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Feature Article
Summer on the Cote d'Azur: A Colossal Blunder? 2015-08-16
King Salman's planned three-week stay at the family villa in the south of France quickly deteriorated into fiasco, with one controversy after another dogging the royal visit. Was the royal party driven out by the undue attention?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

Typically, Salman has preferred to holiday on the Costa del Sol in Spain, where he has spent part of the summer every year for the last three decades. The royal connection goes back over 40 years, to 1973, when Prince (later King) Fahd first vacationed there, after being persuaded to visit Marbella instead of Monaco. Later, Fahd built a number of luxury palaces in the area, until the royal properties eventually encompassed the 48,000 hectare "Las Lomas", a hillside overlooking the famous Golden Mile. Other royals built their own palaces, until Marbella became something of a summer residence for much of the family. While Fahd visited less and less often in his later years, and King Abdallah never came, Salman was a perennial fixture, referred to locally as "amigo Salman". One of his yachts, Shaf, is moored permanently in Puerto Banus nearby, while he stays at the magnificent Riyadh palace. Area business prospered, not only from the yearly influx of big-spending regulars, but also from special events like the wedding in 2011 of Salman's granddaughter, which was held there (at vast expense). Like his brother Fahd before him, Salman also funds a number of charitable projects in the area, including a mosque.

This year, however, Salman decided he would holiday in France instead. Along with an entourage of around 1,000, he arrived on the Riviera at the end of July, planning to stay for three weeks at the family estate in Vallauris Golfe-Juan, about 6km from Cannes. Some 700 members of his party were accommodated at top hotels on the promenade in Cannes. The luxury holiday villa at Vallauris, originally called Chateau de l'Horizon, was built in 1932 for American actress Maxine Elliott. The property was later acquired by Prince Ali Khan (spiritual leader of the Shi'a Ismaili sect), and he and film star Rita Hayworth famously celebrated their wedding there in 1949. Crown Prince Fahd bought the property in 1979. A series of clashes with local residents soon erupted, however, as his efforts to insulate the villa from outsiders alienated the community. In one example, a foreshadowing of things to come, residents won a court order in the 1980s to block Fahd's attempt to close a footpath next to the villa.

As the royals descended, local shop owners rejoiced, seeing the visit as a boon for business (indeed, the Saudis spent about 9 million euros on accommodation alone). But already there was friction. Authorities closed a one kilometre stretch of beach ahead of the king's visit to prevent an occupation of the area, and imposed an outright ban on approaching closer than 300 metres of the villa by sea. Many saw this as a "privatisation" of the area, though few seemed to appreciate the concerns over the king's safety. With war raging along the Kingdom's southern border with Yemen, and terrorist attacks now sadly commonplace within its own territory, guaranteeing Salman's personal security was not a matter for half measures. The French authorities seem to have understood the Saudi's point of view as well, noting at the time that no controversy would have ensued if any other world leader had insisted on a similar clampdown. Nonetheless, local residents saw it as an affront to the principle of equality, pointing to the supposed illegality of denying access to the general public for the sake of any one individual.

The main point of contention was, in fact, a nudist beach. The popular "La Mirandole" was located almost directly beneath the villa, and the Saudis insisted that public access to the area be closed. French bathers objected. The problem was that the king's balcony almost directly overlooked the 100-metre-long stretch of beach, and though he may not have relished the prospect of peering down on French nudists from his apartments, the more immediate concern was the close proximity of large numbers of the public (in this case perhaps a few dozen). Furthermore, he also wanted to enjoy the beach in private.

the locals revolt
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