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Feature Article
2017-12-17

The Strange Case Of The 'Salvatore Mundi' - Hiding In Plain Sight?

At the same time as the identity of the mysterious buyer of an expensive and controversial work of auctioned art is revealed to be Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the fate of dozens of royals detained for alleged corruption remains uncertain. Does the news of his purchase make a mockery of his economic austerity program, or is Muhammad sending a subtle message to his opponents?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The record $450 million paid for Leonardo da Vinci's painting 'Salvator Mundi' at a November 15 auction at Christie's in New York made headlines around the world, an event made even more exciting by the fact that the winning bidder was a "mystery buyer", whose identity was kept secret until uncovered by a New York Times investigation. The final bid was apparently made by Badr bin Abdallah bin Mohammed, a minor prince of the al-Farhan branch. Badr is the current chairman of the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG), but relatively unknown and not commonly supposed to hold the kind of disposable riches that one who need for this kind of purchase. He did not put himself forward as a bidder until the day before the auction, and when pressed on the source of his wealth by Christie's (whose agents were suspicious and demanded a $100 million deposit from Badr to qualify for bidding), he made only vague references to real estate. American intelligence officials, however, believe Badr was acting as a proxy for Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Confusion still reigns, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi insisting the painting is destined to hang there, and an official denial coming from Saudi Arabia, but all evidence suggests the crown prince was the actual buyer (perhaps intending to loan the artwork to the Louvre), and his close associate Badr his proxy.

All the more remarkable is the subject matter of the painting. The Kingdom's strict interpretation of Islam frowns upon visual portrayals of the human form, and religious figures in particular. Worse, in this case the 'Salvator Mundi' portrays Jesus (considered a prophet in Islam,) as the divine Christ, holding an orb in his left hand while raising his right. Possession of such a painting would be censured in Saudi, and its very existence is an affront to the conservative religious establishment. Either the crown prince did not care about alienating the clerics, and feels the rules do not apply to him, or he has made a point of deliberately flaunting his transgression. For unlike other extravagant and whimsical purchases by Muhammad (known as MbS), little attempt seems to have been made to hide the actual buyer's identity.

In some cases, such as the recent upgrades to King Salman's Moroccan summer residence, whose lavish accoutrements were widely reported around the world, there is no question as to the owner, and despite the unfortunate optics of the royal family's spending in an age of austerity, there is at least the knowledge that Salman is only following in the footsteps of those before him. Some might allow that a king is perhaps entitled to a certain amount of indulgence, and if nothing else, no one can accuse Salman of gross mismanagement of the state in the same way his predecessor King Saud was guilty. Other royals may also live large, but like al-Walid bin Talal, can point to their own independent business success. MbS is in another category altogether. The offspring of prior monarchs, in spite of their own great wealth, tended to either keep under the radar (Mit'ab bin Abdallah), or make no secret of the fact that the source of their riches was of a variety not available to commoners (land grants, or the facilitation of huge government contracts, as in the case of Muhammad bin Fahd, notoriously). One expects a son of Salman to be rich, but the size and scale of his recent acquisitions, according to the revelations of leaked documents such as the Panama and Paradise Papers, which detail the complex web of ownership shrouding the royal's overseas possessions, is shocking.

MbS has also been named as the buyer of a 440-foot yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon. The Serene, costing nearly as much as the da Vinci painting, was purchased on a whim after being spotted while MbS was holidaying in the south of France. The billionaire former owner moved off the same day. Though the sale had happened in 2015, the role of MbS was only lately reported.

Related articles: A Royal Purge: Public Relations or Private Scores?
The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?
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Commentary
A Royal Purge: Public Relations or Private Scores?

The spectacular arrests of high-profile members of the royal family on November 4 rivetted the world's attention on Saudi Arabia and it's young crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. Under the guise of an anti-corruption drive, any opposition to Muhammad from within the royal family has been effectively shut down; at the same time, the purge solidifies his support from the broader public.

The Disaffected Princes: Danger From Within?

Despite an implicit admission that achieving the targets of Vision 2030 will be difficult, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is ploughing ahead with reforms. At the same time, any criticism of royal rule is being firmly rebuffed. Dealing with immediate threats to royal rule, however, may leave Muhammad exposed to challenge on another front.

The Islamist Crackdown: Impending Autocracy Or Crumbling Support?

The month of September got under way with an alarming crackdown on dissent which targeted critics of the newly-installed crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. At the same time as he scales back plans for the ambitious Vision 2030, the crown prince is moving to solidify his position. But do his aggressive tactics underline how tenuous his position really is, or rather, do they expose an overconfident belief that he can navigate the treacherous waters alone?

Changing Family Dynamics: End of an Interlude?

As traditional assumptions about the place of consensus, seniority and compromise in domestic family politics are cast aside in the face of new realities, any discussion of succession must take into account the evolving dynamics. The more recent history of the Al Saud, in fact, and the impression drawn of of stability, practicality, and quiet competence, may, in the larger scheme, prove more the exception than the rule.

Succession Shock - The Trump Effect?

The King has replaced Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayif with his own son, Muhammad, the deputy crown prince and defense minister, in a move which, though not entirely unexpected, represents a seismic shift in the succession dynamic. Now, the position of deputy crown prince remains vacant - will Salman abdicate in favor of his son, and who will be next in line?

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