Sheik, Prattle and Dough: On the Trail of the Elusive Saudi

Times Staff Writer

Here’s a timely hint for homeowners thinking of testing the real estate market: Buy a few classical statues and put them out in the garden, on the terrace, overlooking the pool. Now find that paint brush. Give those Greek gods a new look in realistic hues--the flesh, the hair and those body parts referred to in polite company as private.

Sheik Mohammed al Fassi is coming back to town.

Or is he?

Nine years after an arsonist destroyed his garish Sunset Boulevard estate with its anatomically correct statues, the Saudi Arabian sheik is reportedly scouting Los Angeles for a new home.

One alleged sighting had him trailing eight limousines and an entourage that numbered 150, occupying a floor of the Century Plaza--but that may be another sheik or just the imaginings of a salivating real estate broker. In any case, the word among some brokers is that Al Fassi is shopping for “a major property,” something in the $15-million-up range.


The rumors began circulating this week and seemed to create their own momentum. Actual, confirmed sheik sightings were a different matter. Lots of people said the sheik was in town. No one could be found who actually cast eyes on the man and his fabled entourage.

“He’s planning to be here about a week” on the house-hunting trip, said one broker, no doubt visualizing a million-dollar commission.

Another prominent broker said Al Fassi’s representatives have made inquiries about various properties but had no personal contact the with sheik. Brokers working with the sheik’s representatives requested anonymity.

The best intelligence suggested that Al Fassi is one of two sheiks who were expected to arrive this week but had been temporarily delayed.

Real estate brokers aren’t the only ones interested in the sheik. Lawyer Marvin Mitchelson, who helped Al Fassi’s former wife obtain a record-setting divorce award of $81.5 million, said the sheik now owes his ex-wife more than $100 million because of interest.

Brokers say the sheik is already scouting the so-called “Platinum Triangle” of Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills and Bel-Air.


“I’m sure the Reagans will be ecstatic,” a broker said, referring to a Bel-Air couple.

‘A Tragedy’

The vice mayor of Beverly Hills, real estate lawyer Allan Alexander, had a less sanguine reaction. Al Fassi certainly has the right to buy property, he said. But Alexander shudders at the thought of what happened before.

“A tragedy,” he called it.

Bad taste, it is said, is timeless. It hardly seems that a decade has passed since that day back in 1978 when Sheik Shamsuddin al Fassi plunked down $2.4 million in cash to buy a Beverly Hills starter for his son, Mohammed, then 25, and his 19-year-old bride, Dena. Thus began a tale worthy of Scheherazade.

The house, by all accounts, was a beautiful place. But like any young couple, the Al Fassis had ideas for home improvement.

An estimated $5 million was spent erecting a mosque, installing a bright copper roof, painting the mansion mint green, decorating a veranda with plastic flowers and colorizing the statuary. They also installed a light beam to ward off low-flying aircraft. The fate of the kitchen wallpaper was unclear.

All this did nothing, however, to deter gawkers and even tour buses. The home quickly earned a must-see ranking among Los Angeles attractions. Neighbors complained loudly.

“It was causing traffic jams on Sunset,” a Beverly Hills city official recalled. “We had to put more police out there.”


Home Abandoned

In 1980, an arsonist’s fire gutted the place, and the home was abandoned. In 1982, the sheika sued for divorce. Among the transgressions she alleged was bigamy. (Sheiks may have four wives under Saudi law but only one under California’s.)

Dena al Fassi’s settlement included the Sunset place. Later, the land was sold, the home bulldozed and the property divided into two lots. A $10-million home has been built on one.

Sheik al Fassi relocated to Florida but stayed in the news by giving large sums to charity while bouncing $1-million checks for hotel bills. After a brief stint in jail, Al Fassi returned to Saudi Arabia, reportedly summoned by an embarrassed royal family.

Efforts to locate the sheik this week in Los Angeles proved frustrating.

Century Plaza officials professed no knowledge of reservations involving sheiks, despite statments of other sources, including one affiliated with the hotel.

A caller to the Saudi Arabian Consulate was put on hold and listened to a music box version of “Home on the Range.” Public relations director Abdallah Zineh came on the line and agreed to check into it.

“They are here apparently on private business. . . . We weren’t informed, officially, they are here in any official capacity,” Zineh said when he reported back.


This at first seemed like confirmation, but Zineh said, no, that’s not what he meant. His report was but another reflected rumor.

Heard Whispers

Mitchelson, the divorce lawyer, said he too had heard whispers that Al Fassi had returned. Although the sheik paid several million of the $81.5-million judgment, Mitchelson said, he failed to pay millions more. Interest has since pushed the debt to more than $100 million, he said.

Those lingering financial and legal concerns prompted some real estate professionals to doubt that Al Fassi really is coming back. Perhaps, they suggested, brokers may be confusing Al Fassi for other sheiks who are looking to buy or rent here to avoid the hellish Saudi summer.

A broker hoping to find Al Fassi a new home expressed pleasure at his competitors’ ignorance. The sheik has matured and made amends with the royal family, this broker explained. And so, “He’s back in the chips.”