Nabila yacht in Town & Country magazine

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Adnan Khashoggi and the 86m superyacht that nearly broke a shipyard

23 November 2022• Written by Sophia Wilson

Famed for his lavish lifestyle that garnered him a reputation as the “richest man in the world” during the 1980s, Adnan Khashoggi pushed decadence to new levels with the build of 86 metre Nabila. Sophia Wilson discovers how the flamboyant Saudi arms trader shaped superyacht history

“People thought of Adnan Khashoggi as the richest man in the world because of his lifestyle but in reality, it was all smoke and mirrors,” says Jonathan Beckett, chief executive of Burgess. “He was a charming man and that is how he got to where he was in life. He charmed everybody, be it Elizabeth Taylor or whoever.”

Adnan Khashoggi in 1992
Credit: Sippa/Shutterstock Editorial

Born in Mecca, Khashoggi was the eldest son of the personal physician to King Ibn Saud, and he made his “billions” by being involved in some of the biggest arms deals of the 20th century. He is rumoured to have first noticed the financial benefits of facilitating connections while at boarding school in Egypt. The story goes that he introduced two of his classmates’ fathers – an Egyptian who made towels and sheets and a Libyan who was in the market for those items – and took a healthy commission.

His personal wealth began to amass quickly in the 1970s when, after the Arab- Israeli war, Saudi Arabia and other states began an extensive armament programme. Khashoggi became the middleman between America and Saudi Arabia for these arms purchases and was not shy about displaying his wealth. In New York he knocked together 16 apartments to make one grand residence, he owned three lavishly refitted commercial-size jets, and in the late 1970s he decided he needed a superyacht to add to his portfolio.

Credit: Bannenberg and Rowell

Having bought his first yacht when he was just 18, he would not be content with just any superyacht – he wanted to build the largest yacht in the world. He turned to Italian yard Benetti to make his 86-metre vision a reality and employed the services of the late, legendary designer Jon Bannenberg. “I think he naturally gravitated towards [Jon] because he was absolutely at the top of his game at the time,” recalls Jon’s son Dickie Bannenberg, who was a teenager during the build. “I don’t know the exact circumstances in which they met but I do remember my dad talking about lots of trips to see clients in the Middle East in general. He used to have to be prepared to wait around for hours, sitting in a Mercedes with the air con running until he was suddenly summoned at 11 o’clock at night.”

Credit: Bannenberg and Rowell

The result of Bannenberg’s design was not only the largest private yacht in the world, but also one of the most distinctive. With five decks incorporating 11 suites (each named after a precious jewel) and a helipad, Nabila featured modern lines that were complemented by her futuristic silver hull. “The yacht was so different at the time, like so many of my dad’s projects, but that one especially so. With the silver hull, the white paintwork and those distinctive angled air funnels and air exhausts, she was very prominent for a long time,” says Dickie.

Nabila splashed at Benetti in 1979
Credit: Benetti

For the interiors, Khashoggi turned to Italian designers Luigi Sturchio and it was here that his ambitions were truly allowed to run wild. The yacht was swathed in gold and diamonds, with added touches including chinchilla bedspreads, an enormous bathtub carved out of a huge piece of marble with gold taps (naturally), and a crystal-covered piano that was reportedly gifted to Khashoggi’s wife by Liberace. Khashoggi also wanted the yacht to be completely self-sufficient so included additions such as a three-chair hair salon and a hospital with an operating theatre.

For the design he turned to Jon Bannenberg, who was at the top of his game at the time
Credit: Bannenberg and Rowell

Nabila was finally launched at Benetti’s Viareggio shipyard in 1980, where Khashoggi’s then only daughter Nabila christened the yacht. Dickie was at the event and recalls there being both an Italian priest and imam on hand to bless the yacht. “I remember it as an absolute extravaganza,” Dickie says. “There was a seemingly never-ending stream of white Mercedes limos and big cakes, and Los Paraguayos were serenading the guests with maracas.” At his father’s instruction, Dickie had worn his school rowing blazer, which was bright pink, to fit in with the crowd. “It wasn’t very cool in hindsight,” he jokes.

The Nabila build might have been Khashoggi’s pride and joy, but it proved to be disastrous for the shipyard. “Nabila was a loss for Benetti,” explains Paolo Vitelli, president of the Azimut-Benetti Group. “After the delivery of the yacht, despite its success, Benetti struggled to survive, and the large number of debts led the shipyard to file for bankruptcy in 1984.” The bankruptcy prompted Vitelli, who had already established Azimut Yachts, to step in. “Azimut was a great company specialising in advanced composite production up to 40 metres and I immediately saw the opportunity to enter the business of luxury steel yachts. It completed the group offering and allowed us to enter a segment of the market for super-rich people, which was not easy to access.”

The owner’s en suite, with onyx floor and gold taps
Credit: Benetti

Now, almost 40 years later, Vitelli doesn’t underestimate the role that Nabila played in shaping Azimut-Benetti. “It was a fantastic challenge to relaunch Benetti, and Nabila for sure was a symbol for many years of luxury, quality and technology,” he says. “It was only in the 1990s that the market for gigayachts began to develop and for many years Nabila remained the symbol of a new conception of luxury.”

For Khashoggi, his life of excess continued on Nabila. Surrounded by a harem of “pleasure wives” he threw lavish parties where the guest list ranged from politicians and royalty to Hollywood stars. His daughter featured in an extravagant photo shoot on board that appeared in Town and Country, and in 1983 the yacht was featured in the James Bond film Never Say Never Again.

Credit: Benetti

Alongside his showpiece Nabila, Khashoggi also owned a second yacht called Khalidia that he enjoyed spending quieter time on board. However, this led to confusion in Monaco one night when Khashoggi had gone ashore to the casino and both yachts were under orders to be in Portofino by the next morning. “At 3.00am, both captains cast off, each presuming Khashoggi was on the other boat when in fact he was still in the casino,” recalls Beckett. Khashoggi reportedly arrived at the harbour to discover not only had both his yachts departed but his fleet of black Mercedes (that were always in tow) had also headed to Portofino.

Credit: Ergun Cagatay/Gamma Rapho via Getty Images

Despite these sorts of tales, the crew remember a more organised time on board. Gino Battaglia, who is now captain on board 73 metre Plan B, initially joined Nabila as a deckhand and spent five years as crew. “It was a great school for a career in superyachts,” he says. “It was an incredibly high level of 24/7 service for guests, with watch rotations and elegant uniforms, including a tie and jacket for the evening.”

The highlights of Captain Battaglia’s time on board include tendering models, actors and other VIPs to and from the yacht as well as meeting King Juan Carlos. However, he also has fond memories of “the boss”. “My most beautiful memory is that of Mr K, a charismatic and generous person, who was always kind to the crew,” he says.

Her angled air exhausts flanking her helipad make her stand out even today as Kingdom 5KR
Credit: Benetti

For his 50th birthday Khashoggi gave a party to remember at his vast estate in Marbella – he was gifted a lion cub by his brother and Shirley Bassey sang Happy Birthday to him – but soon afterwards his financial situation began to unravel. “At the time Khashoggi was the fix-it man for the Sultan of Brunei,” recalls Beckett. “The Sultan lent him $60 million and Khashoggi pledged the yacht against the loan. I think the yacht actually cost $24 or $25 million to build back in the day but Khashoggi had very cleverly got someone to value the yacht at $60 million.” When Khashoggi was unable to pay back the loan the Sultan took possession of the yacht, and in 1987 Burgess was one of three companies appointed as exclusive agents for its sale.

Beckett, who was working in a tiny office in Piccadilly at the time, remembers choosing to send one of 200 brochures of the yacht to a Donald Trump after spotting his name in the Financial Times. Out of the blue he got a response and Beckett was ordered to be in New York by the next morning, forcing him to splash £3,000 on a Concorde flight. “When I got there, Trump asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘I’m 29,’ and he said, ‘I’ve got a real problem because I don’t do business at this level with people of your age.’”

Donald Trump renamed Nabila Trump Princess;
Credit: Marty Lederhandler/AP/Shutterstock

After ironing out this issue and many calls with the lawyers in Switzerland, Trump made a one-time, sight unseen $30 million offer. “We agreed this price on the phone that same afternoon, but it was all hush hush and I stayed in one of his hotels in New York City,” says Beckett. “I got up in the morning and on the front page of every newspaper, it said ‘Trump buys jewel in the crown from Adnan Khashoggi.’ We hadn’t signed any contracts or anything, but it was like the deal was done. He had self-publicised the sale, but it was very exciting to be mixed up in it all.”

Khashoggi did have one final say in the sale, demanding that a stipulation be added to the contract saying that Trump must change the name of the yacht. “Trump was never going to call it Nabila anyway, but he got a million dollars off agreeing to change it,” says Beckett.

Nabila’s original interiors, designed by Luigi Sturchio
Credit: Benetti

For Khashoggi, things continued to spiral. In 1988 he was arrested in Switzerland and accused of concealing funds in the bankruptcy of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. He was extradited to the United States where he was tried and acquitted, but despite numerous attempts, he never managed to return to the life of grandeur he had once known. “One time years later I was sat next to him on a British Midlands flight from London to Nice and we had a really lovely reminisce about the Nabila days,” recalls Beckett. “I remember him having to ask for extra butter for his bread and thinking about how the mighty had fallen.”

Captain Battaglia, and his wife whom he was on board Nabila with, also had a chance to reminisce with him in his later years. “In 2016, we met Mr K at the thermal baths of Monte Carlo. He was with his nephew, the son of Nabila, and we had immense pleasure talking with him about the good times on Nabila. His eyes were bright; it was a special time for us all.”

Trump Princess’s swimming pool
Credit: Press Impact/Shutterstock

Khashoggi died aged 81 the next year, and while tales of the outrageous partying arms dealer remain the stuff of 1980s legend, his impact on the superyacht industry lives on. Nabila redefined the definition of a superyacht and in doing so shaped household names within the industry, including Benetti, Burgess and Bannenberg. Khashoggi experienced the ultimate fall from grace, but his superyacht did not.

First published in the December 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.