Citizen Khan makes world of difference around the globe

AFTERNOON tea with a prince? Certainly. Go to a quiet street in the old city of Geneva, to a town house with no name or sign on the massive wooden doors. Walk up the carpeted stairs, and into the study.

There you will find a large, elderly Alsatian dog named Arak sleeping fitfully in the kneehole of an outsize antique desk. Leather-bound books reach to the ceiling. The afternoon sun pours through French windows, gilding a brass inkstand on the polished surface of the desk.

But wait a minute. What kind of prince?

And does royalty usually plunge into a conversation that sweeps from alleviating famine in Africa to the state of the Ismaili form of Shia Islam to improving the lot of the world's children?

And what kind of prince finances out of his own pocket a conference to be held in Geneva in June, aimed at bringing together the United States, Soviet, and third-world experts to discuss how to stop the spread of the nuclear bomb?

English, surely, you think, as he advances courteously toward you in brown sports jacket and discreetly striped shirt. English, you think, as he begins to speak in cool, faultless accents. English, you think, as you recall that his hereditary title of prince was originally conferred on his father by King George V.

But no. The label you subconsciously try to hang on him is only partly true. Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan is perhaps the closest thing to an international man, a citizen of the world, it is possible to meet these days.

He has roots in East and West, North and South. Born in Paris, raised in Switzerland, he was educated at Harvard (in Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's class, under the name Sadri A. Khan to avoid publicity). His first wife was British. His second is Greek, born in Alexandria.

He belongs to a family rarely out of world headlines for decades -- a father (Prince Aga Khan III), who combined his duties as leader of the Ismaili Shia Muslim community with a string of racehorses which won five English Derbies, and an older brother (Aly Khan), who married Rita Hayworth and drove fast sports cars.

Yet he himself is serious and somewhat reserved.

``He is a man,'' an aide once commented, ``with a large private space around him.''

Extremely wealthy (his family treasury is estimated at $300 million to $500 million), he has spent years working for the poor and the dispossessed. Once, after a decade of handling refugee issues from Bangladesh to Uganda to Vietnam, he remarked, ``This is the age of the uprooted man.''

Former aides and acquaintances generally praise him:

``Well, some of his ideas are better than others,'' said a former UNHCR official, ``but he's a brilliant administrator -- tactful, diplomatic, unobtrusive.''

``He got things done,'' said an aide to Senator Kennedy (D) of Mass. ``He provided leadership.''

The prince remains committed to the ideals and to the potential of the United Nations, especially in humanitarian fields. Twice he has been put forward as a candidate for secretary-general. He is deeply attached to Islam (and to its art, which he collects).

So ancient is Sadruddin's Islamic lineage that some Muslim scholars identify him as the 51st descendant of the Prophet Muhammad (as traced from the marriage of the prophet's cousin, Ali, and his daughter, Fatima).

He welcomed this reporter with a reference to the recent UN Geneva conference on African famine (March 11-15): It was a pity, he felt, that it lost world headlines because it fell on the same day that the death was announced in Moscow of Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko.

What chiefly preoccupies a prince these days?

The fact that elsewhere in Geneva, American and Soviet negotiators were picking up the threads of nuclear arms control talks -- while a dozen third world countries were busy trying to make ``unpretentious little bombs'' that could nonetheless ``cause human suffering and could blow a big hole in world peace.''

He went on:``Julius Nyerere [President of Tanzania] said at a meeting of several world leaders in Athens recently that Tanzania wasn't going to produce a bomb. . . but that it wasn't going to sign the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty, either.

``Not signing is the protest of the weak, a way of reminding those who do have the bomb that there is something inherently wrong with vertical proliferation [the superpower arms race] at a time when the third world is facing such huge problems. . . .

``If you think this way, you want to add your voice to the sense of outrage.''

The aim of his conference in Geneva in June, he says, is to bring together experts from the nuclear club (he has invited Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle and Anatoly Gromyko, the son of the Soviet foreign minister) and third world critics of the 1970 Treaty (another invitee is Professor Ali Mazrui from Kenya).

The aim of his conference, he went on, was to draw up plans and proposals for the third five-year review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to be held in Geneva in September.

``We want to see the NPT strengthened,'' he said. ``The safeguards inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] are all we have to check what's happening.

``But I don't think the nuclear powers [the US, the USSR, China, France, and the UK, with India having exploded a ``peaceful'' device] understand the frustration that exists in the South. . . . Our conference is a chance for the [nuclear] club to see what the developing nations feel. . . .''

Another invited guest is the director-general of the IAEA, Hans Blix, a former Swedish foreign minister. Some sources within IAEA, however, are less than enthusiastic about the prince: They feel his conference will be overly critical.

The prince's foundation, named Bellerive after his chateau, is also working on ways African farmers can draw more energy from animal, solar, fuelwood, and other sources.

Through an Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, designed as a counterpart to the Brandt Commission and co-chaired by the prince and Crown Prince Hassan of Jordan, Sadruddin is also involved in a study on the state of the world's children.

It was time to leave. Arak stirred under the desk, and collapsed again into sleep. ``Come to our nonproliferation conference,'' the prince urged.

An interview with Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan on Page 1 of the March 29 edition was accompanied by an incorrect photograph. Shown in the picture was Prince Karim Aga Khan, nephew of Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Citizen Khan makes world of difference around the globe
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today