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- May 02, 1983
- Vol. 19
- No. 17
Tales from An Arabian Nightmare
The Exclusive Story of the Rowdy Saudis Whose Global Spree Ended in a $3 Billion Disaster
Mohammed is not likely to be heard from. For one thing, he is in Saudi Arabia and has good reasons to remain there. The state of Florida has a warrant out for his arrest for absconding with his and Dena's four children, ages 3 to 6. Previously he had stiffed the Hotel Diplomat in Hollywood, Fla. for $1.4 million, and spent six hours in jail before consenting to pay the bill. Numerous other debts remain, notably a tab for more than $1 million in support payments to Dena, who is so strapped for cash that she has paid Mitchelson his retainer with $50,000 in jewelry.
The daughter of a coal miner turned clothier, Dena met Mohammed in 1975 when she was working part-time in a London boutique and studying English; his brothers had spotted her for him. Six months later she married Mohammed in Los Angeles, but it was not long before she discovered that life with this rowdy Saudi was no idyll.
Even if he never heard of Thorstein Veblen's prophecy of the curse of conspicuous consumption, Mohammed was bound to fulfill it. He bought a three-acre Sunset Boulevard estate for $2.4 million in 1978, built a mosque on the property, painted the mansion a bright green, planted plastic flowers in the stone urns, and had the genitalia on the nude garden statues rendered in red (the pubic hair was a modest black). With his entourage of servants and bodyguards, he then embarked on a wild global odyssey and, with other members of his family and their entourages, settled in Miami. There they bought fleets of automobiles and houses and other properties for $17 million, papered the town with bad checks, fought with the police, and provoked a slew of lawsuits and a diplomatic crisis, not to mention charges of enslaving and beating their servants. All this time there were monumental parties, chartered jet trips, high times on the high seas, and jewelry by the scoopful; the Al-Fassis loved gems and left no stone unspurned.
Despite the lavish life, Dena says that by 1979 she had become a virtual prisoner of Mohammed, especially after he exercised his Muslim right to marry and marry yet again. Dena found herself ignored, fenced off by bodyguards who even followed her to the ladies' room, and finally, alienated from her children. Desperate, she telephoned her brother, Enzo Bilinelli, in Los Angeles, who enlisted Mitchelson's help. The lawyer instructed Dena to get out of Miami, and she is now living once again on the Sunset Boulevard estate, this time in a small guest house; the mansion was gutted in a fire set by an ex-chauffeur to hide the theft of valuable art works. In addition to collecting her children and her billions from Mohammed, Dena's ambition now is to find a new career.
Improbable as it seems, Dena's saga is only a small part of a story as bizarre as any told in Scheherazade's 1,001 Arabian nights. It begins with the obscure Al-Fassi family of bedouin wanderers making its way from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. There, in 1973, Hind Al-Fassi, a comely, 20-year-old daughter, takes up with Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz, 39, one of the 44 sons of the late Saudi King Abdul Aziz, and with her shrewd and insatiable family turns the world into a private souk. Petrodollars flowing through their fingers, the Al-Fassis embark on a spectacular spree, wiping out the stocks of clothing stores, commandeering entire floors of hotels, adding new women to the ménage and then discarding them—Dena was such a one—and taking off, as if by magic carpet, in unflagging pursuit of profligacy.
Some of the more comical performances by this traveling circus have been chronicled before, but only now have former members of the Al-Fassi entourage come forward to describe the events that took place within the gilt-lined cocoon of Saudi secrecy. These witnesses, collectively called "Scheherazade" to protect their identities, have told their stories to PEOPLE. The following article (the first of two installments) was corroborated by extensive interviews with other sources in the U.S. and abroad.
The Tale of the Prince and the Paupers.
For generations the business of the Al-Fassi family in Morocco was magic. The women of the clan, especially, knew the sacred oils and potent herbs from the desert that cured blood diseases and heartaches wrought by wayfaring husbands. Some said that all the magic powers had been passed on to Shams al-Din Abdullah Al-Fassi, the head of the family. "Dr. Sheik," as he was called, was indeed a strange and compelling man. "He was possessed," recalls Scheherazade. "He would make you respect him in a way so he could sit with you and talk to you for an hour. He could just look into your eyes and find the core of your personality. He would deal with you in a very nice, soft way, but he would tell you exactly what you were. There are many who believe he was psychic."
In the early 1960s Dr. Sheik decreed that the family's time in Morocco had come to an end. Their future now lay in the overland route to Saudi Arabia and the new world of wealth and influence beginning to flow from that country. "For Arab countries Saudi Arabia was like the United States," says Scheherazade. "If you were ambitious enough, clever enough, you could make it in Saudi Arabia. Palestinians, Jordanians, everybody looked upon it as a land of opportunity in religion and money."
Arriving in the bustling port of Jidda, Dr. Sheik apparently saw nothing untoward about a holy man opening a tobacco shop. The small business soon flourished to a point where the Al-Fassis were able to move into their own house—by some accounts, the first permanent dwelling they had ever known. Still, not all the old ways were forgotten. Dr. Sheik's mother, herself a veteran practitioner of the black arts, began to receive a few customers at home; each night before bedtime, she walked through the rooms sprinkling water and spices to keep the spirits away.
Neighbors gossiped about these odd arrivals from Morocco, but with characteristic defiance, Dr. Sheik flouted their curiosity by turning the rear of his shop into an unusual one-man church. There, he preached a puritanical faith against Westernizing influences and materialism, and he began to attract large audiences, malcontents from smaller tribes dispossesed by the ruling Saud family. "From the time he arrived," says Scheherazade, "he was against the kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
Not surprisingly, the tobacconist's ministry was brought to the attention of King Faisal, and sometime before 1970 Dr. Sheik was jailed. Perhaps to play down his danger as a political nuisance, he was accused of having allowed black magic to be practiced in his home.
With the departure of Dr. Sheik, his wife, Faisa, mother of their four sons and two daughters, reasserted the traditional dominant role of women in the family. She ordered home her daughter and eldest child, Hind, then barely 20 and beginning her first university year in Washington, D.C. on a government scholarship. The reason for Hind's return was easily understood. Explains Scheherazade: "If you are from a royal family, and a family needs help, they come up to you. They know the best offer they can give to you is their daughter."
The matchmaking rounds began and Hind soon was introduced to Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz, brother of the future King Fahd. By outward appearances, at least, Prince Turki had been happily married to the daughter of one of the country's most prominent families. Although still only a Vice-Minister of Defense, his career had been marked for recognition. He was now also marked for trouble: The Prince was gazing upon the daughter of a disruptive political prisoner of the state.
Hind had both the blacklisted name of Al-Fassi and the delicate porcelain features and almond-shaped black eyes of a Middle Eastern princess. Turki was so completely smitten that, according to one story, he rushed to his brother Fahd and announced his intention to marry Hind. Fahd was so enraged by this folly that he bolted from the room and, racing his car out the driveway, smashed through a closed gate.
The brother's rage was shared by the rest of the royal family as well as by Turki's father-in-law. How could the Prince expect to marry a woman whose father was not only an enemy of the King but whose family came from such lowly origins? Turki's solution: He would keep Hind—not yet as a wife, but as his constant companion. And so began the long journey of Prince Turki and Hind—and with them, Hind's mother, her teenage sister and her four younger brothers. For seven years this strange company would float like gilded exiles among the great hotels and spas of Europe and America. The year was 1973, when the Yom Kippur War would unleash the great Arab oil weapon, when vaulting petroleum prices would send the currencies of the industrialized world tumbling into the hands of the Saudis.
For the Al-Fassis, especially Hind's brothers, it was destiny. Never was there a better time to be a young man in the company of an Arab prince. They rode in a sleek limousine with curtained windows and a television set. The first time they were to travel by airplane, it was in the Prince's Boeing 707. Their first stay in a hotel would not be in a room, but on an entire floor reserved for their use.
"From the beginning," says Scheherazade, "they were in no way a normal family. No one trusted the other one; every member had his own secrets." Nor did they want any longer to be called Moroccans. "They claimed to be Saudis. Life started for them when their sister met the Prince. That's the time they were born—all of them."
The oldest was Mohammed, 18, intense, possessed like his jailed father, playing out public fantasies of importance on some empty inner stage, seldom smiling, looking years older than his real age. Next was Allal, 12. He was handsome, sporting, charming and in many ways more accomplished than Mohammed. Mustafa, 11, the next brother, was the shy one, left behind in every family race; ill at ease in the scale of his new surroundings, much like a country orphan brought to the bosom of a great family, he had a slight stutter. The fourth boy was Tarek, 10. Prince Turki doted on him, and he would become the most spoiled and most arrogant of all the Al-Fassis.
If the brothers felt any embarrassment at having profited so handsomely from the unmarried relationship of their sister, they managed to conceal it. They were too busy trying on their new characters. Even the way in which they began to buy new luxuries would become a matter of individual style. "Allal would pick," recalls Scheherazade, "but Tarek would point." If Allal chose one of anything, Tarek demanded the entire stock in identical sizes, styles and colors, as if to possess the sole rights over a model number. Once a friend inadvertently bought a shirt similar to one Tarek had found a week earlier. Furious, Tarek took all his new shirts, all the same color, and contemptuously handed them to his servants. The same rules applied to their cars. Allal bought a Porsche, whereupon Mustafa bought one for himself in another color. This so enraged Allal that he immediately sold his Porsche, declaring, "I am not going to have a car my brother has."
Prince Turki seemed merely amused by the behavior of Hind's brothers, and in fact, with Hind's encouragement, pandered to them, ladling out buckets of cash like felafel. As the oldest brother, Mohammed assumed the role of accountant. His receding hairline, pale complexion and thin shoulders gave him the appearance of an aspiring junior clerk as he rushed to sign the room service checks or called up the bank to send over $200,000 in cash for a day's shopping.
In contrast, Allal was beginning to look like a Middle Eastern twin of Michael Jackson, with an Afro-styled beehive and the first sprouting hairs of a mustache. "Allal loved money and women more than anyone in the family," says Scheherazade. "He was very attractive and athletic. He had a perfect body, always tan, very thick shoulders, narrow waist. He knew how he looked. He was always in a white bikini on the family yacht. He found time to work out every day. He would practice tennis for four hours, come back, go out on the boat, jet ski, come back, call a few friends, start organizing the evening. He parachuted, snow skied, galloped horses. Whatever sport you showed him, he became expert at it after a few days. He loved to show off. The first thing he would tell a girl was what kind of car he had, show her his watch, little things that young boys show off. Later, when Saturday Night Fever came out, he wanted to dance like John Travolta. He would walk into a disco and start doing crazy dances. He loved it."
On the frequent occasions when the Prince felt generous, he would fetch his satchel of money, which might contain several hundred thousand dollars. "Mohammed never took his directly," continues Scheherazade. "He would hold the bag instead. Allal would ask for more, and would get it. Mustafa would be happy with what he had. Tarek got the most of anyone because he spent more time at the side of the Prince."
There came a time, at long last, when in a single year—1975—as if by some finger-snap of Al-Fassi magic, all the obstacles to a marriage between Prince Turki and Hind vanished. Turki's father-in-law suddenly fell ill and died, and King Faisal was assassinated by one of his nephews. These events enabled Turki to divorce his wife and marry Hind. Turki then managed to get Dr. Sheik released from prison and sent into exile. The onetime tobacco seller and impromptu holy man was now father-in-law to a Saudi prince. He was thus able to take up appropriately regal residences variously in Britain and Switzerland. He may well have savored the irony by which an ex-prisoner had become a rich man and his son-in-law, the Prince, a willing hostage to paupers from Morocco.
The Tale of the Lavish Life in London.
Prince Turki, Princess Hind, her mother and her brothers and sister, Hoda, 17, decided to journey to London, the Arab capital of Europe. Servants packed crates and sent hundreds of suitcases to fill the cargo hold of the family Boeing, while Mohammed collected all the necessary paperwork that would grant each male member of the family the formal royal title of Sheik; the mother, Faisa, and sister, Hoda, would be known as Sheikas. "Mohammed did it for the family," explains Scheherazade. "He was thinking of the family from the very beginning."
The Al-Fassi brothers were to act as advance men for the Prince's royal court abroad. What the court lacked in family members, it gained in a growing army of cooks, servants and bodyguards who took up residence on three floors of the Park Tower Hotel in Knightsbridge. The Al-Fassis saw nothing unusual about such an existence, and they took every movement of their new life as royal sheiks with the utmost seriousness. Within their own kingdom in a hotel, they could claim the power and respect that would never have been theirs at home.
The day would begin sometime between noon and 2 o'clock when the Prince would rise and have the daily newspapers translated to him. Afternoons were leisurely and uninterrupted private times within rooms kept softly shaded. The hotel made its kitchens available to the Prince's staff for dinners. The main meal, served around 8 p.m., was a feast. The Prince nibbled olives and salads and tasted from among seven or eight main courses, dipping bread into heavily seasoned bowls of veal, chicken and beef, varieties of white, yellow and spiced rice, and freshly minted dishes. He drank unusual combinations of fruit and vegetable drinks, including one of orange and carrot juice. The family talked in the same desultory manner in which they ate, without hurry, without point; some of this, some of that. The meals, usually taken while sitting on floor pillows, lasted for two hours or so until the Prince retired for a siesta.
After midnight, the festivities began, guests and entertainers arriving as the Arab nightclubs of London reached their closing hours. The all-night sipping, despite Muslim law, was distinctly non-vegetarian. "There were nights when they would bring a group of Arab musicians to play for them," says a onetime guest. "There were dancers the Prince was fond of. Everybody got to drink, and then the Prince would get up and dance. He loved to dance at his parties, which he could never do in public, and to make fun. He could be a very lively man at night." Even though the drinks were still being poured long through the night, the Prince would meticulously cease the festivities at least an hour before 6, and wash for the first prayers of the day.
The England outside their hotel never seemed to interest the Prince. Occasionally he would go through the motions of a tour, but this was seldom successful, perhaps because it seemed to require small-scale military maneuvers with limousine escorts, flapping servants and a flustered staff. Says Scheherazade, "There was nothing really new in this outside world where he wanted to spend his time. He wasn't interested in looking at anything. All the group with their bodyguards would go to the zoo and then return. Once in a while the Prince felt like playing tennis, but these outings became tiresome. He didn't really enjoy the yacht he bought. He went on it for a day. That was all. He was becoming less interested in living a life than just surviving it."
Other changes were taking place. Mohammed became Turki's "financier." The Prince turned over virtual control of his checking accounts to the young man, dismissing many of his financial aides. The Al-Fassi brothers bragged to friends that the Prince's expenses ran beyond $10 million a month. That Mohammed had been handed free rein over such a fortune was a matter of concern and suspicion to some associates. "The Prince's actions were simply without any reasonable explanation," says one source. "That he would give up his royal background and entrust his money to someone so inexperienced—someone he had not known a few years before—was more than just an act of family loyalty."
In short, the generous, if complaisant, Prince seemed not to notice the financial maneuverings of his new brothers-in-law, none of whom was more voracious than Mohammed. He began to compete with the Prince using the royal cache. Mohammed, says Scheherazade, "got so lost in the identity of a sheik that he forgot it was the Prince who had brought him all this. Even at the beginning, if the Prince wanted to buy a limousine, Mohammed would write a check and order himself one, too. The Prince would never ask why the price was twice as high. Then Mohammed began making investments. He considered them as his own since the source of the money was now within the family. He soon had so much control that even if he wanted to buy a house, he didn't have to ask the Prince anymore. And never did Mohammed believe he was ever cheating the Prince."
Mohammed's life-style began to rival the Prince's. Traveling on vacations to Japan, Hawaii and Switzerland, he chartered an airplane and took along his own retinue of cooks and bodyguards. On the allowances dealt them by Mohammed under the supervising eye of Princess Hind, the other brothers began to spend lavishly, too. Tarek, though not yet 16, bought a champion race horse, financed a soccer team in Saudi Arabia, and acquired the Cardin-and Gucci-styled Cadillacs on the days they were introduced.
The Prince's main joy, meanwhile, was the child that he had with Hind, a daughter named Samaher. For her first birthday, the Prince celebrated with a party in a London hotel that compensated for all the obscurity surrounding his wedding ceremony. White and green flowers, the colors of the Saudi Arabian flag, were arranged in crossed swords and stretched from one end of the ballroom to the other. Singers came from Lebanon and Egypt. The Prince wore a delicate gold-braided jacket with gold pants and a gold ascot. Princess Hind and the little Princess dressed identically in matching outfits and accessories. The toddler wore a tiny, diamond-encrusted watch, diamond necklace and tiara that were miniatures of Hind's jewelry. (The Princess had told her brothers that her own wedding gifts had cost the Prince $40 million.) Nor had Turki forgotten his guests: Each was presented with a gold coin especially struck by the Geneva jeweler Piaget, with profiles of the Prince and Princess on one side and Samaher on the other.
The heady life-style was contagious. The Al-Fassi boys were now discovering women as they had cars. On a trip to Paris, Tarek and Allal met Affaf, the enchanting daughter of a good Tunisian family. It was the handsome Allal who won Affaf, but Allal feared Tarek's temper and his favored access to the Prince. So for the next five years Affaf became the secret lover of Allal, following discreetly behind the family wherever their travels took them. Meanwhile, in London one day, Mohammed dropped into a Piccadilly shop to see for himself a lovely salesgirl his brothers had met. She was Diana Bilinelli, 16, later to be named Sheika Dena. Mohammed was "really very nice, a gentleman," Dena says now. They became friends and when, three months later, Dena returned to Milan, Mohammed followed. "We fell in love, I guess," she says. With her parents' permission, Mohammed took her away. They flew to Los Angeles, and in March 1976 they were married. "I just couldn't sleep with someone," Dena says. "I thought it was better to be married." Her first child was a boy, named Turkei in a gesture to the Prince (though the spelling was different).
Dr. Sheik, all this time, was not forgotten. Though still living apart from the rest of the family, he was becoming as rich as his sons. He was given a house in London, a few bodyguards, a black Rolls-Royce Phantom—the same model normally used by the Queen of England—and a gray Mercedes limousine.
The ex-holy man lost none of his flair for showmanship. In place of political forums, he discovered a fresh audience of followers among the $100 hatcheck girls in the Arab nightclubs of London. His new taste for clothes ran heavily to flamboyant costumes. Many of them seemed inspired by West End theaters, including the curtains. He would appear in crimson or maroon silk and velvet outfits. Often the pants were a size too big and hung loosely on his hips. Dr. Sheik also began to join the after-hours retinue that assembled in the Prince's suite. Although their fates had been intertwined, the Prince and the father of the Al-Fassis had never met until London. Nevertheless, they were to establish a comfortable bond, and frequently shared a bottle until dawn. Soon Prince Turki would begin to miss his early morning prayers. Such were the effects of the Al-Fassis' black magic.
The Tale of Mohammed's Sojourn in Hollywood.
Mohammed Al-Fassi decided it was time to move out of the shadow of Prince Turki and establish his own corner of the family kingdom. With the Al-Fassis' uncanny knack for conspicuous behavior, he chose Hollywood. There the Sheik and Dena bought their Beverly Hills mansion on Sunset Boulevard for cash. An Egyptian artist was summoned to paint the pubic hair and the genitalia on the alabaster statuary in the garden. "Mohammed had very crazy ideas," remembers a California friend. "He had his portrait painted on the bottom of the pool. Whenever it rained we would all run out to put raincoats on the statues." The ridicule of newspapers and the endless troupes of gawking tourists scarcely seemed to upset Mohammed.
In the house one room held nothing but jukeboxes, another antique model ships. Mohammed's kennels of fine breeds cost him $10,000 a month for dog food. It was all a vulgar display to the neighbors, but in a town whose local industry thrives on lunacy, it was free-wheeling chutzpah of the highest order.
One night in early 1978 in a disco, Mohammed saw actor Herve Villechaize, the dwarf in TV's Fantasy Island. According to Jorge Ciccone, Mohammed's companion and majordomo at the time, Mohammed speculated about Villechaize's performance in bed, and in salute sent the actor a bottle of champagne. But Mohammed was more interested in Victoria Sosa, a pretty young woman who was seated with Villechaize. He arranged an introduction, and not long afterward decided to marry her. To get Dena out of the way, he sent her off on a brief trip to Europe and Saudi Arabia. Then, says Ciccone, "we went to Perino's restaurant. Mohammed told me that according to Muslim practice, any 'good man' could officiate at a marriage ceremony in the absence of an imam or priest." So Ciccone performed an impromptu wedding at Perino's bar. "I said, 'Do you, Victoria Sosa, take Mohammed Al-Fassi to be your husband, and promise to obey him?' She said, 'Yes, I do.' Then I said, 'Do you, Mohammed, take Victoria to be your wife'—without the 'obeying' part—and he said, 'Yes.' The whole thing took about three minutes."
Still Mohammed was not happy. When the Hollywood audience was supposed to become serious and respectful at the presence of a member of Arab royalty, it only kept laughing. In a royal tempest that would be the prelude of others to come, Mohammed stormed back to rejoin the family in Europe, taking Victoria and a reluctant Dena with him. Around this time, too—late 1978—Prince Turki, like some great nervous bird, apparently decided that another flight might help relieve tensions. If the family's gross weight was any indication of those problems, it had indeed swollen to astonishing proportions: This time the move required three airplanes and a supporting cast of some 200
After a month in Cannes, the family took up residence in Geneva, occupying several floors of the Intercontinental Hotel. "The Prince loved the city," says Scheherazade. "He would go skiing in Gstaad or to Paris for the weekend. He had access to everywhere in the world and he was living in a very secure community. It was a different life."
Geneva was also a wonderful place to spend money. "There was jewelry," says Scheherazade. "Piaget, Baume & Mercier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Cartier, everything at fantastic prices. They spent millions of francs. Allal bought an 18-karat-gold camera. At the auto show in Geneva the Prince and everybody bought fleets of cars. They purchased the first Mercedes 500s before they were ever on the market. The Prince bought his Rolls and limousines. Allal bought his Maserati Quattroporte. Tarek bought a copy of the Lotus Espirit Turbo that was in the James Bond movie For Your Eyes Only. They even bought cars for the maids to use for shopping, a Chevrolet for this one, a Toyota for that one, a Cadillac for their bodyguards. They bought perhaps 20 cars from this one show for $1 million."
The young sheiks, who had grown up so suddenly with few thoughts of formal education, now enrolled in Geneva's prestigious Collège du Léman where, at first, they were barely noticed among their wealthy classmates. Tarek, however, soon turned the school upside down.
As a social equalizer, all students were forbidden to drive their cars onto the school grounds. That was only a challenge to Sheik Tarek, who arrived in his Ferrari Dino, accompanied by his bodyguards in two cars. Again and again Tarek was reprimanded for various infractions—breaking the car rule, taking one of the boarding school students off-campus for a date. One afternoon, arriving with his Ferrari and security men, Tarek was met by the school director, Francis Clivaz, a man of considerable dignity. At last exasperated by his young pupil's defiance, Clivaz lost his temper and banged on the car. Angered that a headmaster should raise his voice to a sheik, Tarek tossed his shoe, spat and attempted to run over Clivaz with the Ferrari. The next day he was expelled from the school.
But it was Mohammed who was still the champion boor. His closets began to look like retail outlets with garment after garment racked up with their original price tags. Two suites were kept for nothing but his shoes. Pajamas were his favorite apparel. He wore them on the elevators between the family floors, even on his strolls around the hotel. Once he strode through the lobby of Persian carpets and massive chandeliers in his PJs, eating pistachio nuts and spitting and tossing the shells on the carpet as two foreign visitors passed. One turned to his companion and asked: "Who is that jackass?"
All things considered, it was time again for the Al-Fassis to move on.
Next week: Mohammed weds yet again; the family assaults Miami, Fla.; their antics bring on the law; the FBI catches AIM with a stolen ring; an appearance by Rod Stewart; and the Jewish-American son of an alleged Mob-connected figure marries into the clan.
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