One of Azerbaijan’s Biggest Art Patrons Is Implicated in Panama Papers

She reportedly never indicated she was a “politically exposed person.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12: Leyla Aliyeva spends a day out-and-about in London on February 12, 2011 in London, England. Leyla Aliyeva is the Daughter of the President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev. She is working to promote her culture in the UK ahead of Azerbaijan's 20th anniversary of independence in May. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images for LA)

The Azerbaijani first family was named in the Panama Papers after it emerged that the daughters of President Ilham Aliyev owned a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, created to manage the family’s multimillion dollar British property portfolio.

Leyla Aliyev and her sister Arzu were found to be shareholders in a company called Exaltation Limited, which was founded to “[hold] UK property,” as the papers reveal, and which documents indicate is valued in excess of $1 million.

Related: What You Need to Know about the Latest Panama Papers Revelations

According to the Guardian, Leyla currently owns a “£17m mansion” in north London. She also reportedly owned a luxury penthouse overlooking Hyde Park while married to her businessman and pop star ex-husband Ermin Agalarov, whom she divorced in 2015.

Leyla—who currently lives in London—reportedly counts Prince Andrew, former British Secretary of State Lord Mandelson, and News Corp heiress Elisabeth Murdoch in her social circle.

She is also one of Azerbaijan’s most active patrons of the arts, focusing on promoting Azerbaijani culture abroad. As vice-president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation—which organizes more cultural events than Azerbaijan’s ministry of culture—she organized the Azerbaijan pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015. She was also behind a 2012 exhibition on Azerbaijani contemporary art at the Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliev Center in Baku, which subsequently traveled to Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Rome and Vienna.

Leyla Aliyeva attends an opening at Blain|Southern Gallery, London. Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Blain Southern

Leyla Aliyeva attends an opening at Blain|Southern Gallery, London.
Photo: Ben A. Pruchnie/Getty Images for Blain Southern.

“Azerbaijan is a place of mixed cultures, religions, and traditions, and that is reflected in the art,” she told Interview Magazine ahead of the 2012 exhibition. She also spoke of her collection in the interview, which she said includes work by the American painter George Condo. Her website features examples of her own artwork.

Despite Aliyev’s intentions to promote her country’s culture abroad, Eurasianet reported that the Heydar Aliyev Foundation has been criticized for the lack of transparency of its funding sources.

Taking into account accusations of corruption within the foundation Aliyev presides over, perhaps it comes as little surprise that her name emerged in the Panama Papers. Documents show that London-based family attorneys Child & Child bought the real-estate holding firm Exaltation Ltd. on behalf of the Aliyev daughters from Mossack Fonseca.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev is thought to be the country's wealthiest person. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Child & Child reportedly violated UK law by neglecting to indicate in the paperwork that the Aliyev’s were “politically exposed persons” (PEPs), a term used to describe individuals with political associations. While it isn’t illegal for PEPs to own offshore companies, the offshore entities owned by Aliyeva’s daughters are subject to greater transparency and compliance regulations to prevent corruption.

Critics argue that the sharp increase in London property price is due to wealthy foreigners using shell companies to buy UK property at inflated prices, resulting in unaffordable housing options for locals.

Further documents reveal that the Azerbaijani first family owns a controlling stake in one of Azerbaijan’s largest corporations through a complex web of shell companies and foundations. Valued at $600 million, Ata Holding owns major banks, construction firms and a five-star hotel in the capital city of Baku.


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