Multi-billionaire son of a notorious playboy, His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan, enjoys his jets, yachts, and Thoroughbreds. But since the age of 20, he has also been the spiritual leader of 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, building a hugely effective global development network. In Chantilly, home to France’s most prestigious horse race, James Reginato explores how the press-shy, Harvard-educated prince, at 76, fuses two worlds.
His Highness Prince Karim, the fourth Aga Khan and 49th hereditary imam of the world’s 15 million Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, remains a paradox to many people. The Pope of his flock, he also possesses fabled wealth and inhabits a world of marvelous châteaux, yachts, jets, and Thoroughbred horses. To be sure, few persons bridge so many divides—between the spiritual and the material; East and West; Muslim and Christian—as gracefully as he does.
Born in Geneva, brought up in Nairobi, educated at Le Rosey and Harvard, the Aga Khan has a British passport and spends a great deal of his time aloft in his private aircraft, but his base is Aiglemont, a vast estate near Chantilly, 25 miles north of Paris. On-site, in addition to a château and an elaborate training center for about a hundred of his Thoroughbreds, is the Secretariat, a modern office block that houses the nerve center of what might be described as his own U.N., the Aga Khan Development Network. A staggeringly large and effective organization, it employs 80,000 people in 30 countries. Although it is generally known for the nonprofit work it does in poor and war-torn parts of the globe, the A.K.D.N. also includes an enormous portfolio of for-profit businesses in sectors ranging from energy and aviation to pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, and luxury hotels. In 2010 these generated $2.3 billion in revenue. The extent of these endeavors might not be so well known to the general public, since the Aga Khan usually shuns the press and stays out of the public eye.
Though he has no political territory, the Aga Khan is virtually a one-man state and is often received like a head of state when he travels. As imam he is responsible for looking after the material as well as spiritual needs of his followers, who are scattered in more than 25 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and North America. His projects, however, benefit people of all faiths.
One of the rare opportunities to catch a glimpse of him occurs on a certain Sunday in June, in Chantilly, at the annual Prix de Diane, which for more than a century has been the most prestigious horse race in France. It takes place pretty much in his backyard, at the historic Hippodrome de Chantilly, just a few kilometers from Aiglemont. Dating from 1843, the Prix de Diane is the high point of the Continental horse-racing calendar, on the turf and off. Members of France’s top horse-owner clans, such as the Wildensteins and the Wertheimers, typically appear, along with sheikhs from Qatar and Dubai, and glamorous women in heavily feathered headgear.
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