- The Washington Times - Monday, September 2, 2002

MARBELLA, Spain It is the hottest hour of the day at the Puente Romano beach club when a girl of 13 dashes out of the hotel gardens, throws a black cloak over her flowing hair, T-shirt and jeans and leaves behind the topless sunbathers.
Sarah al-Kabbani, child of Saudi royalty, is obeying the muezzin's call to prayer, and she is 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 of dollars on roulette tables and boogie into the night with the bejeweled blondes 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 preachings is under greater scrutiny than usual, as war talk rumbles through the Middle East and Saudi Arabia wrestles with the fallout from terrorism and the fact that 15 of the 19 September 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 since the 1970s Arab oil boom. When King 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 has undergone a face-lift in time for King Fahd's arrival Aug. 14 from Switzerland, where he has another residence.
Although princes vacation at 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.
King Fahd, who now uses a wheelchair, hardly ever comes into town. However, he sends aides on shopping sprees or summons merchants to bring their most exclusive offerings to the palace. Last week, Spain's King Juan Carlos visited him at his palace.
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 personal gym trainer for King Fahd's 27-year-old niece, Princess Hadza. His brother just received a temporary job as the princess's chauffeur.
Mr. Mena added that last year the Saudis went to a Cartier jewelry shop "and spent more than 60 million euros in a single day." One euro is worth slightly less than 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 hired temporarily by Saudis at $3,000 per month. "We are not beggars," said Minetou Sidi Ali, seated with a half-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 tears off her garment and weaves her way on foot through a traffic jam of Mercedes sedans back to the Puente Romano, where suites cost $1,270 a night.
Children can find plenty of ways to have good, clean fun in Marbella, such as hanging out or going to movies. But when Sarah starts to talk about them, a swarthy man in sunglasses appears, scolding her in Arabic for talking to a reporter and sends her away.
The swarthy man in sunglasses turned out to be a royal family member named Adnan al-Fadda. Munching on a fresh date, he says Saudis behave the same way in Marbella as they did at home. Then, after indignantly knocking down the gossip in Marbella about Saudi men and blonde escorts for hire, he turned to September 11.
It had nothing to do with the political situation in Saudi Arabia, he says. He refuses to believe that any of the hijackers were Saudi citizens, though 15 of the 19 were, and insists the attacks were a plot arranged by the Israelis and the CIA. "Do you know how many Jews in the World Trade Center didn't go to work that day?"

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