Adham's responsibilities in Saudi and Arab history were discreet, not only because he practised the quintessence of behind-the-scenes politics but also because he actually believed that genuine leaders needed to rely on trusted aides who might, sometimes, be called upon to take the fall for their policy choices. Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu, Gulf News

When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia declared its unification in 1932, the king's most trusted aides handled security concerns, often with limited impact. During the Arab Cold War, which pitted royalists against Nasserists, Riyadh established its first intelligence gathering service, again with inadequate results.

It was under King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz that Saudi Arabia finally created the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), entrusting the endeavour to Kamal Adham, Queen Iffat Al Thunayan's younger half-brother. The secretive Adham, one of the few men Faisal trusted completely, shaped the history of the Middle East in ways that are not well understood although most acknowledge his impact on critical events.

Childhood training

Queen Iffat's Turkish-born half-brother was raised by King Faisal. An early companion of the future ruler, Adham performed more than was required of a family member, even if his upbringing endowed him with undeniable attributes.

The young Adham was fluent in four languages — Arabic, Turkish, English and French — and, more important, loyal to both his sister and brother-in-law. In fact, he advised the ruler on the kingdom's foreign policy interests at a time when severe internal disputes polarised the Al Saud. Adham acted as a liaison between the GID, which reported to the king, and key Western intelligence services.

More important, he fostered and maintained nascent ties with several Arab intelligence services, as many were slowly creating independent institutions to serve their respective governments.

It may be argued that Adham's most successful connections were established with his Egyptian counterparts, which allowed him to fashion the 1967 Faisal-Nasser reconciliation. His prowess was so successful that, according to William Powell, "in the 1970s, not without some boastful exaggeration … little happened in [the Israeli intelligence] Mossad, without Kamal Adham's knowing about it within 24 hours."

Adham was trained in the United States and, ironically, may have received course work with General Zvi Zamir, a future head of Mossad, although it was never revealed whether the two men ever met at Langley, Virginia. In the event, his contacts with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) were unusually intimate.

Although it is nearly impossible to recount Kamal Adham's numerous intelligence exploits, two particular episodes deserve attention — his close association with Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and his involvement in the 1977-1978 Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) scandal. Throughout the 1960s, when Saudi Arabia faced the Jamal Abdul Nasser challenge, Riyadh responded to the rising wave of Arab nationalism by emphasising core Islamic values, which were the basic foundations of its foreign policy.

Rejecting both secularism and socialism, for example, King Faisal supported Yemeni tribes who favoured the monarchy and, in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, sought a rapprochement with Egypt to end the Arab Cold War (1957-1967). The man entrusted with this strategy was none other than Adham who had established a valuable friendship with vice-president Sadat. Adham further encouraged Sadat after the latter became president in 1970, especially in the aftermath of the 1973 war, which required bold political initiatives.

Sadat needed peace to relieve the pressure that military spending was placing on the Egyptian economy. Yet he desperately needed assurances that any step he took with the US and Israel would not isolate him and, equally important, would not increase his economic vulnerability in the Arab world.

To be sure, Jimmy Carter made Sadat specific promises but the contemporary pharaoh knew that Washington would almost automatically side with Israel. Cairo sought meaningful assurances from his Arab allies, which were delivered by Adham, who encouraged Sadat to commit to the Camp David Accords.

In fact, Adham may have orchestrated Sadat's historic visit to Occupied Jerusalem in November 1977, which literally unleashed a series of political tsunamis that are still reverberating today. What is less known are the Saudi intelligence chief's subsequent resourceful negotiations — representing Faisal, of course — with hesitant Arab leaders who perceived Sadat's actions with reservations.

Adham painstakingly encouraged several Arab political figures not to repudiate Sadat for agreeing to peace with Israel. At the time, and in the aftermath of major popular convulsions, Arab rulers and presidents were highly critical of Sadat but, in private, supported him. Consequently, Sadat received assurances from Adham, together with concrete evidence of collective backing from other Gulf Arab states. His Egyptian accomplishments notwithstanding, and at about the same time, Adham was mired in the BCCI scandal.

Although there may have been a link between the two, few acknowledged a linkage and fewer commented on Saudi Arabia's motivations. In the event, the John Kerry Senate Committee Report that delved into BCCI concluded that "Adham was at the same time in business with a retired CIA station chief [Raymond H. Close] whose activities caused people in the US and Saudi governments to question whether he was truly ‘retired', acting as an intermediary for the US in negotiations regarding Camp David and acting as a phoney ‘lead shareholder' in a takeover of the largest bank in the nation's capital on behalf of BCCI."

The bank in question was First American. And Close, who was the CIA's station chief for Saudi Arabia for years, chose to immediately work for Adham upon leaving the CIA in 1977. What were their relationships and how much coordination existed between Adham and Close are impossible to determine. Suffice it to say, as Jeff Gerth reported in The New York Times: "In the case of Raymond H. Close … former government officials say his actions, while in the CIA and since retirement, are often clouded in mystery. In the first place, some think Mr Close may still be working for the CIA in some capacity, although he officially retired in 1977. They add that a further complicating factor is that some Saudis privately share the same perception."

Adham befriended some of Washington's most powerful men, including Clark Clifford, the former defence secretary under Lyndon Johnson and a prominent attorney for BCCI, and Robert Altman, a lawyer representing president Carter's director of Office of Management and Budget, Bert Lance.

Regrettably, these men were also implicated in the BCCI scandal, among others. Of course, Adham was on intimate speaking terms with president Carter and his director of Central Intelligence, admiral Stansfield Turner, but he protected them until the end. No matter how convoluted some of his policy initiatives were, including supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of that hapless country, Adham remained loyal to crown and country.

Ironically, though George W. Bush — who was CIA director before be became the 41st president of the US — once denied even knowing Kamal Adham, the Saudi never turned his back on his allies. He acknowledged that Washington helped to modernise Saudi intelligence during Bush's tenure and, in exchange, Adham facilitated American-Pakistani contacts at the height of the Cold War when Islamabad was channelling US aid to the mujahideen and Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Moreover, he managed the super-sensitive Pakistan nuclear portfolio for Washington, as American legal prohibitions concerning the sale of military equipment to the South Asian country were channelled through his good office. Whether Pakistan received sophisticated American military technology via BCCI was another super-sensitive question that will probably be revealed once archival materials are unearthed. Suffice it to say that Adham played a role.

In the end, Adham too knew far too much to be trifled with, which explains why American prosecutors entered into a plea bargain. At the time, Justice Department officials were not eager to secure an indictment, preferring instead to work out a deal with the District Attorney of New York. Few wanted to know how Pakistan, perhaps through BCCI, came to possess such military capacity when a military embargo was in place. Kamal Adham was certainly aware of what BCCI accomplished and for whom.


Though few pictures exist of Adham, press accounts from the late 1970s refer to him as the "godfather of Middle East intelligence", which often carries a negative connotation.

In fact, while he maintained close ties with several Western and Arab intelligence agencies, Adham was far more than a liaison. To be sure, he served the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its rulers with distinction, often carrying out delicate missions that may well have involved questionable financial deals. But he did so to advance intrinsic Saudi, and indirectly, Arab interests.

As Bob Woodward described in his 1987 book, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987, "relations between the CIA and the Saudi intelligence service were generally good, going back to the days when the legendary and enormously wealthy Kamal Adham had been its head".

Woodward opined that "in 1970, the Saudis had provided then Egyptian vice-president Sadat with a regular income", and while "it was impossible to determine where Saudi interests in these arrangements ended and American CIA interests began", he concluded that Adham played a critical role to bring the two sides closer to each other.

Like the roles played by other intelligence officers, Adham's responsibilities in Saudi and Arab history were discreet, not only because he practised the quintessence of behind-the-scenes politics but also because he actually believed that genuine leaders needed to rely on trusted aides who might, sometimes, be called upon to take the fall for their policy choices. It was in that tradition that Adham sacrificed his reputation as he attended to his nation's core interest.

Accomplished in the art of persuasion

Kamal Adham was born in 1929 in Istanbul to a Turkish mother and an Albanian father who took him to Jeddah when he was one year old. He attended Victoria College in Cairo at about the same time as King Hussain of Jordan, future Jordanian prime minister Zaid Al Rifai, Saudi businessman Adnan Khashoggi, the actor Omar Sharif and several sons of Mohammad Bin Laden. Through his half-sister, the future Queen Iffat Al Thunayan (who married King Faisal Bin Abdul Aziz), Adham had a ready entry into Al Saud inner circles. An innately intelligent person, the young Kamal excelled in school and attended Cambridge University in Britain, along with several members of the Saudi royal family. Adham was appointed by Faisal as the first (and only) ethnic non-Arab as chief of Saudi intelligence, a post he held until 1979 when King Khalid replaced him with a long-time protégé, Turki Al Faisal. An astute businessman, Adham became a multi-millionaire in 1957, when he brokered an offshore oil concession between the kingdom and Japan's Arabian Oil Company.

Various sources reported that Adham was routinely accustomed to take "a six-figure cut" on most contracts in exchange for unprecedented access to the kingdom's highest decision-makers. In particular, he was involved in the huge Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) scandal, when he was accused of playing a key role in the secret and illegal takeover of the First American bank. In 1992, Adham pleaded guilty in the US under a plea bargain with prosecutors, acknowledging that he had been a BCCI front man in the US, and cooperated with US law enforcement investigations. He was fined $105 million but received a suspended sentence.

One of his sons, Sultan, directs the family conglomerate — Adham Industries — in Egypt, which includes several construction, design and industrial businesses along with a real estate branch. Sultan owns with his brother Faisal Kamal Adham several other companies headquartered in Jeddah, including Saudi Elevator, Areen Travel, Fressinet, Al Kayan Trading, MCC and Al Arabi Decoration. A well-known philanthropist, Adham made a significant donation to the Carter Centre at Emory University and the American University of Cairo (AUC).

As a member of the AUC board of trustees and the principal benefactor of the AUC Adham Centre for Television Journalism, the only institution that bears his name, Adham was also supportive of this body's media efforts. He encouraged young Arabs to acquire savvy television skills, persuaded that Arabs were responsible to write their own history, even if circumstances required them to cooperate with competitors. He passed away in Cairo on October 29, 1999. ­­

Dr Joseph A. Kéchichian is an author, most recently of Faysal: Saudi Arabia's King for All Seasons (2008)