Dark Money Investigations: Feature

Oligarchs’ yacht club: UK firm’s ties to Russian cash

Barcelona’s superyacht marina was tied to Russian money – but the oligarchs involved were kept secret

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Sam Edwards
24 May 2022, 8.00am

Luxury yachts moored in the Port Vell marina in Barcelona

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Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Positioned in the heart of Barcelona, the Port Vell marina is one of Europe’s preeminent superyacht hubs.

With room for 60 vessels, it has been home to Roman Abramovich’s yacht, Eclipse, which has its own missile defence system. It has also welcomed an enormous 156-metre yacht belonging to Alisher Usmanov, the Uzbek-born Russian billionaire and former Arsenal shareholder, which has two helipads and is estimated to be worth up to $735m.

Many oligarchs have since had their yachts seized by Western authorities, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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But the story of Port Vell reveals how Britain’s “politically agnostic” reputation helped them to accumulate huge investments.

The marina was first acquired in 2010 by a business called Salamanca Group. But although the company is based in London, it had financial ties with a secretive fund registered in the Cayman Islands called Hadar Fund.

This was controlled by three oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. They included Vagit Alekperov, who was part of an elite group of business leaders invited to the Kremlin the day Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.

A former Soviet-era oil and gas minister, Alekperov was president of Russia’s largest privately held oil firm, Lukoil, until he was placed under UK sanctions earlier this year. He was ranked as the fourth richest man in Russia by Forbes magazine last year.

Alongside Alekperov, the other investors were Lukoil vice-president Leonid Fedun and Alexander Djaparidze, who bought Lukoil’s drilling subsidiary in 2004.

Two sources with knowledge of the Port Vell deal said the Russian investors were present from the project’s inception. But with their identities obscured, Salamanca Group served as a respectable front for the deal – despite Alekperov having previously been rebuffed on two previous attempts to enter the Spanish oil market.

While benefiting from Salamanca’s British status, local journalists found that the acquisition itself was completed by one of the group’s offshoots called Salamanca Nine, based in the Cyprus tax haven.

The founder of Salamanca Group, Martin Bellamy, said that being a British company was key in winning support to purchase and develop Port Vell. Speaking to a trade magazine in 2015, he said: “We had a willing seller and as a British company we were seen to be relatively politically agnostic.” Bellamy encouraged other companies to tap into “Brand Britannia”, saying: “The British brand has really good currency around the world.”

Shortly before Port Vell was purchased in 2010, two men were appointed as nominee directors of the Cyprus-based Salamanca Nine: Jason Hughes and Sean Lee Hogan. Both were later named in a 2012 Guardian investigation as “sham directors” – individuals who lend their name to companies to conceal the true owners. Hughes and Hogan have each acted as nominee directors for hundreds of companies.

Company documents also show Salamanca’s link to Hadar Fund. And, in 2013, one of the fund’s former managers signed an affidavit revealing that the entity was “part of a highly complex structure of companies used to hold investments for three Russian businessmen, namely Messrs Vigit Alekperov, Leonid Fedun and Alexander Djaparidze”.

Using complex offshore structures or hired directors is not illegal – and there is no suggestion of wrongdoing by Salamanca or Hadar Fund. But the practices have come under closer scrutiny since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as calls grow to target Western firms that enable Putin’s allies.

When Putin invaded Ukraine in February, Boris Johnson’s government vowed to crack down on Russian billionaires with assets in London. But the case of Port Vell shows not only that British firms have helped Russian elites buy property in the UK, they have also used their status to help them make investments abroad.

The marina’s ownership ultimately switched hands again in 2017 to a Qatari investment bank and fund whose investors include Alekperov.

Salamanca Group is an investment business regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. It calls itself a “merchant banking business” but is not registered as a bank. Its directors include Lord David Triesman, a former chair of the FA who served in government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who joined the company three years after it bought Port Vell.

“This case shows the need for better policies to have more information about not only public registers for everything but also more information about funds and deeming anyone there also as a beneficial owner,” said Andres Knobel, a researcher at Tax Justice Network.

Despite backing from Barcelona’s mayor at the time, Salamanca Group’s purchase of the marina was met by protests from locals concerned that it would turn into a space reserved for the super wealthy. And the group’s links with Russian oligarchs was first reported by the Spanish newspaper El Confidencial in 2014.

The same year, a preliminary investigation report by the Catalan Anti-Corruption Office (OAC), seen by openDemocracy, called for further investigation into “possible money laundering in the financial operations carried out by Salamanca Nine LTD”.

Alekperov’s 230ft yacht left Barcelona, headed for Montenegro, shortly after the Russian offensive in Ukraine began in February. But on 2 March, the Galactica Super Nova stopped sending location signals, according to data from Marine Traffic.

Salamanca Group did not respond to a request for comment.

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