You may have read in the papers or heard on the news about the court shenanigans of the Saudi billionaire and his Pirelli girl ex-wife. It’s all very juicy, and the Press have had a field day showing pictures of the pair along with the spectacular properties involved in the proceedings. But really this case is currently about one thing – do the English Courts have jurisdiction or does the husband’s diplomatic status protect him.
And now for the lurid details…
Oil billionaire Sheik Walid Juffali (60) was married to American former Pirelli calendar girl, Christina Estrada (53) for 13 years. They have a 13 year old daughter. Mr Juffali’s stake in his family’s business interests is worth £4bn. In the UK he owns (through trusts and corporations) several properties:- St Saviour’s House, a seven bedroom converted church in Knightsbridge, complete with cinema and swimming pool, valued at £50m in 2013; Bishopsgate House, a £100m estate beside Windsor Great Park; and Matthew Point Manor, a country estate on the Devon coast valued at £2.5 million in 2007.
The couple separated when Ms Estrada discovered that her husband had secretly married under Islamic law a second wife – a 24 year old Lebanese beauty former MTV presenter. Within months of Ms Estrada starting divorce proceedings in London, the divorce capital of the world, Mr Juffali had travelled to St Lucia for the first time in his life and, despite having no qualifications for the role, was appointed as the island representative to the International Maritime Organisation. The position grants his diplomatic immunity. Once the position was secured he divorced Ms Estrada in the traditional Islamic way by saying “I divorce you” three times. As part of the divorce settlement Mr Juffali paid Ms Estrada £70,000 a month and bought her a £8m house in Beverly Hills to meet all the needs of their daughter.
And here is where things became interesting. As the divorce had already legally taken place under Islamic Law Ms Estrada applied under Part III of the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 asking the English courts to look at a financial settlement following a foreign divorce. Her argument being Mr Juffalli divorced her without her knowledge. If successful Ms Estrada’s settlement could be worth several million pounds.
Mr Juffali applied to have his wife’s claim against his assets struck out, claiming that his diplomatic immunity prevented the English Courts from making any binding ruling on him. Mr Justice Hayden disagreed and found that Mr Juffali had ‘not undertaken any duties of any kind’ since taking up the diplomatic post in April 2014 and that his sole intention of taking on this role was to defeat Ms Estrada’s ‘claims consequent on the breakdown of the marriage’. The word ‘spurious’ was also used. The financial claim made by Ms Estrada can therefore proceed, although how easy it will be for her claim against Mr Juffali’s assets abroad and the trusts and corporations in the UK which hold his properties is another battle completely.
But the question at the moment is not whether Ms Estrada will get anything but rather is this really a decision an English High Court can make? The Foreign Commonwealth Office, the Saint Lucian and Saudi Arabian authorities, and several lawyers have all had their say in this. Although the status of diplomatic immunity is there to protect diplomats working in dangerous environments, there have been a recent spate of wealthy criminal ‘diplomats’ using this immunity to avoid the justice system.
Watch this space///