Mouna Ayyoub: The French-Lebanese Ex-Wife Of A Saudi

Money can’t buy happiness or love that’s for sure. Tara Umm Omar

What Money Can’t Buy

By Scott Macleod/Cairo
With reporting by Patricia Strathern/Paris
July 31, 2000, Vol. 156 No. 5
In a scathing book, super-shopper Mouna Ayoub claims her life married to a rich Saudi was hell.
A beautiful young woman goes to Paris, the city of romance. Soon she meets a handsome and wealthy man of the world who, on bended knee, professes undying devotion. She is swept away to live in a far-off land, lavished with jewels, surrounded by servants and blessed with children.
The beginning of Mouna Ayoub’s story sounds happy enough. But as she goes on to write in La Vérité, or The Truth (Michel Lafon; 230 pages), an autobiography that shot to the top of France’s bestseller lists last week, her 18-year marriage to a Middle Eastern billionaire was no fairy tale. In a juicy portrait of Saudi Arabia’s super-rich petro-sheiks, she recounts how she was seduced by all the baubles that money could buy, only to discover herself living in a gilded cage, trapped by a patriarchal desert society with zero tolerance for modern women. Her complaints — which she is making public during a bitter divorce dispute — may not surprise anyone familiar with Saudi customs that, for example, require women to be veiled from head to toe and forbid them from driving cars. But seldom have outsiders been treated to such a scathing, firsthand account of Arabia’s unhappy wives.
Ayoub, 43, may be familiar to the readers of French gossip magazines as an insatiable buyer of haute couture dresses. Ordering up frocks at thousands of dollars a pop, she housed her wardrobe in a 500-sq-m climate-controlled room. She entertained celebrity friends at her town house in the exclusive Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, or sailing the Mediterranean aboard her $30 million yacht.
Ayoub acknowledges that she owes her extravagant lifestyle in part to the wealth of her husband, whom she gives the pseudonym Amir Al-Tharik in the book. He made a fortune building hotels, conference centers and mosques on government contracts.
But if her tale provides a rare look at the extravagance often wrought by unimagined wealth, it also serves as a disturbing manifesto against the extreme restrictions imposed on women by some ultraconservative Arab societies.
A Lebanese Christian who converted to Islam and became a Saudi citizen when she married, Ayoub met Al-Tharik at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Paris in 1976. Soon after they wed, she says, her husband overheard her laughing with foreign male guests at a dinner party in Saudi Arabia. From across the room, according to Ayoub, he thundered, “Shut up!” Sometimes Ayoub’s attempts to circumvent the traditions that keep Saudi women wrapped up were comical: once, in Tunisia, she disobeyed her husband’s edict not to leave the hotel, only to run into him at a china shop, where his colleagues did not recognize her because they had never seen her unveiled before. During summers on the family yacht, she would venture ashore disguised as a member of the crew.
In the book she claims it is common for Saudi men go on drinking and gambling sprees to Las Vegas, and to brothels in Europe. Wives, who risk being stoned for adultery, must be available for sex whenever their husbands might summon them to the bedroom. But not all women are leading wholly subservient lives, Ayoub says. Despite the risk of a death sentence if caught, some sleep with their Filipino drivers, or seek sex partners during Paris outings.
Ayoub decided to break away after one of her sons became ill with leukemia and was treated in the U.S. As she recalls it, through her daily interaction with the doctors and nurses she became transformed from being in effect another member of her husband’s household staff to a valued partner in her child’s care. Soon she was driving around town — in her own Porsche — and dressing like her new heroine, Madonna. After she returned to Saudi Arabia, she confessed to her husband that she had fallen in love with an American fitness instructor. She claims he replied that adulterous women deserve to die, a response that, she says, prompted her to attempt suicide. In 1996, Ayoub moved out, Al-Tharik remarried, and their five children went off to boarding school.
Ayoub says she decided to publish La Vérité after a Lebanese magazine began a series of articles portraying her as a slut, a “Madame Bovary of the desert.” Her former husband declined to comment on the book, but his lawyer did not rule out future action for violation of privacy.
Ayoub fears that her book will lead to further estrangement from her children, who by Saudi custom remain in their father’s care. But she hopes that, in addition to giving them her side of the story, La Vérité will show other Arab women that they can exist without their husbands. And if anybody still wonders whether money can buy happiness, Ayoub offers a convincing perspective. Her answer seems to be no, but it helps.


As A Saudi Wife I Had It All
Scottish Daily Record And Sunday

As a Saudi wife I had it all.. diamonds, furs and misery; She wanted freedom from her husband’s vast wealth.

THE ex-wife of one of the world’s richest men has revealed how her life of luxury was a “nightmare”.

For 18 years, Mouna Ayoub enjoyed fabulous palaces, yachts, diamonds and pounds 100,000 dresses.

Known as one of the world’s greatest shoppers, who spent more than pounds 1million a year on Paris haute couture, Mouna appeared to have a dream existence after collecting a reputed $25million divorce settlement.

But now, the 43-year-old waitress-turned- millionairess has lifted the lid on her life with Saudi businessman Nasser al-Rashid, the world’s 12th richest man.

Mouna, now living in Paris, revealed: “I was imprisoned in a gilded cage. People don’t understand – they say I was covered in gold and diamonds and dresses and cars.

“But I wanted to end my life – I wanted to plunge into nothingness. We were bathing in luxury and opulence, but all I dreamed of was a simple family life.”

In an explosive new book entitled La Verite – The Truth – Mouna reveals how Islamic law meant she had to be hidden in long black robes and a veil in public, while dancing, cinemas, restaurants, make-up and laughter were all banned.

She claims Islamic life is based on hypocrisy, where men drink, gamble and frequent brothels in defiance of the Koran, while their bored, shut-away wives have sex with their chauffeurs.

Mouna said: “Money has always been my objective because it makes life more beautiful and brings freedom. But when you are rejected by an entire society, all the wealth of the world would not suffice.

“I was different from other women in Saudi Arabia and that was my biggest mistake.”

The mother-of-five’s revelations have so shocked the Islamic community that her husband tried to stop the book being published, but his demands were thrown out last week by a French court.

Lebanese-born Mouna – who converted to Islam after marrying – met her husband while working as an 18-year-old waitress in Paris.

Then, al-Rashid was a promising engineer 20 years her senior. But as his career took off, he was propelled to dizzy heights, becoming one of the Saudi royal court’s closest advisors.

The couple quickly became the darlings of high society, entertaining Prince Albert of Monaco on their $20million sailing boat and dining with Prince Charles at Buckingham Palace.

The couple went on to marry and divorce three times, eventually splitting for good in 1995.

At one point, Mouna owned four Aston Martins and bought at least 50 couture outfits every year.

When her husband returned from business trips, he came laden with Gucci shoes, Louis Vuitton suitcases and some of the world’s finest jewels.

But the marriage, she claims, left her so scarred that she “never stopped crying”.

Mouna said: “I felt myself to be unjustly treated and powerless. I was given the most sumptuous dresses and accumulated a huge collection of jewels and yet I was only wearing my black Arab cloak and veil.

“On the one hand, no luxury was refused me – on the other, I had to continually hide myself away.”

When she first arrived in Riyadh, Mouna claims al-Rashid insisted she don black robes and a veil before she left the aircraft.

At an Embassy party, he screamed at her for chatting to an American senator instead of sitting silently with the other women.

On another occasion, Mouna claimed, she was spat at for taking off her veil in her car to kiss her baby son.

But still, she says, she was trapped.

On her first request for a divorce, Mouna says her husband, who suspected her of having an affair, warned her the penalty for female adultery in Saudi Arabia was death.

That night, she took an overdose of Valium and, emerging from hospital three days later, started a long addiction to Prozac – and shopping.

She said: “Haute couture became my lifebelt. I could flee my daily nightmares for a luxury, cotton-wool atmosphere.”

In 1995, after two attempts at separation, Mouna wrote to her husband, saying: “Marriage is more to me than private jets and yachts.”

Mouna says “garage sales” of some of her possessions helped boost her fortune and she still regularly tops up her couture collection and does work “for charity” in her spare time.

But she claims to have become the victim of a hate campaign in the Middle East and lives in fear of reprisals by a hit squad of Islamic militants.

She said: “I have been the victim of a slanderous campaign in the Lebanese press, probably fed by my ex-husband.

“I am criticised for everything I do. They even say I am pro-Israeli, which could put my life in danger in Lebanon if I choose to return.”

Divorce meant she lost custody of her children and her four sons refuse to speak to her. Only her daughter sympathises with her rebellion against the lot of Arab women.

But Mouna says it is her duty to reveal the dark secrets of Middle Eastern life.

She claims Saudi women live like Barbie dolls, ignored by their husbands, but expected to be ready to answer the call to the master’s bedroom at any time.

She revealed: “It was forbidden to speak to men, forbidden to see female friends not approved by the husband, forbidden to play sport, forbidden to laugh or speak loudly in public.

“But Saudi men have no idea what happens in their harems. When a woman is crafty enough, she can lead a shameless life under her prudish veil of silence.

“Some sleep with their Filipino chauffeurs or go on the town in Paris, hunting for western lovers – all with great discretion, of course.”

She says of Saudi men: “Even those with fundamentalist reputations play free and easy with the strictures of the Koran, while their wives, under pain of being repudiated or whipped, follow the rules of imprisonment and anonymity.

“This cruel hypocrisy makes me deeply indignant.”

After her divorce, she splashed out pounds 3.6million on a 75-metre yacht – then spent another pounds 10million on repairs and interior decoration.

Mouna said: “Money is the key to future freedom. My husband says I left Saudi Arabia with a fortune that doesn’t belong to me.

“But no-one came to Saudi to do anything but make money, so I thought it was a pity to be there and not amass some of my own.”


By John Lichfield in Paris
Sunday, 18 June 2000
The ex-wife of a Saudi multi-millionaire says her life is under threat after telling a sensational story of life behind the veil.
Mouna Ayoub has invented a new literary genre. Her book, which may be banned in France this week, is not a “sex and shopping” novel. It is a women’s liberation and shopping biography. It is about Middle East gender politics and shopping; women in Arab society and shopping; Islam and shopping. Lots of very expensive shopping.
La Verite (The Truth) is at times a moving and revealing book, an account of Ms Ayoub’s 20-year marriage to an unimaginably wealthy Saudi businessman.
On Tuesday a court in the Paris suburbs will decide if it breaches French privacy laws. Ms Ayoub believes that her life is already under threat from “religious fanatics”, for daring to speak out as an independent woman and ex-Saudi wife, and for revealing some of the seamier and funnier sides of life in Riyadh.
Her book is the story of a Lebanese Christian woman who refused to play the role of the pampered but oppressed, indulged but cloistered, wife of an Arab aristocrat and autocrat. It is an account, from the inside, of the absurd collision between religious fundamentalism and uncontrollable wealth in post-Seventies Saudi Arabia.
But sympathy and admiration for the author is often sorely tried. Ms Ayoub, 43, scatters designer labels and jet-set names across the pages like confetti. She reveals, casually, that at one point in the early Nineties, she owned four Aston Martins and a 500sq metre air-conditioned room in which she kept her 1,000-plus haute couture outfits.
Ms Ayoub divorced her husband for the third and final time (by fax) four years ago. She has now established herself as a fabulously wealthy woman in her own right. She is still the most eager and obsessive buyer of haute couture in the world (at least 50 outfits a year, at £30,000-£100,000 a time).
She says she wrote her book to explain her actions to her five estranged children and to answer the increasingly vicious and scurrilous allegations against her in the Arab press.
Lebanese and Saudi newspapers accuse her, among other things, of being the “Madame Bovary of the Desert”; of “stabbing all Arab men in their virility”; of “wearing the clothes of a prostitute”.
Her ex-husband accuses her of siphoning off part of his fortune, something Ms Ayoub denies but also, in effect, admits. In her 235-page book (Michel Lafon, Ffr119), already available in some Paris shops despite this week’s court case, she says that she held, with his knowledge, multi-million-pound garage sales in Riyadh in which she sold off some of the jewellery, pottery, clothes and furniture he had bought for her. (Only the “ugly stuff”, she points out; the “artistic” things she kept.)
Her husband (portrayed affectionately for the most part) would come back from business trips laden with Louis Vuitton suitcases, scores of pairs of Gucci shoes, dozens of televisions and video players. He did not want any of them; he just liked to buy them. She sold those off, too, in her regular sales, after Friday prayers, in the garage of her Riyadh palace.
“The money from these sales was the basis of my fortune,” she writes. After investing some in real estate deals in the US and Lebanon, she estimates her personal wealth at something less than £300m. Not bad for a garage sale.
Mouna Ayoub was an impoverished Lebanese student and waitress when she met her husband in Paris in 1976. (In the book she calls him Amir Al-Tharik but his name has been changed to try to circumvent French laws on privacy.)
She insists that she married for love. “Amir” was not particularly wealthy at the time, she says. He was an engineer and his wealth came from the oil-boom rebuilding of Riyadh in the Eighties.
Ms Ayoub also insists that she had no clear idea when she married, aged 19, what kind of life would await a Saudi wife. As an intelligent, middle-class, liberated, well-read Arab woman (as she also presents herself) this is rather difficult to swallow.
Saudi women in the Seventies and Eighties, she found, existed behind closed doors like living Barbie dolls, ignored by their husbands for days at a time but expected to be ready to answer the call to the master’s bedroom at any moment.
“Woe betide any spouse who was not available. Between times, they ran the house and rarely went out because most shops were banned to them. They hid under their veils and were banned from wearing make-up underneath … It was forbidden to speak to men, forbidden to see female friends not approved by the husband, forbidden to play sport, forbidden to laugh, or speak loudly in public.”
Ms Ayoub tells how she visited a street market and touched a pair of shoes on a stall. A stick came from nowhere to rap her over the knuckles. A member of the religious police, “the brigade for the repression of vice and the propagation of virtue”, told her she was forbidden to show her hand in public.
As much as anything, she says, it was her husband’s long periods of indifference towards her and the crude hypocrisy underlying the patriarchal Saudi society that drove her crazy. (Almost literally, she admits. She was one of the first regular users of Prozac.)
“Saudi men have no idea what happens in their ‘harems’,” she writes at one point, somewhat contradicting her earlier complaints. “When a woman is crafty enough, she can lead a shameless life under her prudish veil of silence. Some sleep with their Filipino chauffeurs … or go on the town in Paris, hunting for western lovers. All with great discretion, of course.”
Saudi men, even “those with great reputations as fundamentalists”, are just as hypocritical, she claims. “They drink whisky, play blackjack or poker, frequent western brothels and hold brazen parties in European capitals.” None of these allegations is new but they have never been made before by someone who was once married to a leading member of Saudi society.
By the Nineties, Ms Ayoub had won, or been granted, an extraordinary degree of freedom for a Saudi wife.
She and her husband settled into a love-hate-love relationship, in which she seems to have spent most of her time outside her veil, on the ski slopes or floating on the Med in her husband’s yacht, the Princess Mouna entertaining Hollywood stars.
They had five children, divorced twice and remarried twice, before divorcing for an irrevocable third time in 1996. By then Ms Ayoub was an established, and, as she admits, slightly ridiculous, member of the jet set, famous for her boisterous manner and gaudy jewels.
After her final divorce, she made a great splash by buying and rebuilding, for £14m, the Phocéa, the four-masted yacht that once belonged to the disgraced French tycoon, Bernard Tapie.
Is she happy at last? No. She admits that, quite apart from her grief at losing her children, she feels as much “imprisoned by wealth” as she felt imprisoned by her veil. This may be the most moving part of the book. In the end, one comes away feeling that Mouna Ayoub’s complaint is against the fatuity of fame and riches almost as much as it is a revolt against the misogyny of the Saudi brand of Islam.


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Tara Umm Omar

American married to a Saudi.

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