House of Bandar
July 15, 2006
I first met Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz at Buttermilk. Our meeting was nearly precluded by a flamboyant protest I waged against the approval of his house, the same house that recently listed for $135 million – the highest priced house in the U.S., perhaps in the world.It was the winter of 1992, and I had skinned up to the Cliff House at the top of Buttermilk after filling my weekly quota as a reporter/editor at The Aspen Times. I sat at a table where the sun streamed through a picture window framing Pyramid Peak. Donning sunglasses against the glare, I opened the newspaper.Suddenly, a shadow blocked the sun, and a large human form presented itself. “Meester Ahnderzohn?” queried an accented voice that could have come from a Bogart flick. It was Prince Bandar, and he extended his hand to shake mine.Step back another few years to 1989. I was reporting on county government then and got wind of Bandar’s 55,000-square-foot “palace,” which was just in the planning stages. I was incredulous to discover that it would contain 13 bedrooms, 26 bathrooms, and other grandiose appointments. Aspen already defined material excess, but this was off the charts. How, I wondered, could any one person squander so many natural resources in a shameless display of conspicuous consumption?”Enterprise journalism,” a loosely defined job description at The Aspen Times, gave me full license to focus on Bandar’s project, which I did with a mission. I latched onto it for personal reasons, based on a conservationist’s sensibilities right out of Teddy Roosevelt: “We must not rob, by wasteful use of resources, from the generations to come.” This house was robbery at the highest level.Throughout the review process, and following every public hearing, I produced a flow of critical editorials and articles. There were plenty of hearings because the house warranted special review, and I wrote about each one.At the final hearing, in a last, desperate act, I stepped out of my reporter role and made a public comment to a meeting room packed with the prince’s supporters – many of whom would profit from the project. I made my comment with a guitar and a satirical song, which was taped by a reporter and played later on nationwide ABC News.Bandar, who had heard my song, approached me three years later at Buttermilk and graciously invited me and my wife to visit him at his new house. We were mystified by the summons, but at the appointed time we drove through security at Starwood, then followed the winding driveway where surveillance cameras suspended in plexiglass bubbles monitored our approach.Bandar said he was tickled by my song. “It had been a dull week in Washington,” he explained, when someone sent him the ABC spot. He was more tickled by the audacity of my protest. The prince respected brashness because he, too, was brash. Metaphorically, I was invited into his tent, a traditional Bedu means of diffusing animosity.Our meeting was amicable, and it was not the last. Twice more Bandar made a point of greeting me – once when he broke ranks from his security guards following a foreign policy discussion at the Aspen Music Tent; another at the Wheeler Opera House before a speech by Margaret Thatcher. Both times, he shook my hand in a warm greeting.I thought Bandar and I might develop a friendship. I fantasized about introducing him to my world and my friends, to places and people he would never otherwise see or meet. We could have a kind of “Prince and the Pauper” exchange.That never happened. The rigors of international diplomacy, the demands of the Saudi royals, the invisible boundary drawn by power and prestige eclipsed a fleeting and serendipitous relationship that only happens in fairy tales … and in Aspen.I never liked Bandar’s house because of the unconscionable waste of resources it represents, but I liked Bandar. It is no wonder he was such a successful ambassador and diplomat. He knows very well how to bring adversaries into his tent – the most lavish tent in all the world.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.
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