Billionaire playboy led life of excess

Saudi arms trader Adnan Khashoggi's over-the-top parties were part of his business strategy

Middle East power broker Adnan Khashoggi had brushes with the law, but was never convicted of a crime.
Middle East power broker Adnan Khashoggi had brushes with the law, but was never convicted of a crime.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • Adnan Khashoggi, the flamboyant Saudi arms trader who rose to spectacular wealth in the 1970s and 1980s, while treating the world to breathtaking displays of decadence even by the standards of that era, died on Tuesday in London. He was 81.

His family announced his death in a statement. He had been undergoing treatment for Parkinson's disease.

When Saudi Arabia and other Arab states decided to embark on a vast armament programme after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, backed by billions of dollars in oil money, Khashoggi became their principal link to the United States arms industry. For years, he was the middleman in most of Saudi Arabia's arms purchases.

He had several brushes with the law, but was never convicted of a crime. He was involved in many of his era's highest-profile scandals, including Iran-Contra and the Marcos family's effort to spirit money out of the Philippines.

One biography of him was titled The Richest Man In The World, which was not strictly accurate, but during the early 1980s, his wealth, estimated at US$40 billion, placed him in a tiny elite.

At the peak of his wealth, he presided over 12 estates, including some in Europe and the Middle East, a 73,800ha ranch in Kenya and a two-floor Manhattan residence at Olympic Towers, next to St Patrick's Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, that was made from 16 existing apartments.

He owned the world's largest yacht - used in the 1983 James Bond film Never Say Never Again and later sold to real-estate developer Donald Trump for US$29 million in 1988 - and three lavishly refitted commercial-size jets.

British rock band Queen wrote a song, Khashoggi's Ship, referring to the 86m-long yacht outfitted with a laser that sketched its owner's smiling image in the main cabin.

The 400 guests who helped him celebrate his 50th birthday in 1985 at his seaside estate in Marbella, Spain - one writer called it "the most coveted invitation since the coronation of Louis XIV" - passed under an archway of crossed swords held aloft by 50 liveried pages; dined on a 50-item buffet at midnight; and watched the host, known to his many friends as A.K., seated between actress Brooke Shields and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, beam as Shirley Bassey sang Happy Birthday. The festivities continued for five days.

Over-the-top parties were part of his business strategy, which he believed required flaunting his wealth and powerful connections. "It's all part of the mechanism for impressing people," he once said.

In a 1987 cover article about him, Time magazine said he spent US$250,000 a day to support his lifestyle.

He travelled in a blinged-out DC-8, kept an Indian swami as an on-call adviser and boasted about his young mistresses.

This was grade-A fodder for tabloids and gossip magazines years before his nephew Dodi al-Fayed riveted the world's attention with his brief and tragic romance with Princess Diana. (The two died in 1997 in Paris along with driver Henri Paul in a tunnel crash.)

Soon after the Time article appeared, Khashoggi's fortune began slipping away. His holding company in the US, Triad America, filed for bankruptcy.

Its biggest project, a hotel and shopping complex in Salt Lake City, fell victim to what he called "cash- flow problems". In his later years, he lived well, but in much-reduced circumstances. He flew on commercial jets, fended off creditors and dismissed his bodyguard, a South Korean martial arts expert known as Mr Kill.

Khashoggi was born in Mecca on July 25, 1935, one of six children. His father, the court doctor to King Ibn Saud, was of Turkish descent, leaving the family outside the web of connections, obligations and suspicions in the Saudi court.

Khashoggi attended Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt, a traditional training ground for the Middle Eastern elite, where pupils were caned for using any language other than English.

Afterwards, he enrolled at what was then Chico State College in California. Barely a year after arriving there, at the age of 21, he brokered his first major deal, the sale of US$3 million worth of trucks to Egypt. His commission was US$150,000. He never returned for his college degree.

In 1961, Khashoggi married a 20-year-old Englishwoman, Sandra Daly, who converted to Islam and took the name Soraya. They had four sons and a daughter, Nabila, after whom he named his yacht.

Khashoggi and Soraya divorced in 1979, after having split years earlier amid rumours of his numerous affairs. Soraya had her own flings, including with actor Warren Beatty, former British lawmaker Jonathan Aitken and the namesake grandson of former British prime minister Winston Churchill. A judge ordered Khashoggi to pay Soraya US$875 million, the largest divorce settlement at the time.

Even before their divorce was final, he remarried - this time to an Italian teenager, Laura Biancolini, who also converted to Islam and took the name Lamia. They had a son.

Later, Khashoggi took an Iranian- born wife, Shahpari Azam Zanganeh.

Many reports of his life and career, including his first wife's divorce suit, refer to his use of procuresses to assure a steady flow of young women for himself and his guests, clients and influential friends, such as Saudi princes and the Shah of Iran.

One of his biographers, Ronald Kessler, concluded that he "craved the women for companionship" because he was "a profoundly lonely man".

A high-living Middle East power broker, Khashoggi was among the last of his breed.

"What did I do wrong? Nothing," he said towards the end of his life. "I behaved unethically, for ethical reasons."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 08, 2017, with the headline 'Billionaire playboy led life of excess'. Print Edition | Subscribe