The Rise and Fall of a Billionaire Arab Playboy

At his peak, Adnan Khashoggi was a billionaire arms dealer whose lifestyle was so lavish and scandalous it was turned into a best-selling novel.

PARIS—When Adnan "The Pirate" Khashoggi died last week at the age of 81, he was a man who had outlived his myth. Thirty years ago, the Saudi businessman was famous for over-the top extravagance—in some ways a model for Donald Trump's binges of bling—and he was infamous as a broker of huge arms deals. But the bling had long since faded; the sales are dwarfed by today's transactions in the global arms bazaar, now counted in the hundreds of billions, not millions of dollars.

Still, at this moment when the American president has climbed deeply into bed with Saudi Arabia amid talk of deals, deals, deals, Khashoggi’s story has a particular fascination. It echoes violent conflicts—and potential conflicts of interest—that are with us to this day. And it also takes us back to a time when the modern Arab world had just begun to invent itself, and seemed a great deal more exotic, and perhaps more seductive, than it does now.

In the 1970s, Adnan Khashoggi was the first truly famous Arab tycoon; a wheeler-dealer middleman selling arms to Saudi Arabia with massive commissions lining his pockets. A biography by Ronald Kessler would call him, with a bit of hyperbole, The Richest Man in the World.

Eventually Khashoggi ran a multinational corporation and did it, to all intents and purposes, out of his private jet. As Robert Lacey wrote in his book The Kingdom: Arabia and the House of Saud, the plane was “a 20th century magic carpet shuttling him between his offices in London, New York, Geneva, Paris, Beirut and Riyadh.” And that was not counting the parties on his enormous yacht off the Côte d’Azur or the epic soirées in Beverly Hills.

Khashoggi’s friend Harold Robbins, the author of many a best-selling sex-filled roman à clef, decided one night at a lavish party given by the tycoon off the coast of Cannes in 1973 that he had to drop all his other projects and write a novel drawing on the extraordinary glamour and kinky reputation that surrounded Khashoggi and the many women in his circle.

The Robbins fantasy of a child born in the desert (a Jewish child adopted by a Saudi physician who wanted a son) and the scenes of more or less continuous orgies fueled by hashish and amyl nitrite poppers apparently amused Khashoggi more than they appalled him. As he told Robbins' biographer Andrew Miller, “Although I was a little surprised that he had taken the ambiance of my lifestyle—the airplanes, the yachts, the fine food—I wasn’t angry with him at all. I was happy to contribute to the enjoyment of his readers. Also, the main character and I do not share anything in common apart from the style of life.”

Robbins’ novel The Pirate hit the bestseller lists in 1974, just as the U.S. Senate, in the wave of corruption investigations that followed Watergate, homed in on Khashoggi as if he were the very incarnation of global corruption. And not the least result—his “legacy,” as one obituary put it—was the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that tried to put a lid on commissions, bribes, and kickbacks involving American companies overseas.

The few times I met Khashoggi—once at his Paris townhouse to interview him about Dodi al Fayed, his nephew who was killed with Princess Diana in 1997; once for a dinner at the Tour d’Argent with a table overlooking the Eiffel Tower here in Paris; and a couple of times in passing in Morocco and in Kuwait—it was hard to square the aging, rotund businessman with the swashbuckling character in the Robbins novel or, for that matter, the notorious one limned by Senate investigators.

Certainly he was charming and engaging, as almost anyone who dealt with him was quick to recognize. And there were still gorgeous women around him. His last wife, Shahpari, had an almost ethereal beauty. But by then, Khashoggi had fallen on hard—or relatively hard—times. His notoriety had lost him the Saudi royal patronage vital to his business; his fortune had been reduced from billions to millions and he was buried by debts.

Back in 1981 Robert Lacey put his finger on the Saudi hypocrisy that cost Khashoggi very dearly. His was “not the only Saudi yacht to cruise the Riviera every summer,” he wrote, “and corners of Marbella, Cannes and Gstaad become totally Saudified each August as affluent Arabian visitors exchange thobes for swimming trunks—though they prefer their fellow holidaymakers not to know who they are or where they come from.

“These are the very Saudis who will tell you that Adnan Khashoggi is not representative of the Kingdom,” wrote Lacey. “But as they enjoy themselves like any other pack of millionaires on holiday, their women unveiled, their children in blue jeans, it is difficult to see what they mean—except, of course, that Adnan Khashoggi has had the nerve to admit to the rest of us that spending petrodollars can actually be fun.”

In 1988, Khashoggi was forced to sell his famous yacht, the Nabila, named for his daughter, only to see it bought a couple of transactions later by Donald Trump, who christened it The Trump Princess.

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In 1989 Khashoggi was arrested in Switzerland and extradited to the United States on charges he helped the infamous former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, hide $300 million worth of Manhattan properties and art works. They were acquitted the next year, but he continued to be plagued by lawsuits and creditors for most of the rest of his life.

The fact of the matter, as Khashoggi’s obituary in The Guardian pointed out, is that he really was not a very good businessman. His great talent was as a cultural interpreter for the representatives of giant American defense contractors who wanted to do business in Saudi Arabia in the early days of massive oil wealth. When executives of Lockheed and Northrop went there to cut deals, as Anthony Sampson wrote in The Arms Bazaar, it was “as if men in grey flannel suits walked into the middle of a Shakespeare play.” And Khashoggi was like the character who explains it all to the audience.

Adnan Khashoggi did not come from a royal family, but he was connected because his father was one of the physicians of Abdel Aziz ibn Saud, the conqueror and founder of the eponymous kingdom.

The future “pirate” was educated at Victoria College in Alexandria, Egypt, the great elite prep school of the Middle East. Fellow alumni included Jordan’s King Hussein and Omar Sharif. The British-based Egyptian tycoon, Mohammed al Fayed, claimed he went there—and actually did marry for a time Khashoggi’s sister, the mother of his son Dodi al Fayed.

According to the Lacey book on Saudi Arabia, which paints a very kind picture of Khashoggi, he became a business agent “almost by accident” when a patient of his father’s, Mohammed bin Laden (yes, father of Osama among dozens of other sons), was taking on major construction projects. He needed some trucks, and fast. Khashoggi had been studying in the United States at that point and put Bin Laden in touch with a truck manufacturer he’d met in California. The deal was done, a commission was paid, and Khashoggi was on his way.

In 1962, Lacey writes, then-Crown Prince Faisal summoned Khashoggi to his office and handed him a check for a million British pounds to buy arms for royalists fighting leftist rebels in Yemen (a country once again plagued by war today). Faisal didn’t want to know the details, and Khashoggi told Lacey he never took a cut on that deal. “I did this for my king,” he said.

If that is true, it was a gesture that served him well, as he became the main conduit for those huge contracts from U.S. defense companies: Nothrop, Lockheed, Raytheon and others. A decade later, he was that billionaire famous, or infamous, around the world.

As Lacey notes, “Khashoggi’s concerns extended beyond making money for money’s sake. He gave lavishly to charity, funding, for instance, a vast project to try to make the desert bloom in impoverished Sudan.

Hassan Yassin, a Saudi businessman who grew up with Khashoggi, went to Victoria College with him, and remained close to him throughout their lives, wrote in the Saudi newspaper The Arab News that “he invested in kindness, and in exchange received the kindness of strangers who did not even know who he was.”

“In New York, he was known for his incredible residence at Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue, and for a life of glittering luxury,” wrote Yassin. (Indeed, Trump Tower was built on Fifth to lure tenants away from Olympic Tower.)

“As [Khashoggi] walked down the city’s streets one day, a poor man came up to him and asked for help, as many poor do in large cities. Khashoggi put his hand in his pocket, pulled out a $100 bill and gave it to him. The poor man said: ‘I don’t know you, but nobody gives so charitably to a destitute man unless he is Adnan Khashoggi.’”

Yassin quoted a few lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If,” which was no doubt popular in the old days at Victoria College with its very British definition of what it takes to “be a man.”

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss …

“Kipling would have been very proud,” wrote Yassin, “to see in real life that there was someone who turned his poetry into reality, living through ups and downs with the greatest dignity and resilience.”

This may be a new era of deals, deals, deals with Saudi Arabia, but we will not see the like of Adnan Khashoggi again.