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Feature Article

da Vinci and the Plumber: Royal Exceptions or the Rule?

Separate news events involving the crown prince and his sister highlight the often un-Islamic behavior of the royal family. Is this part of a long-standing pattern, or have the senior royals embarked on a dangerous and cynical new course?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The sister of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, Hussa, is set to face trial in France, accused of ordering her bodyguard to attack a tradesman, causing grievous bodily harm. Although expected in court on July 9, Hussa is unlikely to attend the hearing. The assault reportedly took place in her luxury apartment in Paris three years ago, after she caught a plumber secretly taking photos of the flat on his mobile phone. The workman told police that Hussa ordered her bodyguard to kill him, believing he planned to sell the photos to the media. "Kill him, the dog, he doesn't deserve to live," she allegedly said. Her guard (who later faced criminal charges) beat the man, and, holding him at gunpoint, told him to kiss the princess' feet the tradesman refused). After the victim reported the assault to police - so severely beaten, he was unable to work for eight months - Hussa was taken into custody. But she was released after an hour even though she did not have diplomatic immunity, a decision which sparked outrage at the time. She has not been arrested under an international warrant issued in 2017.

Meanwhile, the world's most expensive artwork - Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece "Salvator Mundi", has turned up on the crown prince's $500m, 134m yacht, the Serene. The whereabouts of the 500-year-old painting has been a mystery since it was sold for a record $450m at auction by Christie's in New York in 2017. It was revealed to have been bought by a relatively unknown member of the royal family, Badr bin Abdallah, a close friend of Muhammad (known as MbS) and subsequently made Culture Minister. The purchase was apparently made on behalf of the crown prince, since Badr is not known to be among the uber-rich. MbS, who had previously made waves with his acquisition of the jaw-droppingly expensive yacht (seemingly on a whim), came in for further scorn when the latest news became known. At a time of belt-tightening in the face of stubbornly low oil prices (Saudi's nearly exclusive source of revenue), the extravagance seemed almost callous.

The two news items, though seemingly unrelated, highlight the utterly different world the royals often inhabit. As the offspring of the current king, Salman, they occupy a uniquely privileged position, but even before the father's accession they enjoyed a special status. Salman has always occupied a key role in the family, being one commonly regarded as closest to the Kingdom's founder (Ibn Saud) in not only appearance but temperament and outlook as well. He was well placed for decades as informal royal arbiter (head of the Royal Family Council, which resolved minor disputes out of the public eye), and held the important Riyadh governorship. In addition, he, along with his late brother King Fahd, hailed from the al-Sudayri line of the family, which once held a near-monopoly on power by virtue of their stranglehold on key government posts such as Interior and Defense. It was an article of faith that one or other of the Sudayri brothers (the so-called Sudayri Seven) would eventually establish an alternate line of succession, shutting out their less well-placed half brothers. It was in such a milieu that MbS and his siblings grew up (though in fairness, he was by all accounts relatively down-to-earth, by royal standards at least, and even pursued a law degree, which he attained on his own merits). Little is known of the childhood of Hussa and others, which is not unusual in a society where women are typically secluded, but being raised in a palatial compound as the sons and daughters of a future king would have had something of a formative influence, to put it mildly. Then, too, Muhammad seems to have emerged as a favorite son somewhere along the way, accompanying his father on foreign trips, and being given responsibilities far beyond his experience from an early age. It should have been easy for observers to spot the way forward.

Related articles: Muhammad bin Salman and the Great Unknowns: A Closer Understanding or Distant Conceit?
Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?
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Past Feature Articles
Muhammad bin Salman and the Great Unknowns: A Closer Understanding or Distant Conceit?

Three big uncertainties surround the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, and his leadership role - what, if any, influence does his father, King Salman, have over domestic family politics; does the larger family, especially its senior members, still retain any influence over succession; and to what extent is a larger framework in place to govern executive decision making. The answers to these questions, however, are likely to be remain unanswered as events on the ground overtake a complete understanding of the unfolding dynamic.

Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?

It is no secret that the Kingdom has embarked on a campaign of repression, silencing any who might challenge the agenda and succession prospects of the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman. A ramping up of the intensity and extent of the crackdown raises the question of his survivability - will the king, committed to his son's prospects, take a knee and let the clock run out, or will an overconfident Muhammad celebrate too soon and see his world come crashing down?

A Father-Son Rift: Change Of Course Or Course Correction?

The news that King Salman has stripped his son Muhammad, the crown prince, of some financial and economic authority should be considered unsurprising. A widening rift at the top has been apparent for months, and calls to rein in the reckless heir to the throne have only accelerated in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Looking East: Hedging The Bet Or Cutting Losses?

As Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman faces unrelenting international pressure, he has embarked upon a major Asian tour. At the same time, revelations continue to trickle out over his deep involvement with U.S. President Trump and his family. Is the Kingdom's de facto leader playing both sides, or has he given up on his American bet?

A Royal Shakeup: Window-Dressing Or Genuine Reform?

The crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, seems more secure in his position than ever. Has the succession dynamic passed the point of no return?