The entrance to La Zagaleta, a gated community for Europe's super-rich outside Marbella. Photos by Henry Wilkins
The security guard had a handlebar mustache and a large gun strapped to his hip.
"I'm looking for the director of communications," I said. "He's supposed to be meeting me here."
"Su amigo?" he asked.
I could see this wasn't going to work. Using the translator on my phone, I tried again. This time the man exited the security cabin and started walking away briskly, beckoning for me to follow him through the steel gates.
The La Zagaleta estate. Photo courtesy of La Zagaleta Ltd.
I was at the entrance to La Zagaleta, a vast gated community for Europe's super-rich outside Marbella, Spain. Originally owned by the man who marketed the first contraceptive pills, in the last 20 years it's been developed into a magnet for anyone able to shell out the millions it takes to buy a property there.
Centred around two golf courses, Rod Stewart, hedge fund managers, and Moscow's former mayor are among its residents, and there are rumors that Vladimir Putin also owns property on the estate. But any notoriety associated with today's residents is overshadowed by the legacy of the estate's previous owner, arguably the wealthiest and most notorious arms dealer in history: Adnan Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, born in Mecca, made his fortune by brokering arms deals between Western and Middle Eastern governments. In the early 1980s he was worth around $4 billion.
Khashoggi helped set the trend for a certain kind of lavish lifestyle aped by so many sheiks, oil barons, and oligarchs today. He hosted some of the most extravagant parties in European history and owned one of the first custom-built super yachts, which was later owned by both the Sultan of Brunei and Donald Trump. He also kept several private jets and properties around the world, as well as wielding massive political clout in the US, Europe, and the Middle East.
The clubhouse, which used to be Khashoggi's hunting lodge
The rolling acres at La Zagaleta used to be Khashoggi's private hunting ground, back when it was called La Baraka, meaning "luck." Khashoggi would often turn up there in a helicopter to shoot the local fauna and throw enormous, extravagant parties.
Central to all this was his hunting lodge—now the clubhouse. It has long since been renovated, but a couple of summers ago someone told me that the basement had been left to gather dust, completely untouched since the Spanish courts seized the estate from Khashoggi after he ran into financial troubles in the late 1980s.
In our correspondence, the estate's director of communications, Sebastian*, implied that this basement no longer existed, but after some gentle coaxing conceded that it was still there. Like King Tut's tomb, somewhere in these hills outside Marbella was a relic to a modern pharaoh waiting to be discovered.
Adnan Khashoggi in the 1980s. Photo by Roland Godefroy via Wikipedia
When I finally met Sebastian on a sunny day in southern Spain, he looked flustered and slightly embarrassed about his tardiness. I knew from our email exchanges that, while keen on free publicity for La Zagaleta, he was anxious about the estate's history getting out to the public. He'd come up with a strictly regulated itinerary.
"Later, you will meet the company president," he said, "But first, we will go on a tour of the helipad, the equestrian center, a house for sale, and finally the clubhouse."
Bundling into the back of a four-by-four with Nadine*, another agent from the company, we drove to the helipad. The pair explained that although no helicopter had landed at the site for years, the residents liked to know it was there, just "in case any of them suddenly suffer a heart attack."
Nadine and Sebastian at the helipad
I asked about the demographics of the estate. "We have all kinds of people here. Most are English-speaking, either from the UK or Ireland. We also have a lot of German and Dutch, some Russians, some Chinese with European business connections, and a few Spanish and Middle Eastern clients," said Sebastian.
"You also have some high-profile political figures here, right?"
"Ah, you're talking about Putin. We would neither confirm nor deny it, but we can definitely deny that one," was Sebastian's mystifying reply.
We bundled back into the car.
"Our clients like their privacy, you see. They like the fact that we don't let journalists in here."
After ticking off all the other boxes on our schedule, we arrived at the clubhouse. "We're trying to lose the image of this being a hunting lodge," said Sebastian as we entered the building, past two massive elephant tusks and into a room full of hunting trophies.
When I reminded him of my request to see the basement, Sebastian grew nervous again. He said they didn't know how to access the basement and that Nadine would have to ask the cleaner. I told them I didn't mind waiting and they agreed to show me around.
I followed the pair down the winding staircase, its marble steps flanked by mosaics made from hundreds of tiny mirrors. Greeting us at the bottom of the staircase was a huge gilded gold eagle on a white pedestal.
An Economist report estimates that Khashoggi required around $250,000 a day to maintain his lifestyle. His friends included movie stars, world leaders, and European kings, and it was in this basement where those elements of his lifestyle converged. This was where his legendary parties took place, and it has remained more or less untouched since he left.
I wanted to know more about Khashoggi's visits to the area, but figured that Sebastian might not be the best person to ask. Instead, I got in touch with Ronald Kessler—an investigative journalist and the author of a Khashoggi biography, The Richest Man in the World, who hung out with the arms dealer at his estate in the 80s.
Kessler described the surreal circus of excess that took place on Adnan's 50th birthday in July of 1985. After being served a selection of canapés by topless women, his guests entered the main hall of the Spanish stucco ranch house (now the clubhouse). They walked under an archway made of crossed swords, held aloft by 50 costumed pages.
Later, these same pages—now carrying hundreds of silver balloons adorned with the modest words "The World's Greatest"—danced guests from room to room. The party was attended by Europe's richest aristocrats, as well as businessmen, politicians, movie stars, and former CIA agents. Shirley Bassey belted out "Happy Birthday Dear Adnan" to anyone within earshot.
Khashoggi's private bar
Walking through the basement—this relic of Khashoggi's excessive lifestyle—it was easy to picture the salacious parties Kessler described. Off the hall was the main room. Everything was covered in purple velvet, with gold touches. The dance floor was surrounded by plush sofas with a disco ball hanging overhead and a stage where performers or guests could dance.
Several small hexagonal rooms with floor-to-ceiling mirrors also led off the hall. Khashoggi has spoken about hiring prostitutes to attend his parties, and considering each one of these rooms was about the size of a storage cupboard – and since storage cupboards generally don't come equipped with floor-to-ceiling mirrors—I found it hard to imagine what they could have been used for other than to grab some privacy from the party.
Further down the hall was a bar covered in a thick coating of dust. A door at the far end led to a recreation area with a terracotta tile floor and a huge wine rack. The centerpiece of the room was a single bowling alley with a retro computer for keeping score. In the corner stood a vintage arcade game. There was another stage in the clubhouse rec room. On it sat a solitary stuffed leopard with a weirdly happy grin on its face. In the 80s, Khashoggi kept 20 Arabian stallions and 200 African animals on the estate. I wondered if this was one of them.
Past all that was a heavy, padded door opening to a darkened room. There was a light at the far end that illuminated the silhouette of a person.
Khashoggi's private firing range
Sebastian switched the lights on and I found myself standing in Khashoggi's private firing range. I suppose I should have been less surprised that an international arms dealer would have one of these his basement, but with the target still hanging at the end of the corridor it felt eerie, like it had only recently been used. I tried another similarly padded door leading off the shooting range, but was told it's always kept locked.
"That's where we keep the skeletons," Nadine joked.
In his heyday, Khashoggi was implicated—but never convicted—in a good number of scandals. The most high-profile of these was the Iran-Contra affair, a large blot on the Reagan administration. Despite an embargo, officials in the US government had been smuggling arms to Iran, with Khashoggi greasing the wheels. It later came to light that the money was going toward funding the Contras, an anti-communist rebel group in Nicaragua, support for whom had been banned by Congress.
Some of Khashoggi's hunting trophies on the outside wall of the lodge
Although he has dodged several criminal convictions, Khashoggi is still being chased by aggrieved creditors from all around the world for millions in alleged unpaid debts. A financial services company called Broadridge and a team of lawyers sued for an unpaid debt of $21 million in 2011, and are still trying—against all odds—to have the US judgment against him enforced in his native Saudi Arabia.
Other debts include those owed to the architects, banks and contractors from a failed $400 million office and shopping complex in Salt Lake City that his company, Triad, was involved in. The National Commercial Bank of Saudi Arabia also claims Khashoggi owes them about $22 million, plus interest.
Due to his lavish partying and a number of dodgy investments, by the late 1980s Khashoggi's enormous fortune was in decline, and one property after another was sold or seized. Stories spread of how staff and yacht-crew salaries and bills for property maintenance and his daughter's helicopter lessons went unpaid month after month.
Enrique Pérez Flores, president of La Zagaleta
My escorts were getting increasingly anxious at all the pictures I was taking. They rushed me through the rest of the basement and we made our way back, past the figures of exotic beasts with glassy eyes and out into the bright sunlight. Soon after, I was taken to meet La Zagaleta's president, Enrique Pérez Flores, and we got into conversation about Khashoggi's financial downfall.
"In Khashoggi's time, the process for getting loans from banks was different," he said. "At that time, you could get a lot of money based just on your image."
This "image"—a carefully constructed façade—is what the now 79-year-old Khashoggi was trading on most recently, his reputation allowing him to work as a consultant.
The main room, where many of the parties were held
In recent years, with Broadridge and their ilk still on his trail, Khashoggi has claimed to be broke. In 2011, he was implicated in a money laundering case, alleged to have laundered around $300 million with the help of Indian businessman Hasan Ali Khan, but the charges were never proved.
Faced with the remains of the pharaonic image Khashoggi tried so hard to create, I never got a sense that anything I saw in the rooms of La Baraka was meant to stand the test of time. Everything felt somehow tacky and temporary. The basement was no King Tut's tomb. Instead, like the haunts of so many wealthy people—and like Khashoggi's own life—it felt like more like a bubble: iridescent, but hollow and ready to pop with at lightest of touches.
*Names have been changed
See more of Henry Wilkins's work on his website.