Protecting Bhutto's Son at Oxford

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Karim Sahib / AFP / Getty

Bilawal Zardari, son of slain Pakistan leader Benazir Bhutto, participates in a prayer service in her honor at the family home in Dubai.

Correction Appended: January 8, 2008

In 2002, I was a Masters student at University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where Prince William, heir to the British throne, was also studying. The Prince made every effort to be a normal student, adopting the rather hopefully democratic moniker "William Wales" and even frequenting a popular student pub called Ma Bells (pronounced "marbles" in his Highness' posh accent). My friends and I enjoyed his company. And why not? William was followed by a bevy of would-be princesses.

But there was one element of his entourage that was far less conspicuous: his security detail. It was well known that two plainclothes police officers followed William everywhere, but their ability to blend in led to a joke among students that the only way to distinguish which of the punters in the pub worked for Scotland Yard was to make a violent, kamikaze run at the Prince. Whoever emerged to halt your advance would be the security.

Students at University of Oxford will encounter a similar invisible shield of protection when another student returns to school. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 19-year-old son of Benazir Bhutto, the Pakistani prime ministerial candidate who was assassinated on Dec. 27, resumes his studies next week at Christ Church college after attending his mother's funeral. Bhutto Zardari's surprise appointment as the titular head of the Pakistan People's Party has sent Oxford police and university authorities scrambling for a new protection plan. It also has focused attention again on an old debate — between academics keen to preserve a collegiate atmosphere and police who insist on stringent protection for high-profile students.

This week, Thames Valley Police, the force responsible for Oxford, met with MI5, Britain's internal intelligence service, to discuss protection options. A source familiar with the discussion told TIME that the force is considering assigning Bhutto Zardari one of its personal security specialists normally dedicated to Chequers, the British Prime Minister's rural retreat, which is also in the Thames Valley jurisdiction. London's Evening Standard newspaper reported that Bhutto Zardari's protection officer will be armed. But carrying weapons seems unlikely given Oxford's past efforts to avoid police intrusiveness. Although Chelsea Clinton studied at Oxford with two armed Secret Service agents always by her side, the vast majority of celebrities at Oxford have no visible security.

In 1997, for instance, when the Crown Prince of Brunei, Al-Muhtadee Billah, enrolled at Magdalen college, officials demanded that the prince's guard remain outside the college grounds, despite the fact that, as the son of the ultra-wealthy Sultan of Brunei, the prince was an obvious kidnap target. Then college head Anthony Smith told TIME: "We felt that security inside the grounds would negatively impact both the prince's experience and that of his fellow students. I would often see a man outside the college gates who looked strangely ordinary and who would follow the crown prince when he left the college. I imagine it will be the same for young Bilawal. The college will demand that the security remain largely invisible."

At Bhutto Zardari's college, students report that the new head of Pakistan's main opposition party behaves as a normal student, although, like Prince William, he often goes by an alias to disguise his lineage: Bilawal Lawalib, the last name a backward spelling of the first. Such ruses will fool no one now that his face has been splashed across the front pages of world newspapers. But as a celebrity, he has an extra protective tool. Although no student at St. Andrews ever summoned the courage to make the "royal run" at William for fear his guards were armed, I once resolved to shake the prince's hand. Slowly, and with both hands clearly visible, I approached His Royal Highness to introduce myself. He accepted my outstretched palm without squeezing, and dismissed my advance with a short pleasantry. With such an altitudinous reception, who needs security officers?

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Benazir Bhutto was a presidential candidate. She was a prime ministerial candidate.