The sheikh and I: Ghostwriting for a crown prince in exile

After 24 years at the New York Times, I got a call -- and stumbled into the strangest writing gig of my career

Published January 12, 2013 2:00PM (EST)

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of Books THE LAST I HEARD, the Sheikh was under house arrest, and his security guy was in jail.

This was not the way it was supposed to turn out. The Sheikh’s idea was for it to end in triumph, with his grand return to the royal palace, flags waving, trumpets blaring, the masses applauding; new alliances with the West, the possibility of a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, peace and democracy in the Middle East.

Well, maybe that last part is a stretch, but the rest of it was the intended endgame, and since I was the Sheik’s voice, who knows?

For the better part of a year, I was the Sheikh’s blogger; or the Sheikh was my avatar. He had hired me to write a series of blogs, under his name, with the aim of ousting his half-brother, an Iranian sympathizer, who had driven him into exile years earlier. Our plan — the Sheikh’s, his handlers, and mine — was to pound out three blog entries a week to convince the Sheikh’s aging father that the tiny stretch of land controlled by the Sheikh’s family for more than 200 years was better left in the hands of my guy, who had closer ties to Washington.

It all started with a cryptic phone call.

As a newly minted freelancer, after 24 years reporting for The New York Times, I was juggling several projects when a long-time friend left a voicemail message, saying, “I have a strange gig for you if you’re interested.”

He’s a political strategist with lots of interesting clients. “Strange” sounded good. I called back right away.

“What’s it about?” I asked.

He was part of a team, he said, representing a crown prince in exile from one of the United Arab Emirates, one nobody’s ever heard of. The Sheikh, as he called him, needed someone to blog in his name, in English, as a way to generate international support for his claim to the throne and put pressure on his father, who remained the titular ruler despite his age and declining health. The real ruler was the Sheikh’s half-brother, who began calling the shots a few years earlier and nurtured a relationship with Iran, which sits 40 miles across the Persian Gulf at the Strait of Hormuz.

The Sheikh’s plan was to use the blogs to point out dangers that Iran posed for the people of his emirate. He also wanted to signal Washington and other western governments that he was open to modernizing his emirate and recognizing Israel as a prelude to peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

He opposed Iranian hegemony in the region, but first and foremost, he wanted to drive his half-brother out of power, and take what he saw as his rightful place running his emirate.

“Sounds like fun,” I said. “How do I get started?”

“Write three blogs, and let’s see if he likes them. If he does, the money will be good.”

“Okay,” I said. “Blogs on what?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll suggest a few topics.”

Over the next few days, I crafted blogs on the Sheikh’s recent visit to the White House, his thoughts (as if I knew them) on a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the Middle East and the Sheikh’s support for new educational opportunities for women in the emirate.

It was pretty tame stuff, and I had no idea if they qualified me to continue. Several days went by, and I heard nothing. But then I checked the website and I couldn't believe what I saw: Three new blogs, just as I had written them. Not a word was changed.

How great was this! I had a new project, diving into international intrigue with a general outline of the situation and relative freedom to splash around as I wanted. The only caveat was stay true to the cause: Sheikh good. Half-brother bad. Iran worse.

Suddenly, I had a weekly routine and a monthly paycheck. I was basically free to interpret the Sheikh’s mission any way I could, based on current events and ideas the handlers passed along, including any specific requests from the Sheikh. Otherwise, the blogs needed to reflect the basic themes of the campaign while pointing out the virtues of modernization and the evils of Iran, both of which the Sheikh knew would appeal to Western governments. The only restriction was that I couldn’t mention the half-brother by name or even suggest there was a family member complicit in the policies we were trying to upend.

So far as I remember, the Sheikh made only one specific request over all the months I worked, and it came in late summer. One of the handlers called to say, “His Highness would like you to write about his reflections on Ramadan.” Everyone in his camp referred to him as “His Highness,” as if he were still occupying the throne. Nobody called him Sheikh.

“Sure,” I said. “No problem.”

I suppose this is the point where I should say I’m Jewish. I’m pretty sure the Sheikh didn’t know that, and I can imagine how his audience in the emirate would have responded had they known. Besides the English version of his website, aimed at Western readers, the blogs were posted in Arabic through translations handled by his wife. I guess she didn’t know my religion, either.

Anyway, I only mention it here because a blog that conveys the namesake’s reflections on Ramadan requires the blog writer, especially a Jewish one, to know a bit more than Ramadan is a Muslim period of fasting. Which is about all I knew.

Hours of research ensued. I tried to put myself in the Sheikh’s mindset to imagine what he would like to say. I tried to use words like “reverence,” “spiritual reflection,” and “devotion.” And “beloved” was always the adjective of choice when mentioning the emirate. What resulted was a respectful blog that talked about faith, family, and good deeds. It was also the first time in 35 years of journalism that I ever typed letters that formed the word “Allah.”

The blog ran as I wrote it.

The weeks passed, and I returned to the mission, with quite a few blogs about Iran’s efforts to insinuate itself in the everyday activities of the emirate. The handlers told me Iranian influence through business deals and trade was proceeding at an alarming rate, encouraged by the half-brother; the Sheikh found the activity a convenient wedge to raise concerns and curry favor for his cause.

One blog campaigned against the emirate’s efforts to stage the America’s Cup, citing possible shenanigans by Iranian military boats and smugglers moving illegal arms and parts for Iran’s nuclear weapon efforts. I won’t take credit for it, but the Cup races were staged elsewhere that year.

I met the Sheikh only once, when he visited Los Angeles. I was invited to join a group for lunch at a Beverly Hills hotel. I remembered to make sure the Star of David I wear around my neck was properly concealed.

I had seen pictures of the Sheikh, so I recognized him the instant I saw him across the room. What I was not prepared for was his utterly dour and humorless demeanor. I don't remember what we ate, but I do remember how difficult it was to communicate. He spoke halting English although he clearly understood everything said. But there was no small talk, and I never saw him smile. Toward the end of the meal, after he hadn’t spoken more than a few words to me, the handlers encouraged me to take advantage of the moment to discuss future blogs. So I asked, “What subjects would you like to explore in the weeks ahead, Your Highness?”

“The constitution,” he said, not making it clear if he meant America’s or the emirate’s.

I surmised he meant the emirate’s, that his half-brother was violating it. But he turned away and I couldn’t pursue it. The lunch ended shortly after, and I never saw him again.

Later, the handlers suggested I devote one blog to the Sheikh’s L.A. visit. He had met some local dignitaries and attended a Dodgers’s game, where they honored him with a welcoming message on the scoreboard. The handlers encouraged me to mention that he met Manny Ramirez, and I did. But that part was edited out — the only time I was rewritten.

Over the coming months, the blogs focused on the usual themes: modernization, education, praise for the United States, condemnation of Iran.

We slapped Iran around quite a bit. Several blogs examined ownership of two specs of land in the Gulf, which has been disputed for centuries, these days, by the emirate and Iran. We always insisted that they are property of the emirate and Iran should vacate.

Following a speech from Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, questioning whether U.S. policy toward Iran would change with Barack Obama as successor to George W. Bush, I wrote (as the Sheikh):

So I ask the same question in reverse. “What are the signs that Iranian policy toward the U.S. has changed? What are the signs Iranian policy toward any other country has changed since the revolution of 1979?” On issues involving our beloved emirate, alone, we see no shift, and I speak of the islands, our rightful territory, which Iran has controlled since 1971 and refuses to discuss.

Every week, three blogs went up, and every month a check arrived. Then, suddenly, it all stopped. First, the blogs didn't get posted, then the checks stopped arriving. In short order, the Sheikh’s website disappeared. The “strange gig” was over as the campaign seemed to disappear. I never got a call or explanation.

As a new freelancer, I figured that’s how these things go. They run their course. You earn a few bucks — in this case, a lot of bucks — then you move on.

After a while, I was on to other things, and the Sheikh became a distant memory. But it nagged at me that I never knew what happened to him or his efforts to return. I tried finding news accounts but never saw a story that said the Sheikh had ascended to power, sending his brother into political oblivion. I decided to send an email to the Sheikh’s lawyer in London, with whom I had communicated a few times over the course of the year.

He wrote back, with the shocking news that the entire campaign fell apart with sad repercussions for the Sheikh. The day after his father died, he returned to the emirate, only to be arrested at the palace under orders of the half-brother, now the emirate’s acknowledged ruler by U.A.E. leaders. The Sheikh’s security guy, a former British soldier who was with him in Beverly Hills, was also detained.

The Sheikh ended up under some kind of house arrest, the lawyer said, but the security guy was imprisoned for months.

And so the tale ended. I’ve recounted the story of the Sheikh many times, and this being Los Angeles, people say, “Write a screenplay!” So I’m thinking about it. Of course, actual events would only be the starting point. I’ll have to add a few other elements, and I’m thinking CIA agents, the Mossad, Revolutionary Guard types, car chases through Tehran and Los Angeles, maybe a sex scene. I’m not sure what all the subplots are yet, but I know how it ends.

The Sheikh regains power, much to the relief of his people who then drive out all the Iranian infiltrators who have taken over daily life in the emirate. The Sheikh is hailed as a conquering liberator, then throws himself into Israeli peace talks. He devises an evenhanded solution, and both sides agree to it. After 5,000 years, peace flowers in the region. Muslims around the world rejoice. Jews celebrate. The Sheikh is a new world leader, a hero. The Nobel Peace Prize awaits. A huge press conference is arranged at the United Nations to announce details. The Sheikh enters the General Assembly auditorium to a standing ovation and great applause. Dozens of cameras track his every move. He sits at a large table beneath the flags of Israel and the new Palestinian state, flanking the UN banner. He speaks a few words, and then he offers to take questions.

“Sheikh, Sheikh” one reporter yells above other voices. “After so many years, so many lives lost, so many failed efforts, how did you come up with a peace proposal that satisfies both sides?”

The room draws quiet.

“I must be honest,” he says with the humility that now defines him. “There’s this guy in Los Angeles . . .”

I’m thinking Daniel Craig plays me. I like the scene where he accepts my Nobel.

By Michael Janofsky

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Blogging Iran Journalism La Review Of Books New York Times United Arab Emirates