Out of the shadows

profile: Wafic Said
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When Oxford University announced last week that it had received its most generous benefaction for half a century, it clearly anticipated trouble. It is only weeks, after all, since Dr Gert-Rudolf Flick withdrew a gift to Balliol College because of suggestions that the money carried the taint of his grandfather, a German war criminal. And at Cambridge there was angry opposition to a pounds 1.6m donation from a tobacco company, BAT.

Now here was Oxford accepting money from a man commonly referred to in the press as an arms dealer.

Defences were prepared. A university spokesman said the gift had been scrutinised and approved by an ethics committee and insisted that the donor was of impeccable character: "Everything he has done has been legal and above board." For good measure, Sir Bernard Ingham, that grand-daddy of spin-doctors, was brought in to rehearse Oxford's new patron on the questions he might expect from hostile media.

In the event, it seems to have been unnecessary. There was no chorus of outrage and there were no grisly headlines in the national press about the "profits of death". Wafic Said's pounds 20m gift to help to fund a new business school went virtually unchallenged. This will have pleased no one more than Mr Said himself, for although he is a frequent giver to good causes, this gift - "a lot of money even for him", Sir Bernard said - represented a new departure, even a gamble. Mr Said has tended to avoid publicity.

It is not the only sign of change. Mr Said has recently raised his profile dramatically in the racing world. For years he had a low-key interest but lately he has been buying the most expensive yearlings and they have rewarded him well, winning two classics and elevating him to the first division of owners. His picture, of him triumphant in the winner's enclosure, is often to be seen in the racing pages.

Wafic Said has spent decades avoiding attention; why, now, should he come out of the shadows?

It Is 35 years since he arrived in London from Syria, intent on broadening his horizons. Born in 1939, he was the youngest child of Rida Said, a government minister and eye surgeon who died when he was still a child. In the Damascus society of the time the family were well-off intellectuals - "patricians, or aristocrats if you like", says a contemporary.

He spent much of the Sixties drifting - a spell in Cambridge, a diploma at an accounting institute, jobs in Geneva banks and a couple of years running the Caravanserai, a restaurant in Kensington catering for Middle East clients.

Two events in these years stand out: he married Rosemary Buchanan, a bank manager's daughter born in Bradford whom he had met in Switzerland, and he came into contact with the Saudi royal family. Legend has it that this second event happened in a coffee shop in Bayswater, London, where by chance he bumped into two young Saudi princes. Said has said the connection was made through a Syrian family friend who had been doctor to the Saudi king.

By the early 1970s he was working in the kingdom, supervising government construction contracts. Here he impressed one of the country's most powerful figures, the Minister of Defence, Prince Sultan, the father of two rising princes, Bandar and Khalid. These three men were to make him rich.

After 1973, when oil prices soared, Saudi Arabia almost disappeared beneath a tide of money. The house of Saud, who a generation earlier had been desert warriors, needed help in husbanding their wealth and developing the kingdom. They turned to a class of Arab intermediaries and fixers familiar with the West, of whom Adnan Khashoggi was the prototype.

Wafic Said, still in his thirties, was relatively junior by comparison, but rising. For a time he worked for another fixer, Akram Ojjeh, a Syrian arms dealer who acted for Prince Sultan in Paris, but before long he was operating on his own, mostly in London.

His personal connections in the kingdom were essential to his progress. One of the stories most frequently told of him concerns the death of his first son, Karim Risa, in Saudi Arabia in 1981. The boy drowned in the swimming pool at the house of Prince Sultan, where the Said family were guests. By tradition, it is said, this accident at his home placed the prince under an obligation to his guest, ensuring for Mr Said lasting royal patronage.

Mr Said and his wife are known to find this version of events offensive and it is easy to see why, since it implies that they owe their wealth to their son's death. "My friendships in Saudi Arabia date back to the early 1960s," Mr Said has written, "and have nothing to do with that accident."

The circumstances add weight to his argument: the family were guests at the prince's home because Mr Said was receiving Saudi citizenship by royal decree - a rare honour.

Beside personal contacts, Mr Said has other assets. "He is a very good host, clever, entertaining and full of repartee," says an English friend, "and of course with his background in Damascene society he is a very sophisticated man." Over the years he has drawn to him many friends in high places in Britain, particularly among those close to Margaret Thatcher and in industry, and much of his money has been made by introducing sellers to buyers among his acquaintances, British and Saudi.

Is he an arms dealer? The potted biography issued by Oxford last week suggested that his fortune was founded on construction projects and international investments. He himself has declared: "I have never even sold a penknife."

It may be true that he does not personally buy or sell weapons, but his name has been linked with a number of big arms deals, most notably with the biggest of all: Britain's multi-billion-pound al-Yamamah contract to supply Saudi Arabia with Tornado jets and other aircraft.

As long ago as 1986 the New Yorker wrote that the key to British success in this sale was the relationship between Mrs Thatcher and Prince Bandar, and that Wafic Said's role in bringing them together was vital. More recently Gerald James, a key figure in the arms export controversies of the 1980s, told the House of Commons Trade Committee: "Wafic Said is the British Aerospace agent in Saudi Arabia responsible for winning the Tornado and al-Yamamah deals."

And Adnan Khashoggi, who was involved in the deal, has also said Mr Said took part, and that he made use of his friendship with Mark Thatcher. "Whenever Wafic needed a question answered," Mr Khashoggi said, "Mark would go directly to his mother for an answer."

Mr Said has denied receiving a penny in commission from al-Yamamah, but he added: "I have, however, advised British Aerospace in relation to the offset programme which it established as part of al-Yamamah."

This "offset" programme is an arrangement under which, in return for the Tornado deal, Britain agreed to invest in Saudi Arabia. If he has made commissions or won contracts from this, that would surely be an indirect way of profiting from a deal which he is believed to have helped to happen. Does it make him an arms dealer? He says no.

What is beyond dispute is that over 20 years his connections and social skills have made him very wealthy, with a fortune probably of several hundred million pounds.

He has homes in Marbella, Paris and Monte Carlo - for tax purposes his main domicile - as well as two in Britain: a pounds 10m flat in Eaton Square, London, and a 3,000-acre shooting estate, Tusmore Park, near Banbury in Oxfordshire.

At Tusmore Park he hopes one day to demolish the relatively modest 1960s house and replace it with a Palladian mansion designed by Quinlan Terry that would be the biggest country house built in Britain since the war. Finding the time for the project, not the money, is said to be the problem.

When it comes to making his money work, his record as an investor does not match his success as a middleman. In the US he lost heavily on two high-profile projects, the National Bank of Washington and Garfinckels stores. In Britain his pounds 5m stake in the Sunday Correspondent proved a mistake, and his much bigger holding in Aitken Hume, the merchant bank set up by his friend Jonathan Aitken, brought no glowing profits.

But he can afford entrepreneurial upsets; what his money can not buy is good health. Although he denies reports that he has had two heart bypass operations, friends say that he is much more careful and more fragile than he was. Once jittery and hyperactive, he has slowed down. Perhaps the Oxford gift of pounds 20m - to fund an institution bearing his name - has something to do with this.

He has always guarded his privacy jealously; like his Saudi friends he is said to despise Mr Khashoggi for his flashy ways. Now, at 56, with his fortune made and his health uncertain, it may be time to court a little public recognition.

Four years ago, he gave what he declared was his "first and last" interview, but he has talked to the racing press about the thrill of watching his colours win, and at the Oxford announcement he took a bow. "I have spent many years in Britain and I admire this country," he said - hardly soul- baring, but for Wafic Said, true glasnost.

It could turn nasty. Links with Saudi princes and arms deals, and with personalities such as Jonathan Aitken and Mark Thatcher, are not the stuff of popularity even if generous gifts to universities and champion racehorses are. Should the bad press return, Wafic Said is likely to slip back into the shadows.