Khalid bin Mahfouz, one of the most prominent businessmen and bankers in Saudi Arabia, whose personal wealth at its peak was listed at about US$3.2 billion (Dh11.7bn), has died aged 59. At the summit of his business career, he owned and controlled, with other family members, the largest bank in the Kingdom, the National Commercial Bank (NCB), and invested in myriad other ventures. A controversial figure, dogged by allegations of funding terrorism, he armed himself with a formidable legal team and spent much of his later life trying through the courts, and his own website, to clear his name of any whiff of scandal.
Bin Mahfouz was the scion of a Yemeni trading family that had settled in Jeddah and built a powerful presence: his father Salem Ahmed persuaded the al Saud ruling family to support the establishment of NCB, the first Saudi-controlled bank in a field dominated by foreign institutions. Under his father, the bank's assets expanded as Opec's oil price hikes in the 1970s created one of the great transfers of wealth of the 20th century. As director of the bank in the 1980s, Khalid first attracted international controversy by investing heavily in the infamous Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which collapsed spectacularly in 1991, and was found to have been involved in money laundering, arms trafficking and fraud.
Indicted on charges of fraud by a New York state grand jury, bin Mahfouz denied culpability. After he agreed to pay $225 million for breaching banking regulations - the sum included $37 million in lieu of fines - the charges were dropped in 1993. In 1999, growing speculation over multibillion dollar problems in NCB's balance sheet culminated in the government intervening, removing bin Mahfouz and taking a controlling stake in the bank.
After September 11, as American investigations of Saudi terrorist financing and possible connections to al Qa'eda intensified, bin Mahfouz developed a prodigious appetite for litigation. The epitome of the "libel tourist" - the term used for non-Britons taking advantage of the country's pro-plaintiff libel laws that allow American publications with small circulations in Britain to be sued in the London courts - he brought more than 30 legal cases against American authors whom he claimed had defamed his character and reputation. In his name, writers and journalists were called to court; unsurprisingly, most retracted their assertions.
Born on December 26, 1949, he died on August 16. He is survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. * The National