Estranged wife sues King Fahd in London for share of $22bn fortune

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The Independent Online

The ailing King Fahd, one of the world's richest and most powerful men, is facing an embarrassing public showdown in a British court later this year with a woman who claims to be his estranged wife.

The 83-year-old ruler of Saudi Arabia is being sued by Janan Harb for a share of his $22bn (£12.2bn) fortune over his alleged failure to provide adequately for her. Mrs Harb, 57, who was born in Jordan and lives in Kensington, west London, was described by friends as "incredibly strong-willed and determined".

Her action, if successful, could prove to be the most lucrative maintenance settlement awarded by a British court. Mrs Harb is claiming the King "wilfully neglected" to maintain her under the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973. She says she is one of the King's three wives. A friend said she still loved the King and blamed his advisers for her predicament. "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 friend said.

King Fahd is recovering in hospital in Saudi Arabia after being admitted with pneumonia, fever and respiratory complications in May. The Saudi interior ministry said yesterday that his health was steadily improving. It was the first official report on his condition for more than a week.

The day-to-day running of the world's largest oil exporter passed to 81-year-old Crown Prince Abdullah in 1995 after King Fahd suffered a stroke. The Prince is now embroiled in a battle with Islamic militants who oppose the monarchy.

Lawyers acting for Mrs Harb successfully challenged a decision made by Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss in December last year that the hearing on whether King Fahd should enjoy sovereign immunity from the maintenance proceedings should be held in private. Lawyers for the King argued that heads of state should be protected from civil actions in overseas courts.

At the hearing, Dame Elizabeth, then president of the High Court's Family Division, also imposed strict reporting restrictions on the case which prevented the King's name being made public. She told the court that the King was entitled to secrecy. "Once the press are aware of this they will dig a great deal deeper and there will be a great deal of information which they will be able to put into the public domain," she said.

Last month however, three Court of Appeal judges overturned her decisions and the case challenging King Fahd's immunity from prosecution will now be heard in open court in November. Lawyers for the King sought to argue that the immunity appeal should be held in private to protect his "dignity" under the Geneva Convention. But The judges said it was unprecedented in the past decade for such a case to be heard in secret and concluded that Dame Elizabeth had "misdirected herself" in agreeing to it.

If the court finds for Mrs Harb, the maintenance proceedings will return to the Family Division next year when they will be heard in private.

King Fahd ascended to the Saudi throne in June 1982, when the kingdom was enjoying the peak of the petrodollar boom. He became custodian of Islam's two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, and assumed control of a vast personal fortune. As well as a palace in Saudi Arabia, he owns a 100-room property in Marbella, southern Spain, called the Mar Mar Palace, modelled on the White House.

The King's arrival in Marbella is always keenly awaited by local traders. During a visit in 2002 he was said to have been accompanied by a "caravan" of 3,000 people. As well as hiring a fleet of 500 Mercedes to convey his guests around town, he also set up unlimited charge accounts at the resort's leading shops. Thousands of pounds worth of flowers and provisions were brought to the palace each day. Such is the extravagance that his mere presence is said to generate £1m a day for the local economy.

The King's yacht, Al-Diriyah, is one of the largest and most opulent in the world. He also has a Boeing 747 at his disposal, complete with an intensive care unit.

No one from King Fahd's legal team, the London solicitors Howard Kennedy, was available for comment.