A book to be released this week in Paris lifts the veil on a sordid tale that even John Grisham would have had trouble inventing, about a Saudi prince-diplomat who smuggles two tons of cocaine into Europe on a jetliner owned by the Saudi royal family — and gets away with it. Coming right when Bob Woodward’s report of the Bush-Bandar deal to lower gas prices for electoral purposes has once again put the spotlight on the Saudis, this history of a different sort of carburant doesn’t just reveal another seamy underside of the despotic kingdom — it raises embarrassing new post-9/11 questions for the Bush administration, and exposes the hypocrisy of Jacques Chirac’s government in facilitating the prince’s getaway.
Prince Nayef bin Fawwaz al-Shaalan is a wealthy, U.S.-educated, high-ranking Saudi diplomat who speaks eight languages, has played a key role in OPEC negotiations, and owns significant oil interests in Colombia and Venezuela, countries he often visited on official diplomatic missions. (He has privileged personal relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.)
Prince Nayef and his twin brother, Prince Saud, are both sons-in-law of the Saudi Vice Minister of Defense — who, as a brother of King Fahd, is in the direct line of royal succession. Prince Nayef’s older brother, Prince Nawaf, is married to a daughter of Crown Prince Abdullah, who is the veritable head of the Saudi government.
On May 16, 1999, a Boeing 727 frequently used for official Saudi government missions (and belonging to Skyways International, a company owned by the Saudi royal family) landed at Le Bourget airport near Paris after a flight from Venezuela. Onboard were 14 passengers, a majority of them Saudi princes and princesses, including Prince Nayef and Prince Saud. In the baggage compartment: an impressive number of fiberglass suitcases containing a total of two tons of pure cocaine, which had been loaded on the plane without problem in Caracas under the cover of diplomatic immunity.
When the plane landed in France, it was immediately met by a raft of official Saudi vehicles and two rented vans, and a troop of courtiers including Saudi Embassy employees. Under the personal supervision of Prince Nayef and his bodyguards, the coke-filled suitcases were loaded into the two rented vans. Diplomatic immunity once again ensured no customs inspection of the luggage. And the cortege of vehicles, led by Prince Nayef in a black Mercedes, left Le Bourget without problem. En route to Paris, the two vans with the coke quietly peeled off from the convoy and headed for a rented house in the Paris suburb of Noissy-le-Sec, where the pricey cargo was to be stocked for a few days until it was redistributed for sale in France and other European countries.
The coke smuggling and the deliberately bungled investigation that let Prince Nayef escape prosecution are dissected in Le Coke Saudienne: au coeur d’une affaire d’Etat (Editions Flammarion), by Fabrice Monti, a former official of the French Ministry of the Interior who was attached to the national drug police, headquartered in the celebrated Quai des Orfevres in Paris. The book — which includes 63 pages of photocopied government documents confirming its principal allegations — demonstrates how the well-traveled prince went shopping for a coke deal through a sexpot Miami real estate agent named Doris, who had deep family and business connections to the Medellín cartel.
Through Doris, Prince Nayef was introduced to Oscar Eduardo Campuzano Zapata, known as “El Flaco” (The Thin Man), a top lieutenant of the late Medellín drug baron Pablo Escobar. The prince-diplomat met with Zapata and his cohorts in a series of locations, from the luxurious Spanish resort of Marbella to the Saudi kingdom itself. The deal was finalized when Prince Nayef took the Medellín gangsters on a trip into the Saudi desert, far from prying eyes and microphones.
“El Principe,” as he was known to his Medellín partners, had a grand, long-simmering plan: He initially proposed an extensive series of coke shipments of five to 10 tons each. The previous year, Prince Nayef had founded the Kranz Bank in Switzerland — which he owned — to launder the drug money (two of the bank’s directors helped unload the coke shipment from the prince’s plane in Paris). But Zapata and his gangsters were wary of the royal first-time coke smuggler, and so the first shipment of two tons was agreed on as a trial run, to test the prince’s good faith and the security of his plan. Unfortunately for the prince, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency had intercepted a fax to the Medellín gangsters containing enough imprecise hints about the Paris shipment so that — when it was passed to the French drug police — it allowed the Quai des Orfevres to localize the safe house where the coke was stored, and raid it. But not before half the nose candy had already been redistributed. So the prince, instead of realizing the $30 million profit he’d been promised, would end up getting only a third of it for his efficient smuggling.
The book recounts the four-year investigation that allowed Prince Nayef to be identified as the organizer of the coke deal. The DEA nabbed, and turned into informers through plea bargains on other drug charges, Zapata and many of the other Medellín principals (their eventual prison terms were astonishingly light). The DEA fed its findings to the French, who were discretely building their case from the bottom up, hoping to lure the prince onto European soil where he could be arrested.
But after 9/11, the cooperation between the U.S. and French police soured — and the French drug police were appalled when the DEA and a Miami federal prosecutor publicly announced in 2002 an indictment of Prince Nayef, who was thus warned that he was under suspicion. (The principal dossier against the prince later mysteriously vanished from the DEA’s files.) The book details a “police war” between the American DEA and the Quai des Orfevres.
The DEA’s strangely precipitous move in indicting the prince before they had him in hand inflamed the Saudi government — which immediately put enormous pressure on the French to reveal to it the evidence against the prince and stifle his prosecution. The Saudis had a powerful weapon. They threatened to pull the plug on a contract (referred to by its acronym, SBGDP-MIKSA) worth a colossal 7 billion euros that had been under negotiation between the Saudis and France for a decade, whereby the French multinational Thales (formerly Thomson) would construct an elaborate radar-based security system to protect the kingdom’s frontiers. And the French attempt to collar Prince Nayef suddenly lost steam.
The stench of cynicism wreathes the actions of both conservative Western governments. For the Bush administration, Saudi cooperation in the war on terrorism (a major electoral issue) was more important than bagging the smuggling prince — which could well have jeopardized U.S.–Saudi relations, given Nayef’s high-level position in the royal family. Moreover, the book suggests that the real motivation of the already wealthy prince — a non-drinker and non-smoker who is said to be a strict observer of the Koran — in turning smuggler was to assure a secret source of funding for Wahabiite fundamentalism (just as the sanctimonious Taliban trafficked heroin to support their jihads). Any revelation of this new chapter in Saudi financing of Islamist radicalism would have further sundered the image of Bush’s friends the Saudis with the American electorate. For Chirac’s Elysee Palace, the huge contract with the Saudis was worth thousands of jobs to a France suffering severe rising unemployment (a major electoral issue).
Prince Nayef, says the book, actually was able to accompany King Fahd on a trip to Europe in July 2002 without being bothered by either the French or the Americans. He is today safe from prosecution in Saudi Arabia, free to enjoy his wealth.
And less than two weeks ago, the man who, as French Minister of the Interior, orchestrated the French stifling of the hunt for Prince Nayef — Nicolas Sarkozy, now Minister of Finance — was received practically as a head of government in Washington by Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, who both accorded him long private meetings. More proof that, among hypocrites, all may be forgiven.