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King-Size Dilemma for Saudi Royal Family

Mideast: Cornucopia of births threatens princes' financial security. By now, there are 4,000 of them, each entitled to at least $10,000 a month plus benefits. Integrity also at risk.

May 25, 1997|CHARLES J. HANLEY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Scarcely a day dawns in this desert kingdom that doesn't deliver pilgrims to Mecca, oil to the world and yet another baby boy to the royal House of Saud.

Another prince among thousands, heir to a six-figure allowance, free phone calls, free kilowatts, free first-class seats worldwide. Another claimant to a penthouse office in government, to rich commissions on contracts, to lucrative business partnerships.

Another reason, in short, why Saudi Arabia's proliferating princelings may soon become Saudi Arabia's king-sized problem.

Already the neighbors are talking.

"Because of their undefined position in the power system, Saudi princes could generate uncontrollable crises," a Tehran newspaper observed from across the Persian Gulf. An Israeli analyst foresees a "doomsday" when King Fahd's gray band of brothers passes power to the younger generation--hundreds of competing cousins.

Inside this realm of sun, sand and secret police, contrary words about the House of Saud are rarely spoken. But sometimes they're smuggled out, like the notes for "Princess," the memoirs of a Saudi royal.

"Sadly, many of the royal cousins were swept away by the sudden rush of riches," Princess Sultana, a pseudonym, said in the 1992 book. "My mother used to say . . . we would never survive the wealth of the oil fields."

For now the Sauds survive quite well.

Up and down north Riyadh's boulevards, their new marble palaces gleam in the stark desert light, behind gates manned by royal guards wearing red berets. Their gardens flourish on water desalinated and pumped 300 miles from the Persian Gulf. Rolls-Royces and Cadillacs cruise the quiet streets. At the nearby airport, private jets stand by for intercontinental shopping sprees.

In Jiddah and other commercial centers, House of Saud princes and close relatives sit, by one count, as chairmen of 520 Saudi corporations.

Here in the capital, princes hold strategic Cabinet posts--Defense, Interior, Intelligence--and others sit as junior ministers. Every provincial governor is a prince or in-law, and family members control key military staffs.

Stalin had his commissars. The House of Saud has its princes.

"The Saudi royal family . . . virtually runs the country as a private fiefdom," says the American human rights group Freedom House.

Runs it so tightly, in fact, that even basic information about the Sauds themselves can be hard to come by.

No "Debrett's Peerage" lays out pedigrees for an inquisitive public, as in Britain. No society pages celebrate rich-and-famous lifestyles. Half a dozen media-shy princes declined interview requests from a visiting journalist.

But enough is known to sketch in some details about the planet's biggest, richest royal family--although just how big is not necessarily one of those details.

A government source told a reporter that there are 2,700 princes and princesses. Other estimates are higher. A U.S. government publication speaks of more than 4,000 princes alone in the early 1990s.

Said Aburish, an Arab American who wrote a critical study of the monarchy, settles for 7,000 princes and princesses, and calculates males are being born at a rate of a few hundred a year.

*

The key to an exploding royal household: polygamy. Islam permits a man up to four wives, but rapid-fire divorce multiplies that among the royals.

King Abdel Aziz Al Saud, who founded modern Saudi Arabia in 1932, took at least 16 wives, who bore him 42 sons. Those sons, including King Fahd, have married hundreds of women.

Some of their sons, the middle-aged third generation, have gained international fame: Prince Sultan bin Salman flew on the space shuttle Discovery; Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is a global tycoon and Michael Jackson's friend; Prince Khaled bin Sultan led America's Arab allies in the Gulf War.

But thousands of royals--including other lines of the Saud clan that also bear the "emir," or prince, title--spend their days in the leisurely obscurity of the oil elite.

"They watch movies, go to the country house, go to Europe to shop," said a young woman who socializes with princesses.

Behind palace walls, some idle twentysomethings also indulge in less healthy pursuits, she said--heavy drinking and drug use, vices that can cost commoners long jail terms, if not their lives, in this land of puritanical Islam.

"They're into cocaine, but they favor hashish," this insider said. "They bring it into the country themselves, because princes and princesses don't get searched."

*

Sex is also furtive. Some princesses inconspicuously take secret lesbian lovers, she said, rather than risk being branded as "loose," unworthy of a princely marriage, by dating a man.

"Marriages for love are rare," she said. "Even talking by phone with a man ruins a girl's reputation."

One result: Young Saudi royals have deluged a new telephone "chat" line, based abroad, where they talk about sex and personal problems endlessly and anonymously.

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