This week, Jill Dodd, a former fashion model and businesswoman, told an extraordinary story of sex, money, and power in a television interview with the Australian news magazine 60 Minutes.
She revealed that in her twenties she was seduced by the world’s richest man at the time, the Saudi arms broker Adnan Khashoggi, and recruited to become a member of his harem, taking on a role as one of his 11 “pleasure wives” in return for a life of gilded luxury.
The arrangement, she has been at pains to make clear, was entirely consensual. But the ongoing furor around R. Kelly’s so-called sex cult casts a dark shadow over such an exotic-sounding arrangement. The singer keeps a stable of sexual partners, all of whom have insisted that they are with him out of choice, before, in some cases, later coming to a different conclusion when outside his control.
The dynamic of relationships between rich and powerful older men and young women who have a lifestyle financially maintained by them creates, at the very least, potential for emotional manipulation and control issues.
Khashoggi was certainly a charmer and a noted womanizer.
“When I knew him he used to take an entire floor of the Hotel de Paris in Monaco, and every room would have one of his women in it,” said one source. “He was a great womanizer, he adored women. But once in a while it went the other way. His wife Soraya had an affair with the British politician Jonathan Aitken and her daughter Petrina was later revealed to be Aitken’s love child.”
Dodd says that Khashoggi, who died in June aged 81, first seduced her by writing his name in blood on her arm in a French nightclub and then whisked her away to his Saudi palace where he installed her in a compound comprising of several suites and cottages occupied by members of his modern day harem.
“We would lock ourselves in a room for days and we would make love, we would eat, the chef would bring us food, we would do cocaine and sleep when we wanted and not sleep when we wanted,” she said, adding that he was “a great lover.”
After two years, when she became tired of her role as an out-and-out sex object, she returned home to America, married, and founded the surfwear business Roxy.
Amazingly, she remained friends with Khashoggi—who had offered to pay her college tuition fees—to the end of his life, frequently speaking with him by phone or meeting up.
Sources who knew Khashoggi have told The Daily Beast that while they did not know the specifics, there is no reason to doubt Dodd’s story.
Robert Lacey, author of several books on Saudi royalty including The Kingdom and Inside The Kingdom, knew Khashoggi, having met him when he was living in Saudi Arabia in 1979 to 1980. The two remained friends up until Khashoggi's death earlier this year.
Lacey says the phenomenon must be understood in the context of Arab tradition.
In the ’70s and ’80s, he says, “it was taken for granted that the King and the main princes all had three or four wives. That structure went back to their father Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who always had at least four wives at any one time and ended up with 36 sons and 35 daughters who survived to adulthood.
“He would change one or two of the wives on a regular basis, although the retired wife would always be well and honorably looked after because she remained the mother of his children.”
There were at least half a dozen of these households, Lacey said, one of which produced the famous “Sudairi Seven”—the seven brothers, including King Fahd and King Salman, who have dominated Saudi Arabia since Ibn Saud’s death.
There were even systems in place to ensure that while a powerful man could have more than four sexual partners to satisfy his carnal desires, he wouldn’t have more than four wives (the Quran permits a man to have up to four wives).
“Ibn Saud had a number of concubines, and if one became pregnant, she would become a wife and another one would be retired, so there were only four wives in place at any one time,” Lacey said.
Additionally, whenever Ibn Saud conquered a new region, he would marry into the tribal dynasty of that area, and one or two new wives would replace one or two of the existing wives.
This was an effective way to consolidate power, Lacey said, as not only did it mean the royal family reflected the tribal make-up of the country, but it also created local channels of patronage.
One theory held that the most powerful wife and family group was often the last wife because the man, enfeebled by old age, would spend more time with the last wife and her children, living in an almost Western-style, nuclear family.
Lacey said this trend has been apparent with the present king of Saudi Arabia, King Salman.
“Mohammad bin Salman [who was controversially named crown prince and is heir apparent to the throne after Mohammad bin Nayef, his cousin, was stripped of the role] is the son of his last wife, and MBS decided not to go to university abroad (he went to Riyadh) specifically because staying at home meant he had the opportunity to stay close to his father.”
However, the new generation of Saudi princes are eschewing the practice of multiple partners: “The young Saudi princes largely all now follow the Western model; they have one wife and don’t openly have girlfriends in the way their ancestors did.”
Over the years, many Western women have claimed to have been recruited for Arab playboys’ harems.
For example Jillian Lauren, an aspiring actress and stripper who detailed her experiences in a memoir, Some Girls, claimed she was called to an audition and then informed that she was invited to be a “guest” of a prince in Brunei.
Lauren claimed to be one of a half dozen women living “in a modern take on a very ancient institution, a harem.”
Lauren was 18 years old at the time and the prince, she said, was 35 years old. She said she made $300,000 in three years in cash and gifts from the prince.
However Lauren did not cast the experience as a solely positive one, as Dodd does.
While she said she wasn’t ashamed of her behavior, she admitted to feeling “saddened” for her teenage self.
Lauren wrote in The Daily Beast that, glamorous as it might sound, life in a harem can also be “lonely and demoralizing, and full of constant low-grade humiliations, including being given to the prince’s brother as a gift... Although I was by no means a prisoner, I wasn’t free to come and go as I pleased. By the end of my time there, I felt 10 years older and still not wise enough. It took me a long time to regain my footing, though I did find my way eventually. My struggles were internal and they were my own. In this context, they were a privilege.”
And many powerful dictators have not even sought to present the fig leaf of “consenting adults.”
As Annick Cojean’s book, Gaddafi’s Harem makes clear, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi raped and abused multitudes of women, claiming justification in the tradition of the harem.
Interestingly, Khashoggi ultimately became monogamous, Lacey said. “Khashoggi towards the end had one particular, very lovely and dynamic wife. When I knew him in his final years he was effectively living a Western marriage.”