearing for his multimillion-dollar investment, the businessman sold his stake to a Russian company and left Azerbaijan, saying there were “too many sharks in the pool.”

OCCRP has not verified this allegation, and Eyyubov did not respond to reporters’ questions about it.

Azerbaijani corporate ownership information is not publicly available, making further investigation inside the country difficult. However, the appearance of Eyyubov’s name in the Pandora Papers, a leak of nearly 12 million files from 14 offshore corporate service providers obtained by ICIJ, does show that, as early as 2007, he used an offshore company to receive money of unknown origin.

That October, the files show, a Zurich-based bank helped Eyyubov establish a company in the British Virgin Islands for the purpose of holding a bank account. A few months later, the company, called Mente Ventures S.A, received a wire transfer of $250,000 from a company based in New Zealand.

The stated purpose of the payment was “for stuff foods.” Eyyubov is not known to have done business in the food sector.

No data about the origin of the money is available. But the New Zealand company that sent it, Bigland Corporation Limited, itself shows a pattern of suspicious activity. In addition to being suspected of money laundering by Danske Bank, Bigland was flagged by U.S. prosecutors as being one of the companies that received money from a Russian company involved in the infamous Magnitsky tax fraud. Such companies are often used for multiple purposes, and there is no suggestion that Eyyubov had any involvement with the Magnitsky scheme.

Credit: president.az
Sulkhan Papashvili (second from right) accompanies Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev (left) at the inauguration of Papashvili’s STDC data center in December, 2017 in Sumgayit, Azerbaijan.

A Georgian Friendship

Reporters spent months poring through business registries around the world trying to find corporate traces that would shed more light on the origins of the Eyyubov family’s wealth. But while nothing concrete was found that would explain their real estate holdings, the records did reveal something else: A close business relationship with wealthy Georgian businessman Sulkhan Papashvili.

Like Eyyubov, Papashvili was once a security official, heading the Special State Protection Service of Georgia between 1998 and 2003. Among other responsibilities, the service was charged with protecting the president, making him Eyyubov’s one-time Georgian counterpart.

The two men’s paths soon diverged: Papashvili left government service and became a successful real estate developer. But their personal relationship appears to have endured. When Eyyubov accompanied his boss, President Aliyev, on a state visit to Georgia in October 2023, Papashvili greeted him with a kiss on the cheek at the press conference and shared a table with him at dinner.

In recent years, Papashvili has turned his attention to Azerbaijan, building a massive energy trading business in Georgia that relied on imported Azeri electricity. The trade is run through offshore companies and is notable for its lack of transparency. Furthermore, corporate records show that Papashvili, a man who often handled his affairs, and a longtime business partner were at the same time developing joint businesses with the family members of top Azerbaijani energy officials.

When asked about his dealings with the family members of Azerbaijani officials, a law firm representing Papashvili wrote: “The fact that businessmen related to the families of the Azerbaijani officials are engaged in various businesses and/or are acquiring assets in Georgia is not proof of them receiving preferential treatment in any of their business dealings because of Mr. Papashvili.” They also wrote that there was no basis to assert that his business lacks transparency.

While reporters found no evidence that Eyyubov used his influence or connections to help Papashvili, corporate records show that Papashvili helped members of Eyyubov’s family launch energy ventures as well: His wife Sultanova acquired a stake in a Papashvili company that bid on a project to build energy transmission towers in Georgia, and his son Eldar had plans to build two hydropower plants with the help of George Kukhaleishvili, Papashvili’s longtime business partner. A power of attorney shows Kukhaleishvili being given authorization to act on behalf of Eldar “as a trusted representative” in his hydropower company for an unlimited time. (He did not respond to detailed questions about this.)

Neither of these energy projects succeeded, but two other joint businesses did.

One of these is Le Port, a boutique “Apart Hotel” occupying a prime waterfront location in the Georgian resort city of Batumi. In 2012, Eyyubov’s wife Sultanova acquired a 50-percent stake in Gogebashvili 30 LLC, a Georgian company that subsequently built and now owns the hotel. The other half of the company is owned by Papashvili.

Papashvili’s brother Lasha, contacted by reporters because he had also initially invested into the hotel before transferring his interest to Papashvili, provided some insight into the Eyyubov family’s participation.

He said that the family had invested $4 million into the hotel, that the money had come from Eyyubov’s brother Rafig Hasanov, whom he described as a “very rich businessman,” and that Hasanov had assigned the shares to his sister-in-law, Eyyubov’s wife Sultanova.

Reporters could find no corporate records showing Hasanov owning any company before 2011, just one year prior to the hotel deal. However, he has indeed grown rich in subsequent years.

The secretive Hasanov, who was only identified through a relative’s social media profile and voter registry records, now owns at least $51 million of private and commercial real estate in Dubai and the Czech Republic, according to corporate and land records obtained by reporters. He has also owned assets worth $9 million in Russia at least until 2022, but their current status could not be confirmed. Hasanov did not reply to a request for comment.

In 2020, Eyyubov’s wife and two of his daughters invested £3 million in a U.K. company called Beangreen Limited, the other owners being Papashvili himself — through an offshore company in Saint Lucia — and Kukhaleishvili.

Beangreen owns and operates a London café called Catalyst, along with the building that houses it. Catalyst once received a glowing review in the Evening Standard for its “inventive, exhilarating, taverna-inspired cooking,” and Beangreen has been exporting Catalyst-brand coffee to Georgia at least since 2017.

In addition, a company co-owned by Lasha Papashvili’s wife, Khatuna Parjanadze, was the principal contractor of the Branksome and also worked on the Somerlese.

The company, Rockbridge Limited, also worked on the Ridgefield, another mansion on Courtenay Avenue that lies between two of the Eyyubov’s mansions and belongs to Sulkhan Papashvili’s wife.

Papashvili and the Eyyubovs are not only neighbors on Courtney Avenue: Sulkhan Papashvili’s daughter also owns a penthouse in the Visage Apartments, where Eyyubov’s daughter Elvira has three of her London flats.

(Additional Reporting by Habib Abdullayev (Meydan TV), Marika Dudunia (Studio Monitori), Robert Denis (OCCRP), and OCCRP’s Research and Data Team. This article originally appeared on May 14. It was edited slightly for space considerations.)

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