One of my clients was a fabulously wealthy Sheikh who lived in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. His background was as strange as he was. A Kuwaiti by birth, he managed to marry into one of the largest and therefore influential families in the Kingdom, The Algusaibis. From that he built an empire with shady dealings and employed the strangest of the strange and some of those still live abroad to avoid prosecution. That sounds like The Sopranos and indeed there are parallels. In one famous episode he managed to ride on the first American tank to enter Kuwait on their liberation. It was always said that he paid for that privilege.
Our board back in Bermuda decided that a Saudi Arabian should be invited to join us, on the premise that clients would flow towards us with his recommendations and he knew that his money talked. So, I was rather surprised that I was invited on New Year’s Eve to his compound. The instructions were to meet at the Sheraton Hotel, no passports were required but our discretion expected and certainly no cameras. The dress code was black tie and the first port of call would be a compound in Al-Khobar close to Half Moon Bay. Again this potential tourist area is blighted by pollution and factories.
A limousine sped me over the dark road bridge to Saudi Arabia. This bridge was built by the Dutch and is a marvel of engineering that allows access to and from Saudi Arabia, though it is only tourists coming to Bahrain and business men going the other way. As one approaches the customs island exactly half way between the two countries the long line of lorries exporting and importing wait in the sun for the slow custom officers who just take their time to almost annoy the Pashtoun drivers.
I was sharing the car with a few girls from Lithuania; they certainly did not have a permit to travel but were a dance troop from the hotel. They were thin and whey-faced, dulled by late nights and obnoxious potential suitors who had no chance anyway of their personal touch. The windows were blacked out just in case they were seen by the strict and bearded border guards. However with his private number plate on the Rolls Royce that allowed us to be waived through customs we pushed on, watched and saluted. I had no idea what was to happen next.
We drove onto the road sign indicating Riyadh, that was a bad sign, the capital was the place to avoid if you wanted to party. Eventually we turned off on a dusty and what seemed like a long track and came to what I can only describe as his Magic Kingdom.
As the gates were opened by unseen slaves I could see large animals, in fact mostly big felines in cages festooned with fairy lights scattered around the drive and our car, now one in a convoy of SUVs and the usual BMWs swirled on gravel and delivered us to the front door.
The Sheikh dressed in his dish-dash greeted me personally though the girls were of more interest. They were ushered through a side door and I was allowed into the mansion. We walked down a nondescript hall with bad taste decorations and through a small door into what can only be described as a night club from hell. The walls were festooned with erotic paintings and the dance area was modeled straight out of Annabel’s in London.
Cocktail waitresses in black and frilly skimpy outfits flitted around the guests forcing champagne and cocktails onto the guests. I recognised a few, and most men seemed intent to forming illicit relationships in the dim corners of this club. The waitresses were the wives of the British Aerospace employees from the region and were no doubt being well paid for their work.
The room was filling up and I made my way to the bar, hoping to meet some influential guests, keeping my hand full of business cards, it was that sort of party. The Sheikh was making his mark and keeping the party going, pouring drinks and offering anything, fine champagne, brandy, 100 year old whiskey. I think we got the picture. The music was loud and flirtatious and in the middle of the room, seated on a huge leather sofa was Mrs Sheikh, smoking a cigar. She was wearing a voluminous purple dress and what appeared high heels. Saudi women are not known to be tall.
We talked, drank and mingled. The guests were all from Europe and in the middle of this conservative and strict country we played the tables and behaved like we were in Monte Carlo complete with the Lithuanian dancing girls.
At about three in the morning, the main lights came on stunning us the music stopped and the cigars were put out. Ushered to our cars we slept our way home over the bridge the dawn by now breaking to the New Year. My companions the Lithuanian girls who by now were one less, a prize I suspect were curled up and purred like cats on the expansive leather seats. I was dropped at home, and so welcomed in 2001 with a hangover.
As for the Sheikh, well he is now under house arrest, his planes confiscated, money frozen and his whole empire in the courts in Manhattan. I was asked by a US lawyer to give a character reference on him; they expected me to give a damning account.
All I said was that he behaved always a gentleman to me, and was very polite,