a personal memoir

Sheikh Ghaith Pharaon—a most colorful Saudi bizjet customer

By Alex Kvassay
Former salesman for Beech and Learjet

A notoriously camera-shy businessman, Sheikh Ghaith Pharaon was a key figure in the scandal that enveloped the Pakistani bank BCCS.

Ghaith Pharaon was—and still is, as far as I know—a colorful gentleman with so many business interests that I only knew of a few of them.

According to Wikipedia, his father was an ambassador. Locally, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I was told that his father was the king's personal physician. Who knows? At any rate, he was well connected.

Pharaon was the first Learjet retail customer in Saudi Arabia. Of course, he wanted to be the Learjet distributor right away as well. Considering his many occupations, we were lucky that he actually sold one of our airplanes to the head of the Saudi secret service (who, by the way, already owned 2 Boeing 707s).

In 1972, I had a call from Pharaon, who was in Houston TX. He said, "I need a pilot right away for my customer."

I just happened to know that Hans den Herder—a former Royal Netherlands Air Force and EJA pilot—was in Houston and was looking for a job. I told him: "Hans, get your ass over to the Shamrock Hilton and see Sheikh Pharaon right away." Shortly afterwards, Pharaon called me again, saying he still needed a pilot for his customer.

"What's wrong with Hans den Herder?" I asked. "Nothing," he said. "I fired my pilot and hired Hans to become my pilot."

This worked out very well. Soon Hans was not only Pharaon's chief pilot but the manager of his fleet, which at that time consisted of 2 BAC 1-11s and 7 Learjets.
I crossed the Atlantic with Pharaon once from Washington DC to Paris in the BAC 1-11. During the dinner I sold him 2 used Learjet 24s from Duncan Aviation's stock. Pharaon and his number 2 wife, a Greek lady, were the other passengers.

The chief pilot's wife Ursula was the stewardess. I had my private bedroom with shower and on arrival at LBG (Le Bourget, Paris, France) we parked right in front of my office. But the Sheikh was upset that we'd had to land at YQX (Gander NL, Canada) for fuel, and shortly afterwards he replaced the BAC 1-11s with 2 long-range modified Boeing 727s.

He needed all these airplanes to carry his customers around. Once a year he also hired a large cruise ship to take his friends and customers on a private Mediterranean cruise.
Pharaon told me about several of his business operations.

One involved his selling 10,000 school buses, made in Alabama, to the Saudi government, which used them to carry the 2 million or so visitors to the Hadj—the pilgrimage to Mecca every Muslim who is capable must perform at least once in a lifetime. Then Pharaon bought the bus factory making them, and a shipping line to bring them to Saudi Arabia. They also transported his prefabricated motels, which came in modules.

He showed me one. The rooms were completely furnished, beds made up and hangers in the closets. All that was needed was to pile them up and connect the utilities.
Pharaon's good luck ended when he was involved in some deal with the Spanish government.

Saudi King Fahd was very friendly with the Span­ish authorities (he had several palaces in Spain) and when the Span­iards complained that Pharaon had demanded a commission on the deal, the king summoned him to the royal palace in Riyadh. According to the rumors, when the king informed him of the Spanish complaints, Pharaon answered, "Your sons are doing the same."

As the story goes, the king slapped him and told him to get out. Such stories get around fast and Pharaon's great influence has evaporated.

Pharaon also got involved with a Pakistani bank—BCCS—which turned into a major international scandal in the late 1980s. I understand Pharaon is still wanted by the FBI in Saudi Arabia and some European countries.

After my retirement I lost contact with the sheikh, but I heard that he was living in Syria. By coincidence, I met him twice during this period—both times in hotel elevators, in Rome and in Damascus. The world is a small place when you fly a Learjet.

Alex Kvassay sold corporate aircraft for 30 years, earning a reputation as the industry's premier international salesman of his day. Now 85, retired and living in Wichita KS, Kvassay continues to travel for pleasure—recent solo trips have taken him to Libya, North Korea and Cuba.