The Saudi royal family's summer visits to Marbella are always eagerly anticipated by the local residents. The late King Fahd was among the first to travel to the resort town in the early 1970s, and was so enamoured by the experience that he built a palace, Mar-Mar (now called al-Nada). Since then, he and other royals have been regular guests, and their lavish spending on jewelery, clothes, hotels, restaurants and exotic car rentals have revitalized the local economy. Inspired by the royals' fondness for the Spanish beach resort, it has become a popular destination for other vacationing Saudis as well.
Fahd's full brother Salman bin Abd al-Aziz is today the royal most associated with Marbella. Governor of Riyadh since 1955 and considered a possible eventual successor to Abdallah, Salman is one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom, commanding a huge patronage network and enormous influence. This year, Salman arrived at al-Nada in August with a personal entourage of over a hundred. Dozens of other royals and their families, each accompanied by their own attendants, made the trip with Salman for the one-month stay.
Salman's son Sultan joined him at al-Nada and returned to Riyadh on September 3. Sultan is one of the leading members of the third-generation princes and becoming an influential behind-the-scenes player in his own right. He is closely associated with his family in a number of projects to promote tourism to the Kingdom, and to preserve historical sites such as the Al Saud seat of al-Dir'iyyah.
Jawhara bint Ibrahim, widow of King Fahd, arrived at the palace on August 21. Jawhara, from the wealthy al-Ibrahim family, is the mother of Fahd's youngest son, Abd al-Aziz. She remains an influential and respected member of the family, and continues to be close to senior royals, especially Fahd's full brothers. A measure of her importance is reflected in the fact that she travelled with King Abdallah to Kuwait in January to pay the family's respects upon the death of the Amir Jabir al-Ahmad Al Sabah.
Abd al-Aziz bin Fahd, Minister of State without portfolio, joined his mother in Marbella, and stayed until the middle of September. He inaugurated the Malaga mosque, whose cornerstone was first laid in 1997, and together with Salman bin Abd al-Aziz he visited the King Abd al-Aziz mosque in Marbella.
King Juan Carlos of Spain cut short his own holiday in Palma de Mallorca to visit Salman, and the two had a private conference on August 21. The two families have enjoyed close and friendly relations for many years. Salman represented the Saudi royal family at the wedding of Prince Philip and Letizia Ortiz in 2004, and King Carlos visited the Kingdom in April 2006. But the enormous influence that Saudi Arabia commands is reflected in the fact that the Spanish monarch hastened to attend Salman, rather than stand on protocol and receive the Saudis.
The 1,500-member gathering caused a considerable stir. 300 locals were hired as servants, maids, chauffeurs and butlers in addition to hundreds of temporary gardeners for the palace grounds. The royals descended on local restaurants and shops, where $1.2m was spent on jewellery the first day alone. Area beach clubs were another popular destination. Salman bin Abd al-Aziz entertained on his yacht, the 55-meter Shaf (formerly King Fahd's), which is permanently moored in nearby Puerto Jose Banus, and every available jet-ski from local marinas was hired out.
Nonetheless, the royal family's visit was considerably less conspicuous than previous holidays have been. Whereas in other years it seemed as though the entire royal family had taken up residence on the Costa del Sol, and lavish spending was the order of the day (King Fahd once left a $300,000 tip for the Hotel Incosol staff, and $1,000 tips for croupiers at the Casino were not unknown), the present visit, by comparison, seemed a little more subdued.