Jackson of Arabia
Criminal investigations and probate court hearings this week underscore the medical and financial disaster that Michael Jackson became. And many of those roads lead to the pop superstar’s bizarre year in the kingdom of Bahrain.
Michael Jackson’s descent toward death could be pegged to any number of dates, but a sure one was June 13, 2005, the day he was acquitted of all charges in his child-molestation case. Within a week, he had bolted California for the oil-rich island nation of Bahrain, where his friendship with Prince Abdullah bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the 33-year-old second son of the king, began an odyssey of odd behavior that eventually ended up—as did many other post-trial Jackson relationships—in court, and raised more questions about the singer’s state of mind and possible deepening drug use.
Jackson was encouraged to go to Bahrain to escape the crushing media scrutiny at the urging of his brother Jermaine, who had converted to Islam in 1989, after his own visit to Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and has business dealings there. At only 300 square miles, Bahrain is smaller than New York City and has just over 500,000 citizens. Beyond its capital of Manama, with its wide palm-tree-lined boulevards, modern high rises, and sprawling luxury malls, the country has a sleepy village ambiance.
In March 2006, Jackson dressed as a Muslim woman, covered from head to toe in a black abaya, with black gloves and large sunglasses, and took his children through the Marina Mall in the Bahrain capital.
With the king’s blessing, Jackson immediately had access to every important power broker. And over the next year, Prince Abdullah spent about $7 million bankrolling Jackson's lifestyle in Manama. He gave the singer $500,000 in spending money and $350,000 for a holiday to Europe, as well as paying for Jackson's eight bodyguards and giving him the use of his family’s fleet of private jets.
“I saw the payments as an investment in Michael's potential,” Abdullah later said as part of a lawsuit he filed against Jackson in London. ”He said he'd pay me back… through our work together."
That work together was a deal Jackson inked in which he promised, by 2012, to deliver to Abdullah two albums, a Broadway musical in the style of Abba’s Mamma Mia!, and a ghosted autobiography. Also, Jackson signed on as a “consultant” on matters ranging from theme parks to music academics to Bahrain’s AAJ Holdings, founded by in 1988 by architect Ahmed Abubaker Janahi; AAJ was a primary partner in what turned out to be a failed fresh-from-the-sand multibillion-dollar city in the sultanate of Oman.
A former security worker for Jackson told me that Prince Abdullah fancied himself a talented songwriter and that Abdullah and Jackson recorded a song in 2005 in a Bahrain studio. The never released song, according to the security executive, was a cause for concern since Jackson looked emaciated and strung out. The Daily Beast was not able to confirm the existence of such a recording, although another Jackson employee from 2007 and 2008 claimed to have seen it, and said it was an utter embarrassment.
By that time, Jackson’s personal idiosyncrasies were proving an occasional embarrassment for Abdullah and the royals in the conservative Muslim nation. In November 2005, five months after his arrival, Jackson was spotted re-applying his makeup in the ladies' toilet of a Dubai shopping mall. An Arab woman who photographed the scene on her cellphone was confronted and held by Jackson's bodyguards before being apprehended by the police and her phone confiscated. Jackson’s publicist said the singer did not understand the Arabic sign on the door and left the bathroom when he realized his mistake.
In March 2006, Jackson dressed as a Muslim woman, covered from head to toe in a black abaya, with black gloves and large sunglasses, and took his children through the Marina Mall in the Bahrain capital. All three children were wrapped in black scarves and wore yellow shirts and sweatpants without robes.
Some salespeople noticed he wore men's shoes and they thought the presence of bodyguards was strange. Even the royals move throughout the almost-crime-free capital without security.
These forbidden activities prompted a leading conservative Muslim cleric and lawmaker, Adel al-Maawda, to say Jackson was an unwanted envoy of "the iniquities of Las Vegas…. We don't want him turning Bahrain into Las Vegas. He should keep his concerts and his effeminate manners away from us."
But with the protection of Prince Abdullah, Jackson stayed in the kingdom. Michael’s financial troubles had mounted through his costly criminal trial. In April 2006, one of Abdullah’s lawyers, Ahmed al Khan, was instrumental in arranging a deal with New York-based Fortress Investment Group, which refinanced Jackson's loans for $300 million. It brought the singer about $28 million in cash—spending money for the shopaholic Jackson—but meant he put up his own music-publishing company, Mijac, as collateral, and gave Sony the option to buy half of his stake in the Sony/ATV publishing company, for a fixed price. It was a huge victory for Sony, which had long wanted to wrest control of Sony/ATV from the singer.
Jackson left Bahrain in the fall of 2006. He traveled to Japan where he pocketed a million-dollar fee for hosting a Japanese awards show, and then went to Ireland where he stayed at Castlehyde in Cork with his friend, the dancer Michael Flatley. The singer was back full-time in the U.S. on December 23, 2006. Six months later, Prince Abdullah sued Jackson in London demanding a return of a master recording, and seeking $7 million in damages for Jackson’s failure to produce the book, albums, or play to which he had committed. Jackson denied he had signed anything. By the time the case reached the High Court in London in November 2008, a financial settlement was reached on the eve of when Jackson was due to take the stand. Although the settlement is sealed, a legal source familiar with the proceeding says that Jackson paid the prince at least $4 million.
Jackson’s American advisers have only venom for Abdullah, calling him a “fawning wannabe” who wanted to use Jackson to further his own unrealistic dream of a pop career. Meanwhile, Baharanian sources close to the royals describe Jackson as a freeloader who’s lavish spending and outrageous behavior eventually broke even the patience and bankroll of the prince. Both sides agree, however, that Jackson’s stay on the Arabian peninsula was a disaster for the downward-spiraling pop superstar.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to clarify some details about the recordings allegedly made by Abdullah and Jackson.
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.