When I first tried to interview Sheik Mohammed al-Fassi last February in Nassau, I didn't get an audience, but I did recieve a $2,000 Rolex watch. An assistant told me it was in gratitude for my interest in His Excellency.
It took me 12 hours to return the watch, so reluctant were any of the sheik's employes to accept the return of a gift given by their boss. It was even more difficult to communicate with al-Fassi.
After some negotiation, it was agreed that I would present his staff with a typewritten list of questions that al-Fassi would answer overnight.
At 5:30 a.m., a messenger telephoned my room from the lobby of my hotel. I stumbled downstairs to find a middle-aged man looking like a Boston professor: silver hair, glasses and a tweed sport coat. He declined to give his name, though I later learned he was a Miami medical doctor in service to the sheik. Outside the Loew's Harbor Cove front door, a white limousine cooled its engine in the humid Paradise Island dawn.
"Sheik al-Fassi was most impressed with your questions," began the messenger. I was told that al-Fassi had just finished my questions in broken English and Arabic. But he wished to have his answers translated. So if I returned to Washington, al-Fassi would send a jet to return me to Paradise Island where I'd receive my answers.
I declined the offer and asked if there wasn't an easier way; we eventually decided to communicate by Telex. But in a domestic variation on the "hurry-up-and-wait" theme so well known to American business executives in the Middle East, it was six weeks and many promises before I received answers.
When they finally arrived, the answers were incomplete, cryptic and vague. It was not until early May, during his visit to Washington, that al-Fassi consented to an interview. He said he was still wounded at my return of the watch, despite my note that acknowledged the well-known generosity of the Saudis while carefully explaining that I would be fired if I accepted anything of value from the subject of an article.