‘It’s not about the money’ says wife of billionaire Saudi king after launching unprecedented legal action in British courts seeking £50million maintenance
MAIL ON SUNDAY
26 June 2005
By Elizabeth Sanderson in London and Matthew Kalman in Ramallah
THE woman inside the elegant town house in fashionable Rutland Gate, Kensington, just off Hyde Park, wanted to make certain facts clear to me.
She said she was sick of all the lies being told about her. She wanted to put the record straight.
Her enemies, friends of her husband, the billionaire King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, were engaged in a dirty war against her to blacken her name, she believed.
Saudi sources in London have suggested that she is a fan of plastic surgery and has had a number of nips and tucks at Harley Street; that she is a devotee of Scientology, whose followers believe that humans are temporary vessels for immortal souls called Thetans; that she is addicted to gambling and blew hundreds of thousands of pounds on the blackjack tables in London’s casinos; and, most damning of all, that she was unfaithful and has had relationships with a variety of men.
At the root of all this, of course, is money, namely the £50 million she is asking from him as a divorce settlement. So, I asked her, what is the truth of it all? Janan Harb decided it was time to hit back. Sometimes indignant, sometimes on the verge of tears, she said: ‘People say things about me. They tell lies. I don’t know why, maybe they are jealous. Yes, I am a Scientologist but I haven’t given hundreds of thousands of dollars to them like people say.’
Speaking in the clipped tones of an upper-class English lady, with only the slightest hint of her Palestinian roots, she continued: ‘And yes, I’ve had my nose done but that doesn’t mean I have lots of plastic surgery all the time. That’s just not true. And yes, I used to go to casinos but what is wrong with that?’
Certainly, it is not a crime. But the moment Janan decided to take on the might of the Royal House of Saud, her lifestyle was inevitably going to be subject to intense scrutiny. For in an unprecedented and astonishing manoeuvre, Janan, 58, is suing King Fahd through the British courts for what she calls ‘proper maintenance’.
Eighteen months ago, when she filed for maintenance under Section 27 of the Matrimonial Causes Act, the king tried to claim ‘sovereign immunity’. The then president of the High Court family division, Dame Elizabeth Butler-Schloss, agreed to the king’s anonymity and even went as far as listing the action as Maple v Maple.
But the Court of Appeal thought differently and ruled, last month, that the king’s identity was relevant.
A hearing is now expected in November, much to the dread of King Fahd, who is in hospital with pneumonia and breathing problems.
It is not the money that is the issue here. What obsesses the king is keeping secret the details of life within the Saudi kingdom. As always with stories regarding Saudi royals, there are lurid allegations of abusive behaviour.
In 2001, Janan was paid a substantial sum for entering into a binding deed of confidentiality covering all aspects of her past relationship with the king. So why the need for the court case?
Janan says it is not about the money but the principle. She feels bitter that she was discarded by the king and believes she deserves better treatment.
She said: ‘It is about taking responsibility for someone who lived with you. You don’t just leave people when you want. I myself take responsibility for a lot of people. It is my duty.’
But she doesn’t blame King Fahd personally for the dispute. ‘It is his advisers. He is sick. If it were up to him, he would not go to court.’
So who exactly is Janan Harb and what has brought her to London to carry out what appears, superficially at least, to be an act of sheer madness?
Due to the exotic nature of their marriage and the vast amount of money involved in the break-up, myth and legend have inevitably sprung up around a woman who, until a month ago, wasn’t even known outside the rarefied world of a dozen or so wealthy Arab women who flit between Europe and the Middle East
BUT certain facts are indisputable. Janan has lived on and off in London for at
least 30 years and is now considered westernised.
Perhaps in readiness for her court battle, she obtained a British passport six months ago. She lives alone in Knightsbridge in a lovely street where the houses are worth up to £10million each and has one maid in a small flat on the top floor. She does not own the property but rents for about £4,000 a month. She is in close touch with one of her daughters, Rania Bouiez, and her own mother, Jihan, who live in nearby Chelsea.
She once had an aerobics franchise in London with outlets in Europe and the Middle East and has an interest in a wide range of alternative therapies.
But much about Janan remains an mystery. Born a Palestinian Christian, she converted to Islam for her husband’s sake, before embracing Scientology. She claims to be still married to King Fahd although under Saudi marriage law, a man can divorce a woman without telling her.
Janan herself has added to the mystery as she refuses to discount stories that she has enjoyed a number of other relationships.
She is an elegant, intelligent woman who enjoys gambling in Mayfair’s exclusive casinos such as Aspinalls and The Ritz. One friend told me: ‘She always said Fahd had taught her how to gamble.
‘Blackjack is her game of choice and she thinks nothing of making a bet of two or three thousand pounds a time. She had credit facilities of £100,000 at all the major casinos in town. And she could easily do two or three casinos on any given night.’
Perhaps the contradictions in her life can be explained by her difficult childhood in the Middle East. Janan was born in Haifa in 1946 to George Harb, a restaurateur and Jihan, a seamstress from Nazareth.
When the Israeli War of Independence began in 1948, the Harbs moved to Bisa’an, now Bet She’an, in the Jordan Valley, then to Nazareth in Northern Israel and then to Jericho. After nine hard years they moved to Ramallah, then under Jordanian rule, with Janan, her older brother Jalal and her younger sister and brother, Jawana and Jawwad.
Janan’s mother, who still keeps a small apartment in Ramallah, confirmed the hardships. She said: ‘We had to keep moving home and we lost everything. We became refugees four times over.’
But the couple did manage to set up a modest, though successful, seven bedroom hotel and restaurant in an acre of land. The family lived in a small second-floor apartment next door.
Jihan said: ‘My daughter was a bright, happy, carefree child. Even though we were refugees and had very little, she was still happy. She was very good at her studies and very popular. She always had lots of friends. The hotel
was small, but we had a big garden with a very good restaurant which became famous for its food.’
It was here, at the Hotel Harb, that Janan first glimpsed a world far removed from her own.
Despite the modesty of their establishment, George and Jihan managed to attract an elite clientele from the wealthy Gulf states. The garden became one of the town’s favourite spots for music and parties, which neighbours still remember would sometimes last all night.
The parties and free-flowing alcohol set the Christian Harb family apart from the more traditional residents of Ramallah, particularly the growing Muslim community.
By the time Janan graduated from the Friends Girls’ School in Ramallah in 1967, the year the Israeli occupation began, she and her younger sister Jawana already had a reputation for being party girls. Janan was renowned for her beauty. Tall, olive-skinned, with lustrous dark hair and enormous brown eyes, one of the town’s photographers displayed a large portrait of her in his shop window.
One friend from Ramallah who knew the girls well said: ‘They wore modern clothes and went dancing.
‘They were very open and there were always lots of boys trailing after them. Ramallah, in those days, was a very old-fashioned society. Even other Christians didn’t really approve.’
Janan quickly found the town limiting. She had seen how the wealthy Arabs lived and in her late teens she left for the American University in pre-civil war Beirut, then a cosmopolitan city hailed as Paris of the Middle East.
What happened to her studies remains unclear as from there she moved to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, took a job with Yardley cosmetics and was spotted by Fahd, then still a prince.
They were married in secret in 1969. By the time Janan told her parents, she was already installed in the vast, gilded world of the Saudi royal family. But for all its privilege it was not a happy time.
Saïd K. Aburish, journalist and the respected author of The Rise, Corruption And Coming Fall Of The House of Saud, said: ‘She would have had a very difficult time if she had remained a Christian. Even the staff would have given her a hard time.
‘In fact, some of the servants may have refused to serve her. Janan would have lived in the women’s quarters of the palaces which are completely cut off from the outside world.’
Due to the obsessively secretive nature of the Saudi court no one even knows the names of all of Fahd’s wives, let alone just how many there have been over the years.
Aburish said: ‘There are probably only three or four people in the world who know that.
‘Fahd could marry 500 times but he can only have four wives at a time and if he wants another he has to get rid of one of the four. He is also obliged to treat them all equally in every sense.
‘Of course, in reality, he decides on the ranking and obviously has his favourites. He would give some more money than others, some are allowed to breed and others are not. It’s up to him.
‘If Janan was got rid of as his wife, and that seems the most likely scenario, he could have done it even without her knowing.’
The bizarre nature of the break-up means that no one can be sure when it ended, although it is believed to have been sometime in the early Seventies.
JANAN’S post-Saudi life becomes decidedly sketchy – and possibly for very good reason. Members of the royal family are generous with the women in their life but their total loyalty is expected in return.
Aburish said: ‘With their support come responsibilities. She would have had to listen to them about how she lived her life.’
Perhaps this is why Janan refuses to be drawn on the subject of relationships with people other than the king. But friends and family agree that she has shared her life with other men – indeed she has a daughter to prove it.
Sources in Ramallah claim she married a wealthy American and went to live with him on Lake Michigan, but they were soon divorced.
And friends told me of at least two more relationships. An acquaintance of 30 years standing, said: ‘One was with a German baron. It didn’t work out because he was apparently not a baron at all and took all her money.’
Whatever the nature of these relationships, one thing is certain – the full details will inevitably come out in court – if things go that far.
But according to seasoned Saudi watchers, Janan need not be unduly worried.
For, as she knows only too well, the royal family will pay almost any price to keep their affairs private.
One royal insider said: ‘I very much doubt there will be an appeal in an open court and certainly no maintenance hearing.
‘The Saudis hate publicity and now that the British courts have decided the case can go ahead and in King Fahd’s name, they will almost certainly make a deal in private.
‘I doubt very much if King Fahd’s name will be mentioned in a British court connected with this again.’
Similarly, one imagines, the name Janan Harb is unlikely to be uttered again in the Saudi royal court.