by Lydia Slater
Prince Nicholas Khan-Roper (left) and Prince Jason Khan (right) on The Yacht London in April
Benazir Bhutto’s Boys
It’s hard to imagine a more glamorous prospect than lunch on a yacht with a tall, dark and handsome prince. Unless, of course, it’s lunch on a yacht with three of them. Such is the situation as I sit forking down scallops in the sunny dining room of The Yacht London, a 1920s steam vessel moored at Temple Pier, with Prince Nicholas Khan-Roper on my right and Prince Jason Khan on my left. In the background, their father Prince Sidi Mohammed Muzzafar Khan (known to his circle as Poncho) is effortlessly working the dining room, his sunglasses pushed up on to his forehead. With the sunlight twinkling on the water and the Chardonnay glugging into the glasses, this looks like a scene of purest hedonism, but it’s more complicated than that.
The princes are members of the politically powerful and tragedy-stricken Bhutto clan. Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in December 2007, was their father’s first cousin. More significantly, she was a second mother to Jason, 37, who lived with her for ten years after the death of his own mother, and was actually on her campaign bus when it was blown up by militants in the autumn of 2007. Two months later, another assassin succeeded in murdering Pakistan‘s first female prime minister.
The yacht, leased by the Khans from the Port of London Authority last February, was once used to entertain dignitaries, including ‘Auntie’herself, so the Art Deco cocktail lounge, the champagne bar on the top deck, the leather chairs and the fine dining are all to be expected.
But what the boys are proudest of is the yacht’s status as a floating office. Meeting rooms, secretarial services, an answering service and conference facilities are all on offer to members, who pay up to £10,000 annually and include HRH Prince Nicholas of Greece (son of King Constantine). Honorary members include the philanthropist Peter Cruddas, one of the City’s richest men, the Conservative MP Michael Ancram and The Carphone Warehouse founder Charles Dunstone. The Khans’idea is to introduce young entrepreneurs like themselves to the sort of wealthy business types who could give them a leg-up.
‘I’ve owned my own company since I was 26. If I’d had a few introductions, I’d have progressed more rapidly,’explains Nicholas, 31, though you would have thought his connections could have brought him all the introductions necessary. He works as an independent financial adviser and looks like an old-fashioned film star. (Sadly, he’s engaged, to the daughter of an ex-wife of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia.) ‘That’s why this project is so important to us. It will allow us to open doors and have more influence than we might by just being businessmen.’
The brothers also plan to use the yacht to host charitable events and allow the charities access to their well-heeled members. The yacht’s other purpose is to act as a hub for the numerous members of the Bhutto family who live in the UK. ‘Benazir kept us all together,’explains Jason, a slightly chunkier, more dynamic version of his brother. ‘Whenever she was here, everyone went to her house.’
‘I remember sitting in her living room, having a glass of wine and a cigarette and gossiping with her,’says Nicholas. ‘We used to gossip about girls and who I should marry – she was a great matchmaker. So, for our generation, the boat will be our new focus. We’re going to have family meals here on a regular basis.’
Several family members are involved with the yacht already: Nicholas is managing director of the club, Jason’s wife Juliette is the marketing director, and their father has an advisory role.
Last October, the boat was the location for the 21st birthday party of Bilawal Bhutto, Benazir’s son and political heir, who has been the chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party since his mother’s death, and is also a student at Christ Church, Oxford. ‘What I like about him is that he has a fun side, he lets his hair down with us,’says Nicholas. ‘But it’s hard for him to know who to trust.’
Bilawal’s sisters Bakhtawar, 19, and Asifa, 17, are both studying in Edinburgh and see their cousins regularly. ‘They are like my sisters,’says Jason, who was living with Benazir Bhutto when Asifa was born. Sanam, Benazir’s sister, attended a party on the boat last week.
Not every Bhutto is on board, however. Their cousin Fatima, a glamorous poet and newspaper columnist who lives in Karachi and who allegedly dated George Clooney, recently published a book, Songs of Blood and Sword, a savage indictment of her aunt Benazir, whom she blames for the shooting of her father when she was 14. When the launch party was held last month (attended by Bob Geldof and Jemima Khan), it was not at The Yacht London but the Langham Hotel on Portland Place.
‘Fati’s father was the most important thing in her life,’explains Jason, who is fiercely loyal to Benazir. ‘The unfortunate thing was that her aunt was the prime minister. If she hadn’t been, I don’t think the logical train of thought would have led there. One can understand why she is upset, but I was there when Fati’s father was killed and I saw Benazir. Devastated is not the word. She collapsed, she had to be carried. But Fati wasn’t there so she doesn’t know that. They will definitely reunite, maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon.’Is he on good terms with Fatima? ‘I am. I don’t speak to her every day, but I’d definitely go and see her when I’m there.’
When one considers the trivial spats that lead British families to cold-shoulder each other for decades, it would seem ludicrous to suggest that a public accusation of murder could be forgiven. But the Bhutto family history is so steeped in internecine blood and violence that its members have simply had to get used to it.
The Khans’ paternal great-grandfather was the Nawab of Sachin, an Indian princely state near Mumbai. After Partition, when Pakistan became independent from India, their grandfather Colonel Mustafa Khan joined the Pakistani army, while two of his brothers fought on the Indian side. ‘There was a battle in which the youngest brother was shot, and they stopped the battle so that my grandfather could go and pick up his dead brother,’says Jason.
Colonel Mustafa married the eldest daughter of Sir Shahnawaz Bhutto, sister of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s president and then prime minister before his execution for a trumped-up charge of authorising the murder of a political opponent in 1979. He was Benazir’s father. Of Zulfikar’s four children, only the apolitical Sanam, who is based in West London, has been allowed to live in peace: the other three all died violently (the youngest brother, Shahnawaz, was poisoned in his villa in Nice in 1985, with French police suspecting his Afghan wife’s involvement). It was clearly a blessing in disguise that the Khans had to leave Pakistan after Zulfikar’s arrest in 1977 by the military dictator General Zia.
Poncho was already married to Stephanie, a half-Polish beauty who was literally the girl next door in Dolphin Square, where his parents had an apartment. The couple’s three sons (Alexander, 35, is also in finance) were born in Blackpool, Liverpool and Southport where, incongruously, their parents owned small hotels. Poncho also took over the Penthouse Club and, in partnership with Bob Guccione of Penthouse and ‘seducer of the Valleys’Dai Llewellyn, turned it into the Club Royale. But then Stephanie died of a severe asthma attack and Poncho fell ill with meningitis. Jason, then eight, and his younger brother Alexander, six, were looked after by their grandparents, while Nicholas, who was still a toddler, was taken in by friends. As if the family tree wasn’t confusing enough, when Nicholas speaks of his mother, he means Professor Gerda Roper, Dean of the School of Arts and Media at Teesside University, who brought him up.
Nicholas lived first in Wales, then Newcastle, and only came down to London to take his A levels at City & Islington College. By that time, Jason had gone to live with Benazir Bhutto after the death of his grandparents. ‘In 1992, Benazir invited me to work in her office. She was leader of the opposition, she had two young children, her husband was in jail and things were bad. Why would you invite someone else to live with you under those circumstances? But that was the sort of woman she was.’
Bilawal recently found a two-page handwritten letter among his mother’s papers, headed ‘Tough Love’, and detailing the house rules Jason needed to follow and why. ‘We read it the other day and we were all sitting there in floods of tears,’says Nicholas.
During Jason’s ten years with Benazir, she took him on numerous state visits. ‘I’ve been to China, I’ve met Bill Clinton. North Korea was a strange experience,’he recalls. ‘I was sitting at a table with seven generals. Kim Il-Sung spoke for two hours and Benazir was given five minutes to respond.’When jet lag caused Jason to oversleep one morning, a guard was sent to wake him up and, failing to spot him in bed, reported him as a suspected spy.
The family lived on a knife edge. In 1996, Jason went to bed the prime minister’s nephew and woke up four hours later to find himself under house arrest. ‘We were in jail for five days, and her husband [Zardari, now president of Pakistan] was from that day on in prison.’
Benazir moved with her family and Jason to Dubai in 1999, shortly before Pervez Musharraf seized power. Understandably, when Musharraf granted her an amnesty and the withdrawal of corruption charges in 2007, Jason wanted to be with her for her return. He took his brother Alexander with him, Nicholas having failed to get a visa.
The triumphal procession was driving through Karachi in the middle of the night and the brothers were on the top deck of the open-top bus. ‘One minute I was looking at these very brave young security guards from our village,’says Jason, ‘and the next minute, there was nothing there. My shirt felt hot, and there was a hot, red rain. It was blood and guts. Then our boys saw another guy wearing padded clothes and they ran and dragged him away from the bus to protect her. They gave their own lives to protect Benazir.’More than 130 people were killed in the attack.
‘The luckiest thing that happened to me was that my younger brother was with me, so instead of seeing things, I went into protection mode. I knew the guards, the people, the language and I could get him off the bus.’Sometimes Jason gets nervous on the Tube these days. ‘I hate it about myself,’he says. Two months later, on 27 December, Jason was having a post-Christmas break at The Dorchester when the family heard that
Benazir had been assassinated.
Rather surprisingly, the experience hasn’t put Jason off politics. But with two young sons, Zachary, four, and Jago, two, he has revised his ambitions for a political career in Pakistan, and recently stood (unsuccessfully) for selection as a prospective Conservative candidate in the UK. ‘Politics is an honourable profession,’he insists, looking out of the window towards the Palace of Westminster. ‘When you’ve seen a 15-year-old boy blown to smithereens in front of you, you understand what people are willing to give up for politics. Of course I understand the apathy at the moment but it’s annoying that politicians here have created so much ill-will. The basic incentive to be a politician should be one of service.’
Meanwhile, Jason is using his political connections to fill the family club with movers and shakers. ‘Having seen Benazir close up through good and bad times, if I could make a thousandth of the difference, it would be great,’he says. ‘Being a banker and owning a yacht is all good stuff, but you don’t want to get to the end of your life without having made a difference.’