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Royal Flush

Richard Cummings’s piece on Saudi Arabia in the last issue of AC brought back memories. According to Cummings, the revolution in Saudi has begun in earnest. I sure hope so. I’ve seen Saudi Arabian excesses from up close, and it is not a pretty sight.

Take titles, for a start. Americans are not very familiar with titles in general and Saudi so-called royal titles in particular. The Saud clan, all 30-odd thousand of them, all go by the title “prince” or “princess,” but they are nothing of the kind. They simply belong to the tribe of Saud, a bunch of Bedouins who won out over the Hashemites that ruled the sands of Arabia until some 70 years ago. Here’s the difference: European titles, especially princely ones, are conferred to individuals by emperors and kings for great feats. This custom has been curtailed, recent conferred titles for services rendered to one’s country being of lower rank than princely ones, such as Duke of Suarez in Spain or Baroness Thatcher, as in the case of the great Maggie. Princely titles and their families in Europe are published in the Almanach De Gotha, a sort of social register for nobility, which includes reigning and formerly reigning royal houses, as well as Sovereign Houses of the Holy Roman Empire. No fake or made-up princely titles have ever been published in the hallowed pages of the Almanach de Gotha.Enter the Saudis—and 30,000 camel drivers who suddenly declared themselves princes and princesses. As a European, whose name is included in the Almanach De Gotha (through marriage, alas), I can only laugh. As an American citizen, however, I am outraged that these sand-dwelling kleptocrats are addressed as their highnesses in capitals of the Western world.

Let’s start with the present king of Saudi Arabia, Fahd. I first met him in London during the late Sixties at Aspinall’s gambling club, back then called the Clermont. John Aspinall, or Aspers, was a conservationist and breeder of wild animals who funded his zoos by fleecing the rich and the bored. He ran the most extravagant and elegant gambling house the world has ever seen. No Las Vegas glitz chez Aspers, just a lot of Old Etonians and Brit upper-class men who gambled away their inheritances. Once the thin blue line of British aristocracy had begun to run dry as far as funds were concerned, Aspers was obliged to look elsewhere. The first “live” one he brought in was Fahd, a pudgy but good-looking chap accompanied by a very beautiful Middle-Eastern young woman who pulled up a chair at the chemin-de-fer table.

Those were politically incorrect times, and nowhere was it more politically incorrect than at Aspinall’s. “Must we sit here with your Nubian slaves?” asked Lord Lucan, a terrific snob and, alas, a good friend of mine who some years later murdered his children’s nanny whom he confused for his wife, the intended victim. (“Lucky,” as we called Lucan because of a 10-year run of bad luck, fell on his sword immediately after his heinous act, but his body, whose remains are in the bottom of the Channel, has never been found, thus protecting his children from being de jure offspring of a murderer.) Aspinall knew better than to introduce the man as his highness to us, but the croupiers and the valets were instructed to address him as royalty at all times.

Actually I remember feeling sorry for the man, or perhaps it was his young companion who attracted me. He was back then the crown prince, although it wasn’t clear who would inherit the throne of King Faisal. Fahd turned out to be tricky. Every time he would win a hand at chemmy he would apologize to the loser, a habit I found attractive because I had seen it done in Egypt during Farouk’s days, when my father was gambling at the Mohammed Ali Club of Cairo. Yet he would never allow anyone to invest in his hand—a common courtesy extended to those who couldn’t afford the minimum and rode piggy-back on a richer man’s cards as a result—did not mix in the baddinage with the rest of the punters, and didn’t tip.

Every night he came in with a different young woman, all of them very pretty, but when anyone tried to talk to them Fahd made a terrific fuss to Aspinall and threatened to stop gambling. He was a big gambler, and I assume he must have dropped a packet because soon after he was brought into our game Aspers bought Port Lympne, the Sassoon mansion in seaside Kent that bordered Aspinall’s Palladian mansion next door. I was not as lucky as Aspers. My biggest bet against Fahd’s bank one night was an astronomical amount that I couldn’t possibly afford. I nevertheless called banco and got the second-best hand in chemin-de-fer, an eight. “Sorry,” smiled Fahd, and produced a nine. I threw up in the bathroom immediately after, asked Aspinall for time to pay, and never saw Fahd ever again.

Mind you, Fahd had done nothing wrong. He was quite polite—distant and uninterested in his surroundings—but tough as hell with the girls and the staff. He was a brave gambler, but most of us would have been just as brave if the money we were playing with was monopoly money, which in reality Arabian funds are. (It would be like George W. playing with Fort Knox gold.)

These “princes” have been using state funds since they came to power early last century. Take, for example, Marbella, Spain, where Fahd has a summer house.

Twelve large jets were required to move him and his entourage from a hospital in Geneva to the Spanish resort only last year. Three hundred black Mercedes cars were produced overnight to serve the flunkies. Not a single mobile telephone was to be found within an area of 50 miles from Marbella. While Fahd was in Geneva undergoing tests—his prodigious intake of rich food has turned him into a blob whose knees cannot support him—the toadies came up to Gstaad and took over every available hotel room. They were rude beyond imagination and demanded that the shops open in the middle of the night, usually after 2 a.m., so they could shop in private.

Fahd’s so-called royal household spends $80 million a week while in Marbella. Back in Saudi Arabia, the costs are multiplied. And it’s all oil moolah, supposedly belonging to the people of Saudi Arabia but expropriated by the Saud clan and put to use for fun and games.

Now the oil kingdom is finally in danger of combustion. The reports detailing the Saudi role in the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks have mostly been suppressed. But in my mind, there is no doubt that Saudi diplomats provided financial and logistical support for the terrorists. Only after Sept. 11 did the global extent of the Wahabi menace become clear. Saudi money has been deployed on a colossal scale to finance al-Qaeda and to buy protection. It is a lunatic fringe backed by one of the greatest concentrations of wealth in the world.The diplomatic counter-offensive by the Saudis, however, has been formidable. Riyadh, in the person of Ambassador Bandar, has managed to corrupt most American diplomats who deal with the oil-rich country. It is pre-emptive bribing on an unprecedented scale, and Bandar is the man who has pulled it off for years. (His wife Haifa, who was caught red-handed giving money to terrorists posing as students, had la creme de la creme of Washington defending her.) It is said that “Crown Prince” Abdullah is a moderate. He is only moderate when compared to Sultan, his half brother, the defense minister who is the father of Bandar and a close friend of the Bin Laden family.

The day these modern day Ali Babas are sent away to the French Riviera for good will be a good one for America as well as for the rest of the world.

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