A reclusive property tycoon who was once worth £3billion is reportedly embroiled in a bitter secret divorce battle with his Lithuanian-born wife over property and assets worth millions.
Syrian-born investor Simon Halabi started as the director of a UK property firm in the 1980s and going on to become Britain’s 14th richest man – before losing almost everything and becoming one of the country’s biggest bankrupts.
Mr. Halabi was once valued at £3billion on the Sunday Times Rich List and his property portfolio included a £3million house in Mayfair, the Naval and Military Club in Piccadilly, £25million stately home Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire and chatueux in France – but in 2010 he was declared bankrupt after failing to pay back a £56million bank loan.
He was then sued by his wife Urte, who claims he was adulterous, and the protracted battle has been running behind closed doors in the High Court since 2013 – but the couple are still not divorced. The divorce proceedings only came to light last year following a court hearing in Jersey regarding the control of the family trusts.
Land Registry documents discovered by the Sunday Times reveal Urte has secured ‘restrictions’ on at least two properties in the family estate, including their £5m Mayfair home, which means they cannot be sold without her permission.
The newspaper reports that it is just the latest in a series of long court battles over alleged debts – and some of the family trusts are now effectively insolvent.
The couple had two sons, Samuel and Jacob; Samuel died in August 2003 in a pool accident in France. He is buried at Mentmore Towers.
Mr Halabi used money inherited from his Syrian father to invest in British property and by 2007 he had built a property empire worth £3bn.
At the time his investments included the Shard; the offices of bankers JP Morgan and insurers Aviva; and Mentmore Towers, the Rothschilds’ one-time ancestral seat, along with a fleet of Bentleys and Rolls Royce Phantoms, a 130-ft yacht and a vineyard in France.
In the Sunday Times Rich List 2007 he was ranked 14th richest person in Britain, while the Forbes list of global billionaires listed him at 194.
He planned to turn Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire into the UK’s first six-star hotel.
At his peak an acquaintance remembers seeing Halabi in the south of France on a luxury yacht owned by his friend and fellow property tycoon Vincent Tchenguiz.
Tchenguiz received a phone call to say the Sunday Times Rich List had come out and he was 337th on the list. The acquaintance said: ‘Someone then shouted out, “Where am I?” and he was told, “31st, Simon.” That was Halabi.
‘Then another voice shouted out, ‘Where am I ?’ and they were told, “10th, David.” That was David Reuben, the London property developer.
‘A third voice asked: “Where have they put me?” and they were told, “9th, Philip.” That was Philip Green, the Topshop tycoon whose fortune was then estimated at £4.33bn.’
But by late 2007 the sports gym chain Esporta, which Mr Halabi had purchased for £460m, was forced into administration, costing Halabi at least £120m of his own money, and damaging his relationship with his main creditors, Société Générale, and by 2009 he was heavily in debt.
Halabi was declared bankrupt in April 2010, and his last known address was a hotel room in Switzerland.
His Mentmore Towers development is still part of his property portfolio, although the scale of development for the property is much reduced.
In 2013 Mr Halabi and his wife’s decree nisi, dated November that year, was heard and District Judge Simmonds ‘held that the respondent [Simon Halabi] has committed adultery and that the petitioner [Urte Halabi] finds it intolerable to live with the respondent’.
A decree absolute is normally granted in six weeks – but two years on the couple remain married because of ‘difficulties’ with the family trusts.