Diplomatic Baggage

By Guest Contributor

André Semer

And what, might we ask, is baggage in a diplomatic world?  Well property of course!

The US has one of the largest and most well-funded diplomatic property portfolios around the world, with more than 3,500 buildings in 193 countries, including 264 embassies and consulates, estimated to be worth $12bn in total, according to the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. It is also known to spend handsomely on diplomatic residences and embassies, historically viewing them as lavish platforms for wining, dining and deal-making.

Today, the American government is selling off ambassadorial residences around the world – from an estate in Caracas to townhouses in Warsaw to the lush English gardens residence in Ottawa which was featured in the 1990 Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward film Mr and Mrs Bridges.  All part of an unprecedented real estate disposal program.  And the list goes on, to a former ambassador’s residence in Taipei, Taiwan, with views of the Yang Ming Mountains, valued at T$65.2m {$2m}; to a 1,582 sq. ft. condominium in Santiago, Chile, listed at 75.7m pesos {$150,}; to Jakarta, Indonesia, Rp5bn {$550}.  And for more adventurous buyers, there is the former ambassadorial villa in Tripoli, Libya, priced at LD1.9m {$1.5m} – the first time something on this scale has ever occurred.

The sales are happening because the US government is moving many of its overseas workers into more secure buildings to meet stringent safety requirements. There have been more than 250 attacks or attempted attacks on US embassies and diplomatic residences since 1975.

Some 29 sites in 21 countries have been deemed excess property and listed with private real estate agents selected by the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, which manages the facilities.  About half are non-residential, including historic embassies and ancillary buildings such as London’s immense former Navy Annex in Grosvenor Square, which is on the market for £90m. Chancery buildings in Panama, Nicaragua and Nepal are also being sold.

But it is the diplomatic residences that offer property gazers a rare glimpse at the lifestyles of emissaries. In Caracas, Venezuela – one sprawling residence, priced at 4.5bn bolivars {$2.1m}, resides on more than 2.2 acres.  In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire {the Ivory Coast} – the former ambassador’s estate has two swimming pools and two tennis courts, while the compound in Mali includes a cultural center and a snack bar.

These homes are often the most lavish properties in their towns with offers coming from Europe, the US and the Middle East.

The US is not the only country looking to downsize its diplomatic property portfolio. The Canadian government recently put two properties on the market in Europe: the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Dublin, an eight-bedroom pile surrounded by nearly nine acres of parkland in Killiney overlooking Dublin Bay, listed at €17m, and an eight-storey mansion in London’s Grosvenor Square, directly opposite the US embassy, that could be converted into a hotel or luxury apartments. The asking price for the latter is £300m and, according to estate agents handling the sale, more than 20 property developers and British and overseas financiers have expressed interest.

The UK is meanwhile reviewing the possible sale of hundreds of homes for diplomats and other staff in an effort to cut costs.  The residences of the High Commissioner to South Africa in Pretoria and Cape Town are said to be on the list. And last year France put dozens of historic properties in Paris and the provinces on the market, including an historic townhouse facing the Bois de Boulogne that once belonged to the aristocratic Noailles family. French billionaire Vincent Bollore paid €10m for the property and Russian billionaires have reportedly snapped up some formerly government-owned villas on the Cote d’Azur.

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