Saudi King’s ‘Secret Wife’ in State Immunity Test Case

In a decision which established that the legal immunity of foreign heads of state does not extend beyond the grave, a woman who claims that she was a teenage bride of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has won a crucial round of her High Court fight for a slice of the deceased monarch’s multi-billion-pound fortune.

Janan Harb claims that King Fahd, then a prince, married her when she was 19 in 1968 and promised to look after her financially for the rest of her life. She says that the King, who acceded to the Saudi throne in 1982, was as good as his word until he suffered a devastating stroke in 1995. He died in 2005.

Mrs Harb’s lawyers allege that the King’s son, Prince Abdul Aziz, met her in London in 2003 and agreed to honour his sick father’s promise. They say that a contractual agreement was reached whereby she would receive a lump sum of £12 million and have two valuable London properties transferred to her.

She is asking the High Court to require Prince Aziz to make good on that alleged bargain; however, he denies that any such agreement was reached. Arguments that Mrs Harb’s claim was in any event barred by operation of the State Immunity Act 1978 were raised as a preliminary issue in the case.

Prince Aziz’s lawyers argued that, even if he had struck a deal with Mrs Harb – which he denied – he had done so on behalf of his sovereign father. King Fahd was ‘the personal embodiment of the state itself’ until his death and Mrs Harb’s case was an ‘intolerable affront’ to Saudi Arabian sovereignty.

However, in ruling that the High Court had jurisdiction to consider the matter, the judge held that King Fahd’s sovereign immunity ran out on, or soon after, his death. He observed, “I do not accept that a sovereign who dies in office remains the embodiment of the state once deceased. On the contrary, a new head of state springs up, either instantly in the case of an hereditary monarchy or after due process in the case of an elected head of state.

“This is nothing to do with whether the recently deceased head of state continues to hold a place in the hearts of the nation or is still regarded by his or her former subjects as an exemplar of all that is best about that nation’s character. We are not talking about embodying the state in that sense but in a more technical sense. There is no room in this doctrine for two embodiments of the state to exist at the same time, one dead and one living.”

There was no good reason for departing from the fundamental tenet of international law that access to justice should not be denied and the judge concluded, “I accept that that principle creates, as it were, a default position in favour of Mrs Harb…I dismiss the Prince’s application and hold that he cannot rely on a defence of state immunity to defeat Mrs Harb’s claim.”