A Saudi prince moved roughly two tons of cocaine from Colombia to an airport outside Paris, using his diplomatic status and a royal family 727 jet, U.S. and French law enforcement authorities told ABC News.
"It doesn't happen without him," said Tom Raffanello of the Drug Enforcement Agency in Miami. "He is the key co-conspirator. He's the straw that stirs the drink, he made it happen. No plane, no dope. Dope stays in Colombia."
Prince Nayef bin Fawwaz Al Shalaan is under indictment by U.S. and French authorities, but living outside the reach of American law in Saudi Arabia, according to Raffanello. The United States and Saudi Arabia have no extradition treaty. A trial for the prince's alleged co-conspirators is scheduled to begin next month in a federal court in Miami.
"He's a fugitive in the United States. He's a fugitive in violation of federal narcotics law," Raffanello said.
Prince Nayef bin Fawwaz Al Shalaan claimed in an Arab newspaper that he was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Saudi government, stating he was seeking investors in a deal for plastic pipe, not smuggling cocaine. "That's an alibi, he moved dope," said Rafanello.
The DEA speculated that terrorism was a possible motive, but there is no formal terrorism charge in the indictment.
"Later on in the investigation, we came to find out that he would use some or all of the profit to fund terrorism, through whatever indices he was using to do it," Raffanello said.
The prince has an earlier drug charge -- he was indicted in Mississippi on narcotics charges in 1984, and remains a fugitive in that case as well, according to the DEA.
Saudi law is harsh with regard to drug trafficking; three accused drug smugglers were reported to have been beheaded just last month, according to the Saudi Interior Ministry.
But the influence of the royal family can be formidable.
Fabrice Monti, a former French police investigator, said the powerful Saudi interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, actually threatened to cancel certain business deals with the French government if the narcotics investigation of a fellow prince continued.
"The Saudi government acted as one to set up a protective barrier between the prince and French justice and threatened to not sign a very important and lucrative contract in the works for a very long time," said Fabrice Monti, who has written a book on the subject.
The Saudi government declined repeated requests for comment on the case.
The drug case is an extreme example of what critics decry as a morally corrupt and hypocritical Saudi royal family.
This past summer, far from the political unrest and terrorist threats, far from a faltering economy where one out of three men is unemployed, far from a country under strict Islamic law, some of the richest and most powerful Saudi royals were buying jewels, flying on private jets, and dining at the finest restaurants on the French Riviera.
"When I see this I think of the saying that they fiddle while Rome burns," said Mai Yamani, author of "Cradle of Islam: the Hijaz and the Quest for an Arabian Identity." Yamani is a former Saudi native now living in exile in London and a research fellow with the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.