There’s an odd dichotomy in California’s high-end real estate market. While other traditional luxury areas like the Bay Area and coastal Orange County have been mired in a slight sales slump over the past year, driven by multiple factors – a tumultuous stock market, political uncertainty and more — L.A.’s ultra-luxe segment has been on a tear, notching no fewer than six transactions of $90 million or more over the past eight months. And down at the $30+ million level, too, sales are exceptionally brisk; last year saw a record 19 deals closed in that range.
High-profile buyers like Jeff Bezos and media mogul Lachlan Murdoch grab most of the media headlines, of course, but no small thanks for the sizzling market are due to L.A.’s influx of billionaire Arabs seeking a part-time residence. Money is currently flooding out of the Middle East, and a substantial portion of it is slipping into Tinseltown luxury real estate.
Within the last two years, Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling Barzani family paid $47 million cash for two Beverly Hills mansions, and a Saudi prince paid $52.2 million for a hilltop Bel Air compound. The late William Hearst’s titanic L.A. estate has been on the market for years, but Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Alsaud is — or was — keenly interested in the property, which is currently listed at $125 million.
And then there’s the infamous Spelling Manor, which set a California record when it sold for nearly $120 million last July. Though the buyer’s identity remains officially unconfirmed, it’s been widely speculated to be either a Saudi or a member of the Al Nahyan clan, Abu Dhabi’s unfathomably rich royal family.
Impressive as they are, none of those estates can quite match the sheer glitzy opulence of the Bel Air behemoth that sold for $94 million last October. Aptly dubbed Billionaire and built on speculation by powerhouse developer Bruce Makowsky, the blocky estate offers 38,000 square feet of living space, 21 bathrooms, 12 bedrooms, two elevators lined in alligator skin, a four-lane bowling alley, a James Bond-themed movie theater and a rooftop helipad where a “non-functioning” helicopter was parked.
There’s also an underground automobile museum, a giant candy wall, two outdoor infinity pools, putting greens, an indoor wellness suite, a $2 million outdoor retractable theater screen, two wine cellars and fire extinguishers filled with Dom Pérignon. The property also offers cinematic views of L.A.’s Century City skyline and the Pacific Ocean, naturally.
In 2018, Billionaire debuted on the market with a $250 million pricetag, making it the most expensive U.S. house on sale at that time. It instantly became social media’s latest viral superstar, and a marketing video filmed by Tri-Blend Media racked up nearly 10 million views. During an open house event, more than 1,000 guests attended and the line of cars attempting to access the hilltop estate stretched all the way down to Sunset Boulevard. Within two hours, the raucous event was shut down by cops.
Billionaire lingered unsold for nearly two years, undergoing substantial price chops. When it finally found a buyer for $156 million off the original ask, the hefty 62% discount was much ballyhooed in the press.
But $94 million is still $94 million– an enormous amount of money and easily one of the biggest sums ever paid for an L.A. home. And the discounted deal, it’s believed, did not include any of the exotic cars or accessories offered as perks in the original list price. It also did not include the inoperable helicopter, which was hauled away via crane and tractor-trailer, much to the neighbors’ relief.
Despite that it’s one of the most outrageous houses in existence — clearly meant for flaunting the owner’s wealth to all who dare gaze upon it — Billionaire’s billionaire buyer has remained a mystery for the past four months, a very rare thing in high-end real estate, particularly in Los Angeles, where buyers of the city’s major estates are typically announced or known by the time the deals close.
Indeed, the new owner appears to have taken great strides to cloak their identity. Property records say the shopping mall-sized mansion was acquired by an unfamiliar company, WinterSun Properties LLC, whose president is Charles Cohen – a low-profile local businessman with longstanding links to several international billionaires.
But persistant local neighborhood rumors said that behind the mask, the real new owner was an anonymous Saudi — possibly a member of the Alsaud royal family — who had also looked at other trophy properties in the immediate area.
And of course, it’s all but impossible to move into a mansion without anyone knowing – more difficult still when the property is one of the most famous, most immodest homes in all of Southern California.
According to a Bel Air resident, the buyer actually moved in shortly after the $94 million deal closed, sometime prior to the holidays last year, and has not been shy about displaying his vast wealth to the neighbors, despite any apparent surface-level secrecy. The new owner keeps a small fleet of black luxury SUVs parked in the front driveway, and a group of bodyguards and assorted other employees frequently mill around the property’s entrance, helping keep curious lookie loo’s at bay.
Registered at the Bel Air address is a limited-liability company called Billy Beez USA. Surface-level digging reveals Billy Beez is a Manhattan-based real estate business that caters primarily to young children, and operates a chain of indoor playgrounds in the states of New York, California and Massachusetts.
Through a series of holdings companies, Billy Beez’s ownership trail can be traced back to Saudi Arabia. But the beneficial owner, it turns out, is not a royal family member but rather billionaire Saudi shopping mall magnate Fawaz Alhokair, a man with a well-documented penchant for trophy real estate.
Back in 2016, Alhokair set the New York real estate scene alight when he paid a shocking $87.7 million for the top-floor penthouse at 432 Park Avenue, the Manhattan skyscraper that first achieved fame as America’s tallest residential building. The purchase made the headlines in nearly every major news outlet and gossip blog — at the time, it was the fourth-biggest residential deal ever inked in Manhattan, behind only Russian heiress Ekaterina Rybolovleva’s $88 million purchase, hedge funder Bill Ackman’s $91.5 million splurge, and tech tycoon Michael Dell’s $100.5 million One57 acquisition. And after all, the supertall building meant Alhokair’s top-floor penthouse was the highest personal residence in the entire Western Hemisphere. (That record has since been surpassed.)
The New York penthouse purchase also caused a stir not simply due to the near-record pricetag, but because of the enormous mortgage — records show Alhokair took out a $56 million loan to finance the purchase of his condo. At the time, in 2016, The Real Deal called the massive mortgage a “rather unusual move”. Even the New York Times weighed in, terming the massive mortgage “noteworthy” because homes at that price level “are rarely financed,” citing veteran appraiser Jonathan Miller of Miller Samuel.
A spokesman for Alhokair didn’t respond to Variety‘s request for comment on the Bel Air purchase, but that deal was consummated in an almost eerily similar manner to the New York acquisition. With the slightly higher pricetag — $94 million versus $87.7 million — came a slightly bigger mortgage. That tab was $58 million in the Bel Air deal, making it one of the largest loans ever provided for the purchase of an U.S. home. Bloomberg even wrote a story on the super jumbo loan itself, saying “this one stands out.”
While the $56 million NYC mortage was provided by the L.A.-based CIM Group — the developer of the 432 Park Avenue skyscraper — the Bel Air loan was granted by HSBC, a London-based banking giant who does the bulk of their business in Asia and the Middle East, and is the largest international bank in Saudi Arabia.
An HSBC spokesman declined to comment on Alhokair’s mortgage, but the bank and the billionaire developer have a longstanding relationship. Back in 2006, HSBC served as lead manager and exclusive advisor to the Fawaz Alhokair Group in navigating the company’s public stock market debut.
Alhokair, now in his mid-50s, has become one of the Middle East’s most prominent real estate developers; the Fawaz Alhokair Group’s real estate holdings reportedly makes it Saudi Arabia’s most valuable retail firm. Alhokair owns the exclusive Saudi franchise rights to Zara, Topshop, Banana Republic and Gap, among other popular apparel chains.
Those holdings support Alhokair’s total of $114 million in mortgage liabilities on two personal residences, an amount that almost certainly qualifies as some sort of U.S. record. And that’s not counting the property taxes and exorbitant maintenance costs — according to reports, common charges on the NYC penthouse alone top $32,000 per month.
It remains unclear why Alhokair’s Bel Air mansion acquisition has been kept secret when his 2016 New York penthouse purchase was essentially announced to the world. But it’s perhaps worth noting that Alhokair was reportedly one of 200 prominent Saudi businessmen temporarily detained at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh during 2018 on unspecified charges of corruption. However, a settlement has since been reached, the “prisoners” have been released, and as the winter sun sets, all is well in the kingdom once again.