- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 14, 2005

LONDON — A woman seeking a divorce from Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and a $50 billion settlement has won a significant legal victory in British courts that for the first time forces the secretive 18-month court battle into public view.

The contest between the king and a woman who says she is one of his wives, Janan Harb, had been conducted in secrecy, and the case was given a fictitious name to protect the king’s identity and a strict gag order imposed to keep it out of the press.

King Fahd’s attorneys convinced a lower court that Mrs. Harb cannot pursue her claim because the king, who is 82 and in poor health, is entitled to “sovereign immunity,” which protects heads of state from being sued in the courts of another country.

This month, however, three appeals court judges granted her permission to appeal the lower court ruling and ordered that the appeal be held in open court.

So the stage is set for a public airing of the affairs of the secretive Saudi royal family, which King Fahd leads.

In the appeals court judgment, made public last week, Lord Justice Thorpe said, “Clearly, Mrs. Harb was seen as a potential source of embarrassment. That is well illustrated by the fact that on March 1, 2001, an undisclosed principal had paid Mrs. Harb a very substantial sum for entering into a binding deed of confidentiality covering all aspects of her past relationship with the king.”

Little is known about Mrs. Harb, 57, who is thought to be Jordanian, but has British citizenship after living in Britain off and on since the 1970s.

It is understood that she is one of three — or possibly four — wives of King Fahd and that she has two daughters from a previous relationship.

A friend described her as “incredibly strong-willed and determined.”

“Janan still loves the king, but she knows none of this is his doing. Her case is really against his advisers. She knows she is blazing a trail here. What she is doing is without precedence in the Middle East, for the wife of a ruler to sue him for maintenance, but she wants to see justice done.”

The king, who had a debilitating stroke 10 years ago, has been in the hospital since May 27 with pneumonia and respiratory complications.

He is understood to have little day-to-day control over his affairs, with his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, in charge of daily matters.

The friend said Mrs. Harb was “Westernized,” which had given her a different perspective. “She is a very proud, independent woman.”

Mrs. Harb, who still uses her maiden name, filed an application under section 27 of Britain’s Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 in January last year.

She said that she was the king’s wife and that he had failed to provide “reasonable maintenance” for her.

But, instead of settling her claim, his attorneys hit back, arguing that the king was immune to the suit.

That view was upheld in October by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, then England’s leading family judge and president of the High Court’s Family Division.

She assigned the case a false name “Maple v. Maple,” using the surname of the district judge involved in an earlier stage of the case to disguise the identity of the king.

Judge Butler-Sloss ruled that King Fahd was entitled to secrecy because “once the press become aware of this, they will dig a great deal deeper.”

But the appeal judges rejected her argument and ruled that Judge Butler-Sloss, who has since retired, had “misdirected herself” in allowing the immunity issue to be heard in private.

If Mrs. Harb is to be deprived of the right to have her claim heard, ruled Lord Justice Thorpe, it should “not be secret justice.”

If Mrs. Harb wins her appeal, to be heard in November, her subsequent maintenance hearing will be heard in private.

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