“Don’t you think there’s some mistake?” lawyer Marvin Mitchelson’s secretary asked in bewilderment as she was typing the divorce complaint. “There are nine zeroes here.” “No,” said Mitchelson gleefully. “There really are nine zeroes.”
The defendant is a CPA’s fantasy, not to mention a model for Harold Robbins’ The Pirate. The plaintiff is an estranged husband’s nightmare. Together they are in what has to be the divorce case of the century. He is Adnan Khashoggi, 44, the Saudi-born arms peddler and wheeler-dealer whose reported worth is $4 billion. She is his English-born wife, Soraya, 33, who married him at 15, assertedly helped him make his fortune and now claims he has left her high and relatively dry. Mitchelson, her lawyer, was of course the star counsel of the Marvin vs. Marvin palimony case—and now gleefully anticipates a new threshold. Soraya is suing for $2.54 billion—by far the largest sum ever sought in a divorce settlement.
The Khashoggi case is precedent-shattering in many ways, but it is also a financial and legal mire. Soraya’s petition was filed in superior court in Los Angeles, her home. But to win, Mitchelson will have to prove that California courts have jurisdiction (Khashoggi owns a lot of California—including two banks with 15 branches—but neither he nor Soraya is a U.S. citizen). Her counsel must also prove that a Lebanese divorce Khashoggi got in 1974 is invalid. (Khashoggi wasn’t there and Soraya contends she didn’t even know about it.) Finally, Mitchelson has to establish Khashoggi’s worth: The complaint says drily that it is “far in excess of $4 billion, but plaintiff does not know how far in excess.”
Yet despite all legal quiddities, Mitchelson’s papers read like a thriller. Khashoggi, the petition says, lives in L.A. “and in numerous places all over the world on land, in the air in one of his private Boeing 727s, and on the seas on one of his yachts or his private aircraft carrier”—perhaps referring to his $44 million yacht with a topside heliport. If Soraya made trouble, it alleges, Khashoggi threatened he could “declare plaintiff’s ‘blood to be legal,’ by which defendant Khashoggi meant that under Islamic law it would be lawful for her to be put to death without judicial process.” “He tried to treat her like a Muslim under the veil,” maintains Mitchelson. “But she had been a dutiful wife—Muslim, Christian or Jewish, any way you look at it. And if women are equal, they’re entitled to half.”
It all began in April of 1961 when Soraya, then Sandra Jarvis-Daly of Leicester, traveled with her mother to Paris and met, and promptly wed, 25-year-old Adnan Khashoggi. Although his father was a physician to King Ibn Saud, Adnan was then of modest means, with only a few semesters of college education at Chico State and Stanford in California. But he had a flair for making deals. (His first was at boarding school in Egypt, where he introduced a classmate’s father, who wanted to buy towels, to another classmate’s father, who ran a textile plant, and pocketed $560 “for doing nothing.”) They were married 13 years, during which time Soraya took the veil, bore four boys and a girl and, she insists, was Adnan’s full business partner. The marriage fell apart in 1974. Mitchelson won’t say why but notes, “Marriages don’t always last, particularly in this jet age—and this man makes great use of jets.” So does Mitchelson. To insure that Adnan got the message, he served Soraya’s complaint on two of his three airplanes.
As for the particulars of the case, Adnan reportedly accompanied his summary 1974 divorce with a promise to Soraya of $400,000 in cash and continued support of the life-style to which she and the children were accustomed. But she claims that his payments to her abruptly stopped last June. In the meantime she had married an Englishman—and had the marriage annulled seven months later. “It was very brief,” Mitchelson explains, “an emotional reaction.”
Today Soraya is a voluptuous beauty who wears long red fingernails and rarely a bra, but is a fiercely private and serious person. For now she is renting in a heavily guarded apartment building on Wilshire Boulevard, surrounded by huge paintings of the children, whom she hasn’t seen in three months—Adnan’s revenge, she contends, for her divorce action. An aspiring photojournalism she’s working on a book about Olympic athletes at the moment, but says, “All the money I make from photography goes to charity.”
Well it might. Her ex (or ex-to-be) reportedly has corporations in 38 countries—hence his 727s, on which he travels 60,000 miles a month. He has been in on 80 percent of the arms sales to Saudi Arabia; his commission on one sale of tanks alone was $45 million. He owns 12 houses outside the U.S. (in London, Rome, Cannes and the like) and a $2 million apartment with a swimming pool on the 46th and 47th floors of Manhattan’s Olympic Tower on Fifth Avenue. Small, portly and polite, Adnan has described his business role as “a connector” and prides himself on his salesmanship. “It works in the jungle, it works in the desert—it works everywhere,” he once observed.
Whether it will work in court remains to be seen. For two years Khashoggi dodged subpoenas from the SEC and the Justice Department, who wanted to know what happened to bribes Northrop Aircraft allegedly gave him for Saudi officials in the early 1970s. He finally met with the SEC last year (he happily admitted having pocketed the bribes himself—as credit against future commissions), but no action has been taken against him. So far he has nothing to say about Soraya’s action.
She, too, is refusing to comment except to express the hope that it will “pave the way for other Muslim women to assert their rights.” Mitchelson, as usual, is happy to talk. “I took the case because it is an extension of women’s rights, the application of Western standards of law and fairness to Muslim women,” he says solemnly. Then, referring to the Marvin award, he adds, less solemnly: “It’s great to get out of those $104,000 lawsuits.”