Egypt’s King Farouk: philanderer or family man?

In memoirs obtained by Al Arabiya News, the late monarch seems unrepentant about his notorious gambling habit and extramarital affairs

Paul Crompton

Published: Updated:

The latest in Al Arabiya’s series on the colorful reign of Egypt’s King Farouk examines the collision between his hedonistic habits and family life, as revealed through the monarch’s long-forgotten memoirs and interviews with family relatives and historians.

Much has been written about the late King Farouk’s notorious gambling habit and extramarital affairs – but few have read the personal account of his numerous indiscretions.

In rarely seen personal memoirs obtained by Al Arabiya News, Egypt’s former king paints a colorful picture of his hedonistic habits during his rule of Egypt from 1936 to 1952 – as well as his louche life in exile.

Sex and card games – not, however, “childish” roulette – occupied a good deal of Farouk’s time, according to historical accounts and clues from Farouk’s own writing.

The king, it seemed, was not a man who liked to lose.

“He used to gamble with all the big bankers,” said Mahmoud Sabit, son of close courtier and Farouk’s cousin, Adel Sabit. “He basically forced them to sit at the table until he won. And that would take three, four, five days. If you wanted to get off the table, you had to lose to him.”

‘Just taking it back’

Upon being reproached for this time-consuming habit, the king would have a ready excuse.

“These bankers are the people who plundered Egypt at the time of our grandfather, King Ismail,” Farouk would say, according to Sabit. “I’m just taking it back.”

Farouk himself admitted his gambling habit in his memoirs. “I have never pretended to be a saint,” he wrote, adding that he was very much “mixed up” with the good things in life.

“What man with £100,000 a year, his youth and vitality, would not enjoy good food and good company, if he could?” he said.

‘Childish games’

Farouk shows little modesty about winning at the card table. “Sometimes, of course, I lost. But the fact is that I happen to be rather a good card player and have always won far more often than I have lost,” he wrote in his memoirs.

After the Abdeen Palace incident of 1942, where the British intervened in Farouk’s rule by forcing him to replace his existing government with one that would better conform with their own wartime interests, the king was largely left out of Egypt’s political process until the end of the war.

In an ultimately misguided attempt to help console the humiliated monarch, princesses and members of Egypt’s high society held a series of parties and balls to cheer him up and show solidarity with him.

Prone to wander

“Each one had to outdo the other,” said Sabit. It was at this moment, amid the grand, frivolous schedule of society’s elite, that Farouk’s marriage with Queen Farida, with whom he had had three daughters, began to deteriorate. “I think at that moment, perhaps Farida felt he started wandering away,” Sabit told Al Arabiya News.

Locked out of politics, Farouk’s growing fascination with European-style nightlife soon led to endless evenings spent at the Hotel Auberge in Cairo.

“He would arrive sometimes at closing time, because gambling was the most important thing,” said Roger Owen, a Middle East history professor at Harvard University.

“Sex, I think, came only at 11 o’clock at night after gambling… All the people with pretty wives immediately disappeared, in case he invited them to his table. Some people, he took into the desert, behind the pyramids, in his Rolls-Royce.”

‘Sawdust teddy’

During the Second World War, Farouk met and began an affair with Barbara Skelton, a British cipher clerk stationed in Cairo.

Skelton, who would in later life become a novelist and socialite, described the overweight Farouk as resembling “a huge sawdust teddy bear badly sewn at the joints.”

Farouk had an “inferiority complex” with women, Egyptian ex-Prince Abbas Halim told a Egyptian court one-and-a-half years after his ouster.

“This is why he’d run after them so much,” said Halim, according to newspaper reports of the time. “He wanted to show he was tough with the fair sex.”

When seeking a women’s affections, Halim – although older than the king – would always win “without difficulty,” he said.

The king was not the only one prone to extramarital encounters. In his memoirs, the king describes himself as being very occupied with affairs of state, while Queen Farida became “infatuated” with a man “old enough [to be her] father.”

Both king and queen regularly engaged in “bitter quarrels,” Farouk wrote, when he found that “her thoughts did not belong to me any more.”

Then, after arguing, Farouk would “storm out and try to hurt her by seeking other consolations,” he wrote.

No repentance

Farouk was less than repentant about his affairs. As he stated in his memoirs, Islamic law “permits a husband to take concubines. I was not breaking either my vows or my faith as she was.”

An attempt to win Queen Farida back by buying lavish gifts, including a house in the countryside (which she refused to even visit) and then a farm, could not grab her away from the older man’s affections. They divorced in 1948.

Around the same time, Farouk’s weight - for which he is so often characterized - started to get out of control.

While Farouk would not drink alcohol, Adel Sabit noticed that the king would instead imbibe fizzy sherbets on social occasions – and the social occasions were many. “Having eight or nine of these a day, you’re bound to get fat,” said Adel’s son Mahmoud.

Farouk’s nearly 11-year first marriage had produced three daughters - Ferial, Fawzia, and Fadia - although, distressingly for the king, no male heir that was so badly needed to secure the dynasty.

Family man

After all, as he wrote: “I had my duty to my family and our Royal dynasty to consider.”

Despite the lurid picture of Farouk’s various pastimes, some see him as a family man.

When in exile on the Italian island of Capri in 1952 and free from the burdens of power, Farouk (at least briefly) seemed to take on the role as a committed, dutiful father.

“We eat our breakfast together as a family,” he wrote, describing everyday life when the royal family and their entourage occupied a 26-room floor in a Capri hotel.

To escape the confines of the hotel, Farouk would arrange for his daughters to visit the swimming pool in the home of his friend, the British-born actress Gracie Fields.

When in Egypt, the king had given the princesses vast sums of pocket money. Now, they would cope with just a few shillings each week, so that they could learn – as he himself had never had to do – “the pleasure of saving up and waiting until they can afford to buy some article they covet.”

Fond memories

How did Farouk’s daughters, Ferial, Fawzia, and Faida – who largely kept out of the public spotlight – view him?

“My mother loved her father and remembered [him] as a good man,” said Yasmine Perreten-Shaarawi, the late Princess Ferial’s daughter. “He was very affectionate.”

Earlier, as king, affairs of state would keep Farouk too occupied to spend a lot of time with his family – the children were mostly raised by nurses. “If they could see their father one hour a day, that was really lucky [for them],” Shaarawi told Al Arabiya News.

“Every time when they had a chance to see each other, he would always ask what they were doing and how were their studies,” she added.

Unlike their father, the princesses led fairly quiet lives – perhaps because their own father had been featured so luridly in the media for so much of his life.

“They didn’t want to have their whole life [in newspapers], and they liked their privacy,” Shaarawi said.

To read the fifth part of the series, entitled: “Nasty, painful, depressing:’ King Farouk’s tragic royal romance,” click here.

To view the entire seven-part series, visit the King Farouk: The Forgotten Memoirs homepage.