‘A beautiful person’: Why sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich finds sympathy in St. Barths
The Russian tycoon’s years of spending and donating on the island endeared him to many locals. They’re not the only ones Abramovich apparently bought love from.
Sanctions continue to rain down on Roman Abramovich’s parade.
This week, the island of Jersey froze at least $7 billion in assets believed to be linked to the oligarch. Then France revealed it had frozen nearly $1 billion worth of properties owned by oligarchs, including Abramovich‘s 70-acre estate on the Caribbean island of St. Barthelemy, commonly known as St. Barts. .
Abramovich bought this island mansion for $90 million in 2009. The secluded property, located on pristine Gouverneur Beach, features Balinese bungalows, tennis courts and swimming pools. The oligarch’s annual New Year’s Eve parties have become a local staple, featuring top musical artists like Paul McCartney and extravagant fireworks.
Abramovich, who has been sanctioned by the UK and the EU, is a controversial figure who is not welcome in most Western countries. But some of the roughly 10,000 people living in St. Barths are big fans and would accept his return, according to several locals and full-time residents who spoke with Forbes.
“The island loves him. He has been nothing but good for the island,” says a real estate broker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of backlash. “Many different service providers work for him. He uses the economy of the island when it comes.
In an economy that relies on high-end tourism, Abramovich is the ultimate whale. He paid local contractors to upgrade his Gouverneur Beach home and renovate a second island property he also owns, according to a St. Barts person who asked to remain anonymous. (A second property in Saint-Barth has been frozen by France, but its owner could not be confirmed). The oligarch’s yachts, including his 533ft superyacht Eclipse, the 220 feet Boyand the 180 feet Halo– are sites familiar to the islanders; two of them were there as recently as Jan. 26, according to MarineTraffic data.
Patrice Abderrahman, a local chef who runs a business catering to wealthy tourists, says he has worked as Abramovich’s private chef a dozen times. “She’s a beautiful person,” raves Abderrahman, who has lived in Saint Barthélemy since the age of 14. “He is always listening to everyone and [is] someone very, very simple. He loves nature. He is much loved on the island.
Abramovich’s modest donations to St. Barths (by billionaire standards) also helped conquer the island. In 2010, he paid $4 million to rebuild the Saint-Jean football stadium, then financed a Caribbean football tournament organized in Saint-Barth in 2014. After Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, he paid for stadium renovations. Abramovich also paid to renovate a saltwater pond important to the local ecosystem. (Representatives of Abramovich and the government of St. Barths did not respond to Forbes’ questions about Abramovich’s investments and donations to the island).
“He invested money and donated money to services on the island,” says a local hotelier, who also asked to remain anonymous. “People like him. And he’s friendly when you see him around.
Still, not all islanders support Abramovich. “For more than a decade, locals and staff have become extremely wealthy themselves by doing favors for” Abramovich and other ultra-wealthy patrons, says a St. Barths resident who asked to remain anonymous. “They don’t want it to end.”
Abramovich, 55, built his fortune in the 1990s as Russia liberalized its market economy. He acquired a large stake in oil giant Sibneft through President Boris Yeltsin’s infamous equity loan program, in which a handful of wealthy businessmen financed Yeltsin’s re-election campaign in exchange for control of valuable energy assets and raw materials. In 2005, Abramovich sold his stake in Sibneft to Russian state-owned Gazprom for $13.1 billion. Russia’s former chief prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, told the BBC last month, Abramovich engaged in “fraudulent deals” to acquire his Sibneft shares. (Abramovich denied any wrongdoing). More recently, Abramvoch played a role in peace talks between Russia and Ukraine. He was allegedly poisoned during one of these meetings.
The people of St. Barts aren’t the only ones whose loyalty and affection Roman Abramovich has seemingly bought over years of donations.
Abramovich’s $500 million donations to various Jewish organizations have won him powerful allies in Israel. His most recent gift, on February 22, just two days before the Russian invasion, was an eight-figure gift — to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust museum. The donation, the exact value of which has not been disclosed, made Abramovich the group’s second-largest private donor, the Yad Vashem spokesperson said. On February 26, two days after Russia invaded Ukraine, a group of influential Israeli figures released a co-authored letter urging the United States not to sanction Abramovich. Two of the group’s perpetrators included leaders from Yad Vashem and the Sheba Medical Center, which describes Abramovich as a “longtime donor.” (The EU and UK both sanctioned Abramovich in March. The US did not).
While serving as governor of Russia’s remote Chukotka region from 2000 to 2008, Abramovich invested an estimated $2.5 billion in the local economy, earning the region’s residents by pouring money into schools , medicine and basic infrastructure. The oligarch’s investments and charity work made him “very popular” during his tenure as governor of Chukotka, according to the Institute of Modern Russia, a US-based think tank. In 2005, he had an approval rating of 97%.
As the owner of Chelsea FC, Abramovich spent big on the best players in the world, buying his way into the hearts of Chelsea fans one trophy at a time. Following Abramovich’s announcement at the end of February that he would relinquish control of Chelsea, some fans attending a Chelsea match against Burnley on March 5 interrupted a minute-long applause – meant to show solidarity with Ukraine – with vocals by “Abramovich”. Some Chelsea fans continue to call out the oligarch’s name during games, despite warnings and pleas from the UK government to stop.
In St. Barts, Abramovich stands out from other wealthy foreigners. Decades of commercial and luxury development have transformed the island into a lush getaway for wealthy tourists, about half of whom are Americans, the local hotelier believes. But over-tourism in St. Barths has generated backlash and environmental concerns. A local group of activists recently successfully sued to stop the development of a large hotel, L’Etoile. Environmentalists had accused the developer of polluting the same body of water that Abramovich had helped restore. (L’Etoile’s parent company denied the charges.)
“I think what is good about [Abramovich] is that he does not live on the island to take advantage of [it]“says the local real estate broker. “Most people who come to the island as investors are there to make money on the island. Our biggest enemy is the hotel and restaurant groups that set up shop here.
Despite his fans, Abramovich won’t be heading to St. Barths anytime soon. As one of France’s overseas collectivities, the island is semi-autonomous but still operates under French law. Since the EU sanctioned him and France froze his island mansion, Abramovich would risk arrest or prosecution if he tried to enter his home, or if he tried to rent or to sell the property, according to sanctions experts.
“Allowing sanctioned persons to enter villas would be tantamount to granting them the use of economic resources, and that is prohibited,” says Viktor Winkler, a sanctions lawyer who was previously responsible for global sanctions standards within German banking giant Commerzbank AG.
“In general, Saint-Barth applies EU law like the rest of France,” adds James Reardon, a lawyer specializing in sanctions at the Swiss firm MLL.
In the eyes of Patrice Abderraham, France and the EU have gone astray by attacking Abramovich. “They put everyone in the same basket”, assures the private chef. “I hope everything goes well for him.”