The Guardian, February 7, 2013
Hamid Karzai swaps Kabul fortress for Claridge’s finery
On day he issued decree back home to curtail government expenses, Afghan president checks into luxury London hotel
By Lisa O'Carroll
Living in the shadow of terror and the threat of assassination around the clock, Hamid Karzai could be forgiven for indulging in a bit of relaxing comfort whenever he gets the chance.
But to touch down in London and check into Claridge's, one of the most luxurious hotels in the world, the day he issued a decree back home to curtail government expenses is, at best, a sign that the Afghan president is prone to a touch of political frailty like the best of his western counterparts.
For this is where he and an entourage of 40 officials stayed on their whistlestop visit to London for talks with the Pakistan president, Asif Ali Zardari, on Monday night.
Rooms at Claridge's, a byword for refined luxury and a hotel favoured by royalty and celebrity alike, cost anything from £300 but the individually crafted suites favoured by hundreds of heads of state over the years cost thousands a night.
The top-of-the-range Brook penthouse, where the truly rich and famous stay, is bigger than a standard Victorian terraced house at just under 185 square metres (2,000 sq ft). "Designed by Veere Grenney, this elegant art deco-style apartment is decorated in gentle lilac with light oak floors" and "an idiosyncratic blend of old and new furnishings," gushes the hotel's website. The nightly tariff, available on request, is a cool £6,900 a night. Impecunious VIPs can opt for the cheaper suites at about £1,000 a night.
But even a budget-conscious, non-drinking guest is not going to come off lightly after a stay in Claridge's. A non-alcoholic raspberry crush in the Fumoir bar will set the purse back £8, while classic afternoon tea, albeit accompanied by a selection of finger sandwiches and a selection of pastries, costs £40 a head.
A room at Cladridge's Hotel in London. (Photo: http://www.claridges.co.uk)
It is a world away from Arg-e-Shahi Palace, Karzai's fortress compound in central Kabul where four checkpoints and a battery of army personnel and sniffer dogs protect the president from the constant threat of attack. One US diplomat described his job as "the hardest in the world". Four of Afghanistan's past six presidents have been murdered, three of them in office.
But the irony of a luxury stay in Claridge's will not be lost on the Afghan electorate. According to the usually reliable Tolo News, Karzai has ordered government departments to cut back on purchases of deluxe, expensive equipment in favour of domestic products.
"All ministries and government offices are required to economise on the expenses of stationery, oil materials, repairs and other expenditures, to avoid any unnecessary expense and above-standard per diems for trips out of the country, and to reduce expenses," the decree states, reported Tolo News on Monday, just as Karzai was meeting the Prince of Wales, who the president has said "is a very good friend of Afghanistan". The Afghan embassy was not available for comment.
The use of high-cost items at government departments has been heavily criticised in the past, especially because most of these products are mainly funded with budgets from the international community. However, it is the first time that the president has so formally addressed it.
So who foots the bill? According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), all heads of state invited on official visits to the UK are treated to stays in first-class hotels such as Claridge's. The cost of 10 of Karzai's entourage was paid for by the British taxpayer, with the remainder on the Afghan tab.
An FCO spokeswoman said: "Heads of state on guest of government visits are able to stay in a range of hotels of a similar level, including Claridge's. Accommodation is determined by a variety of factors, including suitability for a head of state, location and security. As you would expect, we do not go into detail on accommodation or other arrangements for visiting heads of state."
The FCO is said to be proud to have run the trilateral event hosted by the prime minister in Chequers and will have seen the cost of putting up part of Karzai's entourage as money worth spending – especially if it leads to a deal.
Charming, clever, and fluent in Pashtu, Dari, English and Urdu, he made Esquire magazine's list of best-dressed men in 2004, and seems at home anywhere from the remotest corners of Afghanistan to western capitals.
Karzai took power as a temporary leader of his country after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, then won two successive presidential polls, in 2004 and 2009, and confesses he is looking forward to a rest. He told the Guardian in an interview on Monday that it is a decade since he took a holiday.
And Karzai is certainly not the first head of state from a country relying on foreign aid to stay at the hotel. Foreign aid accounts for 40% of Malawi's budget yet President Joyce Banda stayed there shortly after she rose from vice-president to the top job last year. During the Olympics a team of 16 from Malawi stayed for 11 nights, while a team of nine from Gabon had an eight-night stay during the Games.
Karzai's friendship with Prince Charles, who he describes as a "very fine gentlemen", has also yielded dividends for Afghanistan and the owners of Claridge's. The Turquoise Mountain Foundation charity was founded at the request of the prince in 2006 to protect and encourage ancient Afghan craftsmanship in calligraphy, woodwork, jewellery and ceramics.
It was subsequently commissioned by the Maybourne Hotel Group, which owns Claridge's, to craft The Prince's Lodge Suite at the Connaught, an exquisite room involving 37 square metres of carved dark walnut for a four-poster bed, alcoves, architraves and cabinets.
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