When Saudi Arabian tycoon Adnan Khashoggi turned 50 last year, he celebrated with the kind of Gargantuan excess that marks his every move: 400 guests were summoned to his lavish villa in Marbella, Spain for a six-figure revel that featured rivers of Moët et Chandon, mounds of exotic food and a birthday cake with a spun-sugar crown modeled after Louis XIV’s own. Brooke Shields sat beside him at the midnight supper, and an array of Euroflash (Philippe Junot), eminences grises (Maxwell Rabb, U.S. Ambassador to Italy) and screen stars (Sean Connery) bedecked the three-story gazebo-cum-banquet hall.
Not surprisingly, one of the evening’s hottest topics—beyond that of ex-wife Soraya, who was in attendance—was Adnan’s incredible wealth: Was it real? the celebrantsasked in stage whispers. Why was it spent so profligately? Was Khashoggi a wily Saudi Arabian fixer or simply an honest man with a genius for making deals?
Journalist Ronald Kessler, 42, was among the guests that evening, and in his The Richest Man in the World: The Story of Adnan Khashoggi ($18.95, to be published by Warner Books in June) he portrays his prey as a deal maker who has used conspicuous consumption—and, sometimes, payoffs and call girls—to win billions of dollars worth of business. Although Kessler claims to have spoken to Khashoggi and some of his minions (and was allowed to observe the “Chief” at such happy-face occasions as his birthday fest), the book was not authorized: It presents a detailed and sometimes unflattering view of the man who has amassed a $2-to-$4 billion empire on sheer instinct.
“He has a tremendous grasp of how people tick,” says Kessler, a prizewinning investigative reporter who is on leave from the Washington Post. “Even at these fantastic parties, he’s working, doing deals. He’s thinking, ‘Who’s important, who might help me with this or that?’ A deal is like a big hunt for him. And once it’s done, he loses interest and goes on to something else.”
Kessler found himself at odds with the Khashoggi organization when it became apparent that he would detail the Saudi’s controversial arms-sale contracts and his reported indulgence in high-paid prostitutes. After meeting with Khashoggi at a 1984 party given by the mogul in Salt Lake City (where one of his dozens of American corporations is based), Kessler was asked to sign an agreement giving his subject full control over the book. He refused, and Khashoggi delicately withdrew his cooperation. In later dealings with Robert Shaheen, 52, Adnan’s silky, American-born assistant, “It became clear that if I wanted to do this book on their payroll that I could,” says Kessler. “It was done very nicely, very adroitly—just ‘If you want to go with us we have no problem paying money.’ ”
Continuing his research on his $100,000 publisher’s advance for the next year and a half, Kessler occasionally had the feeling that Khashoggi’s operatives were one step ahead of him: They obtained one of his proposals for the book from a New York publisher and conducted an investigation of his background. “There were several incidents that made me wonder if I was being bugged,” he says. On the afternoon when he called the New York Post for clips on “Mayflower Madam” Sydney Biddle Barrows, whose client list reportedly included Khashoggi, Kessler remembers that “two or three hours later, Shaheen called me from California and said, ‘Why are you calling around about the Mayflower Madam—we’re not going to talk to you anymore.’ ”
As Kessler tells it, Khashoggi is a man who knows the value of the proper public image. The eldest son of Dr. Mohamed Khaled Khashoggi, personal physician to the late Saudi king Abdul-Aziz, Adnan was sent to college in the U.S. (first to Chico State, north of San Francisco, and later to Stanford), and he cut an impressive figure on campus. Although Adnan had the same $200 monthly stipend that the Saudi government allowed all its students in America, he was already dabbling in business, and his standard of living dazzled his classmates. “He gave catered parties, creating an impression of wealth,” writes Kessler. “He enjoyed spending money so much that his friends wanted him to have more…. Soon Khashoggi rented a house with a pool and moved them in on the condition they serve as butler, chauffeur and gardener.”
At 21, after he had returned to Saudi Arabia, Adnan got into the business that would make him wildly rich—selling military supplies. In 1956, as Kessler tells it, he supplied his country with $3 million worth of trucks to send to Egypt for the war against Israel. His commission: $150,000. In the next two decades he brokered billions of dollars worth of military hardware sales to his government, keeping an estimated 5 to 15 percent for himself. “Never before, and probably never again, will one man make so much money so quickly,” Kessler observes.
As the commissions from defense industry contractors like Lockheed, Northrop and Raytheon were flowing in, Khashoggi was expanding upon his spend-money-to-make-money philosophy. The high and mighty flocked to the parties he threw on his $70 million yacht, aboard his three luxurious airplanes and in his sumptuous quarters in Riyadh, Jedda, Paris, Beirut, Marbella, Rome, Cannes, New York, Monte Carlo, Kenya, the Canary Islands and Madrid. “Like bees around honey, people figured there was more money where that came from,” Kessler writes. “The parties give him access.”
Despite the care with which he created the persona of a straight-shooting, openhanded middleman, he also began to attract the controversy that has dogged him to this day. In the mid-’70s Khashoggi’s name came up in U.S. investigations of foreign payoffs by American companies. He dodged Securities and Exchange Commission subpoenas for two years. When he finally met with SEC officials in 1978, he denied any wrongdoing and no charges were brought against him. Its investigators, writes Kessler, “never focused on the Swiss accounts used by Khashoggi for tunneling payments to the [Saudi] princes.”
In the next few years, the public revelations took a more sensational turn. In 1979 Soraya, now 44, the mother of five of Adnan’s six children, charged in a $2.5 billion divorce suit that Adnan paid off American executives to get their business. Later she accused him of providing Saudi princes with call girls and giving a $60,000 bracelet to one of Richard Nixon’s daughters. No Quaker herself, Soraya testified in a London trial unrelated to her divorce that she had had an extramarital affair with a prominent British politician, who later was identified as Winston Churchill, grandson of the Prime Minister. Khashoggi and his eldest children—Nabila, 23, and Mohamed, 22—were reportedly distraught. According to Kessler, Nabila took an overdose of pills, and she and her brother urged Adnan to placate Soraya. Finally, in an out-of-court divorce settlement in 1982, he managed to buy her silence for only about $3 million.
If Kessler breaks little new ground with his account of Adnan’s divorce—and of his gambling habits—he does discuss Khashoggi’s alleged penchant for prostitutes in unprecedented detail. Khashoggi’s organization denies he ever used the service, but Kessler reports that the Saudi hired a French madam, Mireille Griffon, through an intermediary, to supply comely women aged 18 to 24. For a night Griffon charged $1,000; for a weekend, $2,000-$3,000. “He ordered 10 for an evening, sharing them with friends, princes and business associates and using them himself,” writes Kessler. “He always wanted fresh, new…women who would outdo the previous ones.
“Perhaps most of all, Khashoggi craved the women for companionship. For all the glamorous people around him…Khashoggi was a profoundly lonely man…for all [wife Lamia’s] tanned good looks and intelligence, the [30-year-old] Italian beauty could not fully satisfy Khashoggi’s longing for company.”
Khashoggi has not publicly commented on the book, but one spokesman maintains, “Mr. Kessler has reverted to testimonials, outside references and to those who carry chips on their shoulder.” Another aide complains that the author devotes an inordinate amount of space to Madame Griffon and her girls. “[He’s] gone in for a lot of sensationalism.”
In spite of the flaws he finds in Khashoggi, Kessler came to admire his subject, finding his family loyalty, skill with people and intellectual curiosity particularly praiseworthy. “He’s an honorable person in the sense that he keeps his word,” he says. “I like him.”