Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz

Writing anything about Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz used to be a bit of a risk. The billionaire Saudi banker issued a sheaf of libel writs to obscure writers and forced them to retract their stories and apologize. But the Saudi’s days of using British courts to clear his name are now buried in Jeddah along with 60-year-old Sheikh Khalid himself.

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He was one of the world’s wealthiest men and, at one time, he was the most powerful banker in the Middle East — King Fahd’s personal banker, it was said. Sheikh Khalid inherited his vast wealth from his father, an illiterate money-changer from Yemen who founded what became Saudi Arabia’s leading bank, the National Commercial Bank.

An intensely private man, Sheikh Khalid spent considerable sums in London’s plantiff-friendly courts to prove what he was not. He was not a financier of terrorism. He was not Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law. No, he was not an investor in George W. Bush’s Harken Energy. The allegations continued to dog him nonetheless.

That he was involved in the BCCI scandal, however, is beyond doubt. Sheikh Khalid was a director and major investor in the Bank of Commerce and Credit International. He did deny that he knew anything about what the bank of Manuel Noriega, terrorist Abu Nidal, the Medellin cartel, and the CIA was really up to.

Prosecutors in New York thought otherwise. A state grand jury indicted him in 1992 on criminal charges of conspiring to steal $300 million from BCCI depositors. The Federal Reserve accused Sheikh Khalid of misleading American regulators and closed the New York branch of the National Commercial Bank.

The charges were a deep embarrassment to the royal family. There were rumors that the House of Saud had borrowed huge sums from National Commercial Bank, perhaps as much as $3 billion, according to False Profits, a book on the BCCI scandal. King Fahd summoned U.S. Ambassador Charles Freeman “to express his surprise and dismay that a local prosecutor in New York City had indicted Sheik Khalid,” The New York Times reported. The king also made an extraordinary request: Would the United States issue a statement supporting the Saudi banking system? The ambassador refused.

To make the charges go away, Sheikh Khalid paid $225 million, including a $37 million fine (which he insisted was not a fine.)  While under investigation, Sheikh Khalid and his family had bought Irish passports. A helpful Citibank vice president supplied a reference, describing the sheikh as “the most important and respected client with Citicorp Private Bank in the UK and Channel Islands and one of the most valued clients of the bank globally.”

With the charges behind him, Sheikh Khalid reemerged as chairman and sole owner of his family’s bank. According to Forbes magazine, however, Sheikh Khalid oversaw a “dramatic” increase in the bank’s nonperforming loans, some of which were made to Sheikh Khalid himself. In 1999, the Saudi government acquired control of National Commercial Bank.

Sheikh Khalid remained in the public eye, however. He was a favorite of conspiracy theorists because of his connections, however indirect, to both the Bush family and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

In the 1970s, his U.S. legal representative was James R. Bath, a dealmaker who served in the Texas Air National Guard with George W. Bush. Bath introduced Sheikh Khalid, Bath, and former U.S. Treasury Secretary John Connally bought Main Bank of Houston.

Sheikh Khalid spent the last decade in seclusion, using his emissaries to stamp out reports that linked him to terrorism. Much was made of the Muwafaq Foundation, a charity Sheik endowed in 1991. A trustee of the foundation, Yassin al-Qadi, was listed by the U.S. government as a financier of terrorism. Sheikh Khalid, once again, insisted he knew nothing about what others had done with his money.

Texas was no hospitable for Sheikh Khalid, and his foreign base shifted to London.  According to news reports, a lawsuit in London revealed that Sheikh Khalid had acquired a London mansion in 1996 without his family’s knowledge. Sheikh Khalid planned to stay in the 97-room apartment in Mayfair with his young male friend, Khalid Ganzal.

Sheikh Khalid exemplified the conflicted realities U.S-Saudi relationship, a mutual dependence of powerful interests built on murky deals. He was not a royal but he was part of the inner sanctum of wealth and power in Saudi Arabia, and one pathway to the royals went through him. Even as he battled criminal charges, Sheikh Khalid continued to serve  powerful interests in the United States, remaining a consultant to Boeing Co., which sought an extremely lucrative contract from Saudi Arabia.

If there was wheeling and dealing to be done with the House of Saud, Sheikh Khalid was your man.

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