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Saudi Royals Take Lifestyle Vacation

Summer: Members of the House of Saud frolic at Spain's casinos, discos and topless beaches. And they shop, spending about $5 million a day.


MARBELLA, Spain — It's the hottest hour of the day at the Puente Romano beach club when a girl of 13 dashes out of the hotel gardens, throwing a black cloak over her flowing hair, T-shirt and jeans, and leaving the topless sunbathers behind.

Sarah al-Kabbani, child of Saudi royalty, is obeying the muezzin's call to prayer, and she's running late.

King Fahd, leader of one of the world's strictest Muslim nations, has come to his vacation residence in Marbella, the Mediterranean capital of sun and sin, bringing along thousands of members of the House of Saud.

As usual, Saudi princes and princesses are expected to snap up Hermes scarves and Rolex watches by the display case, slap down millions on roulette tables and boogie into the night with the bejeweled blonds at the Olivia Valere discotheque.

It's a lifestyle strictly prohibited in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, where boys and girls are forbidden to hold hands in public and the constitution is based on Islam's holy book, the Koran.

This summer, the gap between the monarchy's practices and preaching is under greater scrutiny than usual. War talk rumbles through the Middle East and Saudi Arabia wrestles with the fallout from terrorism and the fact that 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudis -- devotees of Osama bin Laden and his campaign to topple a monarchy he views as America's corrupt puppet.

Saudi royalty has been part of the Marbella glitterati ever since the 1970s' Arab oil boom. When Fahd built his summer residence atop an artificial hill overlooking the city, the White House look-alike mansion shocked a city whose gaudy architecture makes Beverly Hills look staid.

Called An-Nada, or the Dew, the palace got a face-lift in time for Fahd's arrival Aug. 14 from Switzerland, where he has another residence.

Although princes vacation in the palace every summer, the House of Saud has virtually transplanted itself here for the first visit in three years by the 81-year-old sovereign, who handed over authority to Crown Prince Abdullah after suffering a stroke in 1995.

Fahd, who now uses a wheelchair, hardly ever comes into town. But he sends aides on shopping sprees or summons merchants to bring their most exclusive offerings to the palace. The other day, Spain's King Juan Carlos came for a visit. Shopkeepers have stocked up on luxury items, expecting the royals to spend some $5 million a day during the month or more that they stay here.

"Every time they come here, they turn this place on its head," said Antonio Mena, who sells $250 silk scarves in one of Puerto Banus Marina's exclusive shops while moonlighting as a personal trainer for Fahd's 27-year-old niece, Princess Hadza. His brother just got a temporary job as the princess' chauffeur.

Mena added that last year, the Saudis went to a Cartier jewelry shop "and spent more than 60 million euros in a single day." A euro is roughly a dollar.

High-end merchants aren't the only ones cashing in.

Under the eucalyptus trees by the palace's service gate, hundreds of poor North Africans have been waiting for weeks to be temporarily hired by Saudis at $3,000 per month.

"We are not beggars," said Minetou Sidi Ali, seated with half a dozen other Mauritanian women in colorful scarves around a camping stove.

"We'll cook. We'll clean," she said. "We'll do anything as long as it's dignified work."

The Saudi men seem to have more fun. The women wear veils and waterproof robes, even on Marbella's topless beaches. A woman riding a Jet Ski while covered head-to-toe in a black robe is not an uncommon sight.

But after Friday prayers were over at the Abdulaziz al-Saud mosque, Sarah al-Kabbani tore off her garment and wove her way on foot through a traffic jam of Mercedes sedans back to the Puente Romano, where suites cost $1,270 a night.

There's plenty of ways kids can have good clean fun in Marbella, such as hanging out or going to movies. But when Sarah started to talk about them, a man in sunglasses appeared, scolded her in Arabic for talking to a reporter and sent her away.

He turned out to be a royal family member named Adnan al-Fadda. Munching on a fresh date, he said Saudis behave no differently in Marbella than at home. Then, after indignantly knocking down the gossip in Marbella about Saudi men and blond escorts for hire, he turned to Sept. 11.

It had nothing to do with the political situation in Saudi Arabia, he said. He refused to believe that any of the hijackers were Saudi citizens and maintained the attacks were an Israeli-CIA plot.

"Do you know how many Jews in the World Trade Center didn't go to work that day?" he said, repeating a conspiracy theory rampant in the Arab world.

Sitting in a Puerto Banus cafe with his chauffeur, maid and private English teacher, 10-year-old Saud bin Fahd al Hussein said he believed that the Sept. 11 attacks were actually ordered by President Bush.

The tutor, Syrian-born Laura Khaled Niazi, didn't object to the boy's theory.

"Kids," she said. "They read these things on the Internet."

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