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Sat 19 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

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Fight gets dirty

Qatari Diar faces trial by both the media and the UK court system, as CPC starts publicity battle over Chelsea Barracks.

Fight gets dirty

The ongoing court battle over the Chelsea Barracks project in London has got dirty. The Emir of Qatar's name was first dragged into the legal dispute in May, over his alleged involvement in the decision of developer Qatari Diar to pull plans, for what would be the UK's most expensive housing project.

Qatari Diar, a partner in the Chelsea Barracks project, is being sued by CPC Group for breach of contract. CPC was founded by Christian Candy, one half of the successful British developer Candy & Candy. The basis of the suit is Christian Candy's belief that the Prince of Wales persuaded Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to block the plans, in a letter written in March last year.

Candy claims a meeting between the two men sealed the opposition to the 650-apartment modernist project, with the Emir contacting the developer soon after to express his displeasure at the project.

"It was only the intervention of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales that put the planning application in any conceivable doubt," said Candy in his testimony.

More recently, accusations of lying have been heard in court and an active public relations machine is now in action, spinning the CPC side of the story to international media.

According to reports in the British press, Anthony Grabiner QC, representing Christian Candy, said in court that executives at Qatari Diar knew that the Emir had influenced the decision, but had given evidence that the decision to pull the planning application had other causes.

Grabiner went on to be very direct, as reported by the BBC: "All those witnesses lied to your Lordship [the judge] when they gave evidence."

With great immediacy the PR firm representing CPC, London-based Brown Lloyd James Financial, sent round the BBC story to the international media. Also included was a skeleton outline of CPC's written submission to the court.

Apart from the efforts of Qatari Diar's lawyer, Joe Smouha QC, to refute the accusations in court - describing them as ‘totally unjustified' - the firm has remained silent in response.

This is unlikely to deter CPC from a publicity drive to justify its court action. The company bought the Chelsea Barracks plot in February 2009, paying the British Ministry of Defence an estimated £959 million (US $1.4 billion), with help from the Qatari government. It is now suing Qatari Diar for £80 million ($118 million), despite the project's construction value being estimated at £30 million ($44 million).

Correspondents to constructionweekonline.com have noted that, under the circumstances, this seems churlish.

"It's a bit much to be suing Qatari Diar for £80 million when the project (the actual construction and plotting) is an estimated £30 million," said one. "How can you sue someone for breach of contract on a project you were somewhat forced to halt by the Prince of Wales?"

It seems Qatari Diar has two choices. It can remain justifiably silent, since the issue is still before the courts and the company will likely seek to avoid a publicity street-fight in the British press. Or it can take the gloves off and fight back.

Stuart Matthews is the senior group editor of ITP Business' construction & design tiles.

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