Hidden Qatar Billionaire Al-Thani Seen With Hotel Empire

The Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani Museum sits 14 miles west of Doha, the capital of Qatar. A desert fortress with stone turrets and arched wooden doors, the museum’s 15 halls hold more than 15,000 artifacts, including ancient Qurans, Yemeni daggers and vintage American cars.

The Al Thani museum is home to a collection belonging to Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim Al Thani, owner of Al Faisal Holding, a Doha-based conglomerate that operates about 50 businesses in nine industries. It’s also a symbol of the wealth that’s been accumulated by Qatari businessmen during the past four decades.

“We are lucky to live in a country with a rapidly growing economy,” Al Thani, 65, said in a March 16 e-mail. “In order to benefit from this economic boom, one has to take the initiative and be willing to seize opportunities.”

Through Al Faisal and its publicly traded subsidiary, Aamal Company, Al Thani has assembled a collection of luxury hotels and commercial real estate properties in six countries. He has a net worth of at least $2.2 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, and has never appeared on an international wealth ranking.

Al Thani’s success is linked to Qatar’s, which has the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves and the highest per capita income, according to the International Monetary Fund. Demand for gas has helped Qatar quadruple its gross domestic product during the past decade, compared to a doubling in Turkey and a 33 percent rise in the U.S, according to data compiled by the World Bank.

Gas Production

The Connecticut-sized country’s GDP is expected to expand by 5 percent in 2014, more than Turkey or Brazil, according to data compiled by the International Monetary Fund. Qatar’s liquefied natural gas production, almost all of which is controlled by the state, has helped boost Al Thani’s businesses, including real estate, hotels, for-profit schools and the country’s biggest industrial laundry service.

“The oil and especially gas sectors provide enormous ‘rents’ or royalty income,” Matthew Gray, an associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra, and author of “Qatar: Politics and the Challenges of Development,” said in a March 6 e-mail.

Al Thani is part of Qatar’s ruling family, the largest of all the Gulf countries which, including extended members and in-laws, account for as many as one-fifth of Qatar’s 300,000 citizens, according to Gray. The royalty income generated by oil and gas sales trickles down to consumers through government spending and subsidies that encourage foreign investment and trade, and benefit the private sector, he said.

Family Ties

The Al Thani name doesn’t guarantee success, as certain branches of the family may be kept on the margins by the ruling branch, away from power and opportunity, to avoid coups or dissent. For those close to the Emir’s line the name is “a ticket to opportunity,” said Gray, as local and foreign businesses prefer working with a royal.

“The businesses that do best are those led by, or connected, to the key players, which can include royals, established merchant families, even some favored foreign firms and individuals” he said.

Al Thani, who is a distant relative of the current Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is one of the most prominent Qatari businessmen bearing the Al Thani name. Most of Qatar’s other diversified, family-owned businesses, such as Doha-based Alfardan Group and Darwish Holding, are owned by non-royals.

Building Boom

One of Al Faisal’s largest subsidiaries is Aamal, a Doha-based manufacturing and real estate group listed on the Qatar stock exchange that had 2.12 billion riyals ($582 million) in revenue in 2013. Al Thani controls 66 percent of Aamal directly and through Al Faisal, according to company documents.

Al Thani controls other commercial real estate properties outside of his interest in Aamal, including more than a dozen residential and office buildings and three hotels in Doha, according to Al Faisal’s website. He has eight more hotel properties under construction in the capital, part of a city-wide building boom ignited after it won the rights to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The government plans to spend $45 billion -- about what Russia spent on the Sochi Winter Olympics -- over the next 15 years in a bid to boost its annual visitor count more than five-fold, according to a February report by the Qatar Tourism Authority.

The influx of tourists, many passing through Doha on Qatar Airways flights, lifted occupancy rates 6 percent in 2013, according to data compiled by TRI Hospitality Consulting.

Diversifying Abroad

Qatar’s transformation from a fishing and pearl-diving village to a skyscraper-packed metropolis is something Al Thani witnessed first-hand. Born in 1948, nine years after Qatar began exporting oil, Al Thani started his first business venture in 1964, a small auto-parts distributor called Gettco Trading.

At that time, he said, Qatar was still rural and isolated.

“When I started my business, communications were very limited,” Al Thani said in the e-mail. “We were only exposed to the outside world through traveling.”

As more oil revenue flowed into Qatar in the 1970s, Al Thani diversified to meet the needs of the country’s growing economy. He formed a construction-materials company, Linx Qatar, and expanded into paint supply, gas stations and car washes.

“Starting a business is not a challenge, but making a business successful is,” Al Thani said. He declined to comment on his net worth.

Al Thani has been diversifying abroad, acquiring a Four Seasons hotel in Cairo, a Grand Hyatt in Berlin and the Radisson Blu Aqua in Chicago. He paid $318 million in 2011 for the W hotel in London’s Leicester Square, and bought Miami’s St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort for $213 million in January.

“Our vision is to build a renowned portfolio of prominent hotels in terms of brand, location and architectural design,” he said. The recent non-Qatari acquisitions, he said, “have all these elements.”

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