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The suitor is one of the world’s wealthiest men; the location happens to be the eurozone’s poorest country. But in an unlikely coming together of economic circumstances, the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has opted to splash out €8.5m (£7.35m) on six idyllic isles in the Ionian sea.
Closure of the deal – the latest in a global shopping spree that has seen the sheikh’s property portfolio spread from London to Beijing – has been met with glee in Greece, the west’s most bankrupt state, and Doha, where the royal household experienced 18 months of excruciating drama to take possession of the outcrops.
“Greece is that kind of place,” said Ioannis Kassianos, Ithaca’s straight-talking Greek-American mayor. “Even when you buy an island, even if you are the emir of Qatar, it takes a year and a half for all the paperwork to go through.”
The isles, known as the Echinades, caught the oil-rich monarch’s fancy when he moored his super-yacht in the turquoise waters off Ithaca, took in the view and liked what he saw. That was four summers ago.
When the royal eventually got off the yacht, he inquired about the pine-covered chain as he strolled about Ithaca in sandals and shorts. “They have a fund with a couple of hundred million in it,” enthused Kassianos, a former US economics professor who assumed the mayorship of Homer’s fabled isle three years ago. “And as far as I know they want to buy all 18 of the islands, the whole lot.”
The purchase, the biggest private investment in Greece, appears to have been a windfall for the emir, who drove a hard bargain in a market where investors are few and far between. The first island, Oxia, initially came with a price tag of €7m before its Greek-Australian owners agreed to let it go for just under €5m. Last week, Denis Grivas, whose family has owned the title deeds to the other five almost since the foundation of modern Greece, also settled on a price.
“The islands have been in my family for over 150 years but we are not rich enough to be able to keep such valuable properties any longer,” he said, ruing the soaring taxes the crisis-hit Greek state has slapped on real estate. “We are very, very happy to see them go. They have been on the market for nearly 40 years.”
With their pristine beaches, ancient olive orchards and natural coves, the uninhabited isles are “an ideal opportunity for a solid business investment with unlimited possibilities”, says the high-end “private island online” site, describing the properties as Mediterranean pearls. “The potential for development is very big … from developing tourist-style Club Meds or hotel facilities, to villas to sell or rent.”
But the Gulf royal does not appear in any mood to create tourist resorts on the retreats. Instead, said Kassianos, his aim is to build palaces for the exclusive pleasure of his 24 children and three wives. The architects have already moved in, drawing up plans to create a private idyll, although he has run into trouble with Greek law.
“There is a stupid law because in Greece we do everything upside down,” lamented Kassianos. “That law says that whatever the size of your land, your home can be no bigger than 250 sq m. The emir has reacted to this saying his WC is 250 sq m and his kitchen alone has to be 1,000 sq m, because otherwise how is he going to feed all his guests?”
To appease the locals, the Qatari, who is also being heavily courted by the government to invest in Greece, has promised to come bearing gifts. “His people said ‘what present can we give you?’ and I said the island needs water desperately,” said Kassianos. “A study to lay a pipeline from the mainland is already under way. That’s not bad when we’ve been trying to get a new port here for the past 40 years.”
The emir plans to moor his yacht off his new property this summer. Locals on Ithaca are getting ready. An honorary citizenship beckons along with a feast fit for a very modern Homeric hero.
“The next time he comes we hope to get him and his family off his yacht and into our restaurants,” said Ithaca’s mayor.
Emir’s Grecian passion
This is not the first time the 56-year-old emir of Qatar has shown interest in Greece. Three years ago, when the country’s economic crisis erupted, the Gulf kingdom pledged to invest as much as €5bn in real estate, tourism, transport and infrastructure, including habours and airports. But perennial delays and the perils of Greece’s Byzantine bureaucracy were such that Qatar pulled out of the projects.
Last month, following a visit to Doha by the Greek prime minister, Antonis Samaras, interest was rekindled when Qatar signed up to take part in an international tender to develop Athens’ former international airport at Elliniko, one of the most sort after slices of real estate in Europe. The Gulf state has also shown interest in purchasing the famous beachfront Astir Palace hotel, once a stomping ground for celebrities outside the capital.
The emir may be rich but he is business savvy. He had wanted to buy the Ionian isle of Skorpios, where Jackie Kennedy married Aris Onassis. The deal fell through when the late shipowner’s granddaughter, Athina Onassis, refused to come down in price. She is selling for €200m.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk