Poor little rich kid

Thanks to oil, Saudi Arabia has more money than it knows what to do with, which is a mixed blessing

Linda Blandford October 18 1976

Poor little rich kid

Thanks to oil, Saudi Arabia has more money than it knows what to do with, which is a mixed blessing

Linda Blandford October 18 1976

Poor little rich kid

Thanks to oil, Saudi Arabia has more money than it knows what to do with, which is a mixed blessing

Linda Blandford

Saudi Arabia, where Prophet Mohammed was born and his military-minded evangelism took root, hogs most of the Middle East’s oil, has the strictest of Muslim sects, and resembles Nassau in its Sixties heyday. There’s the same international riffraff rolling in to get rich. There’s even the same smell of laundered money in the evening air when you go to dinner in the mansions with their green, green gardens. Some bankers and most Saudis will tell you that Saudi Arabia is wised up about money, but it isn’t—not yet. It wants to be, but it’s still too much the child determined to have all the toys .the adults have. For adults, read the West. Saudi Arabia envies Western technology, wants it all—good, bad, or indifferent—and wants it fast. So millions of dollars worth of contracts are up for grabs, and now every huckster and businessman in the world who’s chasing money passes through Riyadh.

Only one thing is certain in this ferocious desert land: it isn’t about to go broke. Old King Saud, with such pet extravagances as his $50-million al Naseryyah Palace complex (separate palaces for his four wives, 32 mansions for concubines and 37 palaces for select princes), almost managed to bankrupt the place, but that was before tightfisted King Faisal took over and long before oil prices rocketed. They say King Faisal found $100 left in his state coffer when his brother got the boot. The royal kingdom’s revenues for 1975-76 add up to $30,603,000,000 to be spread among precious few Saudis. The government has just banned contraceptives in an attempt to boost their number; but they’ll have to wait a while for the millions they need to be born, let alone grow up. Meanwhile rich women are merely adding the Pill to their shopping lists on their trips abroad.

Riyadh, in the middle of this barren, empty, frightening country, is Saudi Arabia’s capital—the centre of govern? ment and growing every day. The hotel * lobbies (such few as exist) throng with

0 businessmen, nerves and expense accounts Is stretched to breaking point, baffled by this g entirely alien culture. Today is an average 5 day in the lobby of the Al Yamama Hotel.

1 Walter Faulds, an old Africa hand and arû chitect, is doing his daily newspaper cross-

word over a cup of undrinkable tea. He’s been in Riyadh for three weeks. He doesn’t yet know that he’s doomed to be here for another three weeks. Faulds’ British firm is about to sign (everyone’s always about to sign) a design deal for part of Saudi Arabia’s new Olympic-size stadium. Not that Riyadh could house the Olympics. For starters, no Communist countries would be admitted (it’s a toss-up whom the Saudis hate more, Communists or Zionists; most of the time they think they’re plotting together). Women competing? Never. But the Saudis want the best stadium in the world, so that’s what they’re going to have. All of this leaves Faulds, with his rapidly greying hair and suede shoes, waiting with pained resignation for Prince Faisal ibn Fahd. The young prince, son of the Crown Prince, possesses (in his capacity as director of youth welfare) the crucial signature Faulds needs on his contract. The whereabouts of Prince Faisal is a mystery. His office says he isn’t in. He might be in tomorrow. But Bukra, in shaa’Allah (tomorrow, God willing) is a well-known password. God might not be willing tomorrow; he very often isn’t. And Prince Faisal’s office staff have been saying that for the last three weeks. Faulds waits, along with all the hotel lobby captives.

The lobby men are the concubines of the 1970s, shut away in purdah at the pleasure of their Arabian masters. Everyone’s terrified of quitting the hotel in case The Call comes. Around one table near Faulds huddles a group pushing bulletproof Cadillacs. At another there’s an Egyptian psychiatrist, playing anxiously with his worry beads, here to set up a psychiatric unit at the $200 million—that’s only the cheque for the first stage—King Faisal Medical City up the road. (“A psychiatric unit in Riyadh?” says a government official in horror. “Nonsense, it doesn’t exist. We don’t need psychiatry; we have Islam.” But the Egyptian is real enough. He’s waiting on the Medical City’s executive director. Jack F. Frayer, an ex-football player from Macon, Georgia, “where ah have the prettiest Herefords you-all ever saw.”) And in case psychiatry doesn’t work, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who shot out of obscurity by the Ganges when the Beatles embraced him in the 1960s, has a rep in town trying to

sell the Saudi Education Ministry on transcendental meditation programs. Bill Lear has flown in to find financing for his newest jet, but that tidbit’s lost on the engineers whispering in another corner. They’re worried sick that their foundations for a new university haven’t allowed for sand erosion. This is the desert. It’s merely decorated with highrise buildings. Another multidisciplinary architect from Dallas is nonchalantly covering his attempts to eavesdrop on their worries. He’s designing a flashy villa for the cousin of a minor prince whose brother is a minister. Perhaps the villa will lead to an office and shopping complex. The fellow from Dallas says he is slowly going nuts, but if he leaves and cuts himself out of the game he’ll never be able to deal himself back in.

For the operators, it’s about as easy as watching a film backward and upsidedown. Everyone has his contact. Every businessman waiting for The Call is about to make millions. Some do, but more never find out whether their contact has a contact with the right contact. The game beats them and they go home.

At odd moments during the day and evening deadpan Saudis drop in to watch the survivors. They ought to be charged an admission fee; most of them treat it like a trip to the zoo to inspect the chimps. Westerners can’t distinguish a taxi driver from a big tribal chief. National dress (that white sheet, a thobe, with the tablecloth headdress) is a great equalizer. Better-informed lobby hands extract sadistic delight at seeing a newcomer oozing charm at a Saudi known to have no more power to arrange anything than the doorman. Probably less. At least the doorman can arrange women. There are few other diversions— no movies or theatres.

But there is Mike, the hotel manager. Mike is a Palestinian who was raised in the United States and hasjust arrived in Saudi. This backslapping teeth-flasher is having to learn how to handle his thobe. He’s not a delicate man, so every one knows how difficult he’s finding it to urinate without spotting his long white frock as he holds it above his waist in the john. The lobby also knows that Mike has a friendly supply of Scotch that he shares, except on days when the hotel’s owner, a tall, dignified Saudi, puts in an appearance. But Mike’s worth a few giggles. His moonlighting is something else: he reads the late-night news in English on Saudi television—or rather stutters it, trying hard to keep his headdress from falling off. Then he rushes back to the hotel to ask the lobby how he did.

Usually at about this time the patient Faulds has a last cup of cocoa, folds his newspaper, and retires to get his strength together for another day’s waiting. But tonight his boss, Ian Fraser, is flying in. Fraser, a big cheerful man, arrives in a naval blazer and white loafers. He brings news at last of the elusive young Prince Faisal. He’s finally been tracked down. He’s doing as well as can be expected in a Fondon hotel suite, where he’s officially ill. Not too ill, though, to have been seen wining, dining and dancing at Annabel’s nightclub. It’s hard for the men playing the waiting game in Riyadh.

By comparison, life for a visiting Western woman is a cinch; at least the rules are clear. Sit in the back of the car automatically unless invited up front. Remember at all times to be as sexless as Snow White and shut off any signals that may be misread as an invitation. Don’t allow Mike the Manager through the bedroom door at two in the morning when he arrives with scotch to offer avuncular advice on how to deal with men. Don’t be offended if he then badmouths you around the lobby. No one will believe that any woman in her right mind would have a man in her room here. Everyone works on the assumption that rooms and phones are bugged. Paranoia is a disease that goes with Riyadh’s claustrophobia as malaria goes with swamps.

Of course, there can still be misunderstandings. It’s eleven at night. A high court official has finished work and he’s prepared to talk. “I think,” he says, his face inscrutable, “that if you don’t mind we’ll go around to the house of some friends to talk.” Nothing unusual in that. Once inside the cemented circle of power in Riyadh, you’re led around all manner of strangers’ homes at all hours to find tea, coffee and unquestioning hospitality. This time, the house is in a dark, unlit backstreet. The friend opens the door, greets the man from the court and closes the door behind us, leading the way into the living room. By now accustomed to the Saudi habit of giving away as much as a Chinese poker player, I register no surprise at the illegal Playboy magazines stacked in the bookshelves and nude centre-folds adorning the walls. They add an almost homey look to the slinky room with its discothequestyle lighting, low sofas, and stash of Akai stereo equipment and bottles of scotch. My predicament: it would be an automatic indictment if I walked out and were found running around the streets of Riyadh at night (a woman is always wrong here; she doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt). To ask immediately to be driven back to the hotel would lead to a confrontation. What if he refused? The friend has disappeared and the court official is oiling himself with whiskey. He tells me the villa’s rented by a group of married men as their communal “bachelor pad” (prostitutes, mainly Egyptian, and a river of cooperative stewardesses keep it well supplied). But I’m in the capital of a people whose tribal, desert traditions haven’t all been cashed in for petrodollars. There’s a way out if I keep calm.

“Do you mind being here with me?” leers my host meaningfully.

I’m scared stiff, but I say pleasantly, “Not at all. I’m a guest in your country, and so I know you will not harm me. I am under your protection.”

I now have him in a moral dilemma. As a Saudi he’s incapable of infringing on his sense of honor; as a man, he’s dying to jump on me. He blusters away for a time because he is about to lose face, and that’s one of the worst disasters an Arab man can suffer. He even begs me to stay the night,

locking myself in one room while he sleeps in another—so that his friend won’t know what’s happened. I turn down this invitation. In the end the Saudi in him wins out, and he weaves his way toward the door, out to the car, and drives me back to the hotel. I totter into the lobby, shaking with relief. “Did you have a productive time?” asks Faulds as we share our late-night cup of cocoa. “It’s been boring here as usual. How I wish something, anything, unexpected would happen.”

A couple of days later a leading Saudi government official drops me off at the hotel after a more conventional business meeting at his home. As the car roars away, a nearby American comments: “That man has everything. He’s educated, bright, rich and successful. It has all dropped into his lap.” But has it? Follow the man home, out of the public eye, and you find another Riyadh. The black oil spurting from underground is not as simple a blessing as the

biblical manna from heaven. Behind the high walls of Saudi homes there are casualties. That man’s wife is one. How could it be otherwise?

She sits in her living room hooked on cigarettes and tranquilizers. She’s in her late twenties, shrinking, wasting away, her face pale and pasty. Her long slender legs hang listlessly below her short Paris couture skirt and skinny T-shirt. In some ways life was easier for her mother. There were slaves then (slavery was abolished officially only in 1962), but a wife still had work. No California-style kitchens a generation ago, no air-conditioning, no schooling abroad or glimpses of an alternative life to the prison of the women’s quarters. The daughter has lost and gained from progress. Several times a week she covers her face with a mask of makeup, slides into long gowns, mechanically arranges the jewels that label her the possession of a multimillionaire—and they go out together; that’s avant garde for Riyadh. They go out to sit within the four walls of friends. Walls that can feel like a coffin.

“My father arranged our marriage when I was 16.1 remember our honeymoon, sitting on the plane with this stranger; and I didn’t know how to begin talking to him. 1 didn’t know the first thing about contraception, so I had four children in four years. How could I take care of a child? I was a child myself. Now I’ve grown up. I’m not a child any longer, but he won’t see that. You think I don’t know that my husband suffers too? I’ve stretched out and longed for him to see that I’m not the stupid child he married, that he can trust me, confide in me, let me share some of his worries. He doesn’t want me to grow up.

“I went to a European boarding school with normal girls. Do you know how hard it has been for me to adjust? Women can’t drive here, so I can’t leave the house without a driver for the car. When I do go out I have to put on a long black cloak and cover my face. I suffocate. I know other women say it’ll disappear one day. But what about now? It’s now that the veil suffocates me, now that 1 am humiliated.”

How can this woman’s husband begin to understand this humiliation? He lets her out of the country to a freedom she can’t handle and then brings her back to a constriction she can’t bear. “Here I rule my house, that’s all. 1 decide what food must be cooked when he telephones at noon from the office to say he’s bringing 10 men home for lunch. I arrange for the meal to be served, then I disappear through another door in the kitchen so that no men can see me. Has time really brought more freedom? It’s brought the freedom of tickets to Europe or the United States. If I want to go away I only have to ask. And what do I do there? I go shopping, sit in a hotel room and daren’t go out because there’s always someone from Riyadh who might see me and tell his family.

“He’s unfaithful. There isn’t a husband in Saudi Arabia who isn’t unfaithful. Not here, of course; here they’re angels. And hypocrites. I mind, but what can I do about it? We don’tdiscuss it because we don’t discuss anything that matters. Every now and again I scream at him, and believe me I have a tongue like a serpent, I know it. He wouldn’t hit me. He couldn’t. To do that would be to admit that I’m another adult human being, not a child.”

This woman is not unusual. Her husband, she says herself, is a good man. “I love that woman. My father showed me many photographs of suitable girls when it was time for me to get married, but I chose her myself—I wanted her. And now she can hurt me more than anyone. But what do you want me to do? I give her jewels, she shrugs. I give her thousands of dollars to buy clothes from London and New York. She complains because she can’t wear them in Riyadh except at home. Then why buy short skirts?’! ask. Why must she remind herself every day of what she can’t do?

“I work all day, and it isn’t easy. It’s one decision after another, and government life is one long fight. Must I fight at home every night? She says I don’t talk to her. When am I supposed to talk to her? It’s part of our way of life to have an open house with friends walking in at any time. I can’t lock our door against them to make time to talk to her. And I don’t want to. What else is there that matters in life but your friends and your family?

“I don’t believe in her covering her face, but I wouldn’t bring shame on my family by letting her be seen unveiled in daylight. But at night, if we’re going by car to friends, I don’t even ask that of her. I just ask her to put on her cloak and a thin chiffon scarf over her hair. Don’t women wear headscarves in your country? Is that a terrible sacrifice? Ten years ago I couldn’t have driven with her sitting beside me in the car, let alone without a veil. I couldn’t have let her go to Europe for the summer to get away from the heat. Why won’t she see how many things have changed for the better?

“Work? Of course she caa’t work. Why should she? We don’t need the money, and our families wouldn’t like it. Sometimes I think it was better in the past.” At this moment his face looks like that of a sad old man, and he’s only in his early thirties. “Life is getting too complicated. I’m afraid of what’s happening to all of us.”

The Saudi has a friend who is building a

three-million-dollar villa in Riyadh. Every weekend he goes out to inspect the site. It will have soft beige terrazzo floors, many courtyards, a swimming pool, a “bachelor” room downstairs for his male friends, a boudoir to take morning coffee with his wife. There will be hidden gardens and waterfalls glimpsed through the windows. It will be his first home of his own. He and his wife started in a large family compound with all his brothers and cousins and their families. Now they share a house with just one brother’s family. The next step is the house on the hill—one man, one wife, and three children. He grew up in a mud mansion teeming with people and the protective warmth of a traditional Saudi extended family. This empty marble house will seem like a mausoleum to him. Every Saudi multiplying his millions asks himself at some time—is the change worth it? In those lonely moments of doubt that foreigners don’t witness, few of them answer yes.

In the West it is simple to guess about wealth, who has it and, usually, where it comes from. Here there are no recognizable clues. If a banker so much as breathes of the money he has on deposit from these secretive people, he’ll have lost their millions. So a man works for the government; it doesn’t mean a thing. I’m with a lowgrade government official—so low-grade that I don’t like to watch him pay the bill for our over-priced coffee. Then he reaches into a pocket for a handkerchief, and out

tumble a three-karat canary-yellow diamond, an even larger blue-white marquise, and a good five-karat solitaire. He’s a bit of a diamond dealer. At the moment he is having trouble with builders. No, they’re not building a house for him to live in; he’s seen to that already. They’re working on a few plots of land in Jeddah and Medina that King Faisal gave him. Anyone hanging around the court long enough gets something for his services, and anyone in government can get to hang around the court sometime. When he gets through cursing the builders he starts on the cost of food. Two years ago a whole sheep cost $20. Now it costs $100.

But even knowing how much it all costs doesn’t help you place a Saudi. There’s no class structure as we know it—just rich, very rich, and at the top there’s the very rich close to the Right Ear. What can you tell from a man’s long white national dress? In the West you can weigh the cut of a man’s suit, the material, perhaps his club tie. National dress is only a negative giveaway: it doesn’t tell you if a man’s rich, but you know he’s poor if he turns up in the afternoon wearing the same thobe he wore in the morning (everyone else changes several times a day). Even those expensive watches and cufflinks don’t necessarily tell you anything. They may be something he couldn’t resist in Cartier’s last week; they could equally well be a gift from some higher being. But the wealth is there, all right. It’s what brings home the young men who have tasted the freedom of the West at universities in North America and Britain.

Salim ibn Ladin didn’t plan on coming home in a hurry. He was having a marvelous time with friends he’d made at his coeducational private school in England. He was chasing around talking about becoming a doctor and doing some female anatomical research on the way. That was 1966. He was the son of the largest construction tycoon in Saudi Arabia and enjoying in London the proceeds of the palaces and roads his father built in Saudi. Then Ibn Ladin Sr. died in a plane crash. Salim came back to take over and play surrogate father to his 52 younger brothers and sisters, one of whom wasn’t yet born, two of whom he’d never met.

Sheikh Salim, as he’s now called as boss of both the family and its business, couldn’t have been less interested in being a merchant prince. It wasn’t his fault that he was the oldest son of a man who started life as a semiskilled bricklayer and died at the age of 47 leaving an empire with 5,000 employees. It wasn’t money that pulled Salim back; it was Saudi conditioning that forced the responsibility on him. “I decide what schools my family go to, how much money they should have to spend. I even have to decide who my sisters can marry. My father was a great man—he couldn’t read or write to the day he died—but in his own way he was a genius. He was very religious, worked 15 to 17 hours a day, and he never had a holiday in his life. I’m nothing compared to him, nor will I ever be. I don’t want to be a slave to money or work. I like having a good time.” He spends at least six months abroad, not always hunting new contracts. When he’s at home he plays with his four private planes. “It’s so peaceful up there; you look down on the whole world and you’re as free as a bird. I’m even teaching my wife to fly. She can’t drive, but there’s no law to stop a woman from flying.” And he stays away from the office as much as possible, doing most of his business on the phone from his bed.

But if you catch him in a fleeting, serious moment, he admits with sadness and humility that all that he has left to accomplish in the world is to make good marriages for a few more sisters and satisfy his burning desire to own a Battle of Britain Spitfire. “We, the younger generation, we are nothing, and we have nothing to be particularly proud of. It was given to us. Maybe when I’m dead, my son might say, ‘You know, Salim wasn’t such a bad guy.’ That’s all I deserve. It was the old guys who made what we have today.” His father helped to build this country. His money gave Salim ibn Ladin a taste for what it could buy. He’s aware that men like him will come home for the money, but they’ll change the country that draws them back, because they’re softies compared to their fathers— and maybe it’s just as well.^

This is an excerpt from Super-wealth: The Secret Lives Of The Oil Sheikhs by Linda Blandfordto be published by William Morrow & Company Inc. in March.