Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is probably the most talked about crown prince in the history of the Wahhabi kingdom, in a political culture where leaders are usually careful not to air their dirty laundry in public and fear abrupt decisions and risk-taking above all else.
This is part 5 of a 6-part series.
The first half of 2015 was decidedly an action-packed period for Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). Right after King Abdullah died on 23 January, MBS’s father Salman became the monarch, thus giving his son virtually unfettered access to royal money.
MBS had also put in motion his strategy to discredit his cousin Muhammad bin Nayef, who was named crown prince in April 2015, and in March initiated a war in Yemen – the Saudi military’s first large-scale operation outside its borders.
When the stifling July heat settled into Riyadh, the young thirty-something decided it was finally time to take a break.
Before the Saudis arrived, close to 150 Brazilian and Russian supermodels were welcomed on the island.
The prince intended to have a leisurely holiday, far from prying eyes, if possible. That ruled out the usual suspects like Paris, the French Riviera, Marbella and the royal family’s other typical holiday haunts. MBS ultimately opted to go to the Maldives, privatising the highly exclusive, sumptuous Velaa Resort, a paradise floating atop the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean. There, some 50 villas sit perched above splendid coral reefs and come with a housekeeper and, of course, a pool.
MBS’s small gang of a dozen lucky friends was enchanted by the resort’s many luxurious amenities, including a nightclub, a snowblower, a wine cellar bursting with the best French vintages and a restaurant overlooking the water, where guests can admire sea turtles. Before the Saudis arrived, close to 150 Brazilian and Russian supermodels were welcomed on the island. After being tested for sexually transmitted diseases, they were driven to their villas in golf carts.
Concerts given by Pitbull and Korean pop star Psy
To keep these demanding guests entertained, there were concerts featuring the rapper Pitbull, Korean pop star Psy and Dutch DJ Afrojack. The hotel’s 300 or so employees were each paid $5,000 for one month on the job, not counting the huge tips they pocketed. Two members of the waitstaff who kept their smartphones in tow despite the management’s policy were fired on the spot. The no-phone rule, however, turned out to be an unnecessary precaution since the prince brought his own army of servants who replaced the hotel staff.
After spending the day in the privacy of their own villas, the happy few would go out on the town at night, perhaps in order to avoid the paparazzi or simply because that’s the Saudi way. The restaurant and nightclub would only come alive at sundown. One evening, MBS, keyed-up over Afrojack’s performance, went on stage and took over the turntables, much to the annoyance of the Dutch DJ.
News travelled fast about the prince’s plans to party for a month. An Iranian newspaper had already had a field day with the story. Less than a week into their stay, MBS and his friends had no alternative but to leave the idyllic island.
Perhaps frustrated over his shortened Maldivian getaway, for his next holiday, the young prince chose the more traditional French Riviera. One day, he was stopped in his tracks by a splendid, almost 135-metre-long yacht named “Serene”. A year earlier, Bill Gates leased the ship to the tune of $5m per week. MBS fell in love with the yacht, which features a jacuzzi, an underwater viewing room, two helipads, a cinema and a gym, after renting it for a day and decided he wanted to have it all to himself.
After a few weeks of negotiating with the owner, Yuri Sheffler, a Russian billionaire who made his fortune as the seller of the world’s No. 1 vodka brand, Stolichnaya, MBS bought the prized floating toy for $429m. Eventually, the ship was docked on the Red Sea so that MBS could have a private place to relax whenever needed.
A deep-pocketed prince
For the deep-pocketed prince, the Château Louis XIV in Louveciennes, France, was a big, albeit not over the top purchase. In September 2015, for just under $300m, MBS treated himself to the replica of Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, not long after acquiring the Serene. The original château, located in Seine-et-Marne, France, got its first owner, Nicolas Fouquet, the superintendent of finances under Louis XIV, into hot water, as he was jailed until his death after the king became jealous over the ostentatious abode.
But the prince’s spending spree didn’t end there. Some two years later, Christie’s auction house in New York City put the painting Salvator Mundi up for bidding. Though some scholars believe it to be an original work of Leonardo da Vinci, this attribution is disputed by others.
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The auction company’s employees were all astonished that a buyer from the Middle East was in the running to purchase the portrait of Christ. Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan Al Saud, who would go on to become culture minister in 2018, placed a bid on MBS’s behalf and said he was instructed to offer as much as $1bn for the small 66-centimetre painting.
But six other buyers were interested in the portrait. Eventually, this number was whittled down to two: the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian and Prince Badr, both with representatives at Christie’s. The Chinese buyer offered $350m, but when Prince Badr raised his bid to $400m, he let him have it.
The enormous sum sent the auction house into a frenzy. Prince Badr, a very close friend and associate of MBS, turned out to be the mystery buyer from the Middle East. Art connoisseurs still wonder today what made Prince Mohammed splurge on the painting, particularly as it has not been seen ever since. Rumour has it that it currently hangs on a wall inside the Serene.
MBS spent a cool $1.18bn on an array of prestige purchases between 2015 and 2017, including his Maldivian holiday getaway, Christie’s shopping spree and yacht and château purchases. Once teased by his big brothers, the joke is now on them.
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