The guests arrived by seaplane — a few dozen Middle Eastern men, privileged guests of a host who had paid a mind-boggling $50million (£38million) to hire the tiny island of Velaa for a month to turn it into his private playground in the Maldives.
He had flown in some of the world’s top DJs and rappers to entertain them each night at the beach disco — which had its own snow machine so dancers could gyrate in an artificial blizzard if they so wished — and a host of beautiful women.
Every precaution had been taken to ensure privacy that summer in 2015 as the party took over an Indian Ocean getaway that has been described as one of the world’s ‘most luxurious and expensive destinations’.
The visitors brought their own servants for their more personal needs, while the island hotel’s 300 staff were banned from having mobile phones. In a further guarantee of their discretion, they were each handed a bonus of $5,000 (£3,800) — for many of them, nearly half a year’s salary.
Their generous benefactor had every reason to ensure that what happened on Velaa, stayed on Velaa.
For he was Mohammed bin Salman —favoured son of the recently crowned King Salman of Saudi Arabia — and at only 29 already the power behind the throne of a country that banned alcohol, dancing and even public interaction between men and women.
Mohammed bin Salman – favoured son of the recently crowned King Salman of Saudi Arabia – is already the power behind the throne of a country that banned alcohol
Bin Salman’s 439ft superyacht Serene includes a nightclub complete with poles for dancers
His fellow countrymen and women already took a dim view of the antics of some Saudi royalty in London — buying up the contents of Harrods or roaring around Mayfair in Lamborghinis.
They would hardly have been impressed by the sight of the rotund Bin Salman — better known by his initials MBS — clambering excitedly on stage one night during a set by the Dutch DJ Afrojack, and insisting on taking over the music.
The parties would continue until dawn and then the men — all friends or relatives of the Prince — would retire to their villas, not emerging again until the following afternoon.
Sadly, for Bin Salman and his crew, they had only been there for a week when news leaked of the party.
He and his friends left hurriedly. Many Saudis were particularly incensed that the Prince had been carousing at a time when their forces were fighting in Yemen — a conflict that, as defence minister, Bin Salman had fecklessly started.
Just three years later, he would make headlines across the world when he was implicated in another mindless act of violence — the stomach-churning killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
By then, a man hardly known outside his country before his father became king had manoeuvred his way to becoming Crown Prince and de facto ruler of one of the world’s richest countries.
Now, a startling new book details the extraordinary rise of Bin Salman, claiming that the Machiavellian schemer combines — perhaps like no other modern leader — cunning ruthlessness with astonishing greed and extravagance.
As reported by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck, authors of Blood And Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest For Global Power, the Crown Prince also stands accused of being a monumental hypocrite.
MBS had flown in some of the world’s top DJs and rappers to entertain them each night at the beach disco – which had its own snow machine so dancers could gyrate in an artificial blizzard if they so wished – and a host of beautiful women (pictured: stock photo)
Bin Salman’s Chateau Louis XIV, his £230million estate in Louveciennes, near Paris
And while MBS has claimed to have cracked down on the notorious corruption of his country’s ruling elite, recouping billions from hundreds of businessmen and officials he detained en masse in a luxury Riyadh hotel, some wonder how else — if not through graft — he could have afforded his own jaw-dropping personal spending.
In the same year as his infamous Maldives party, Bin Salman started that spending with abandon, even as he was preaching fiscal austerity to fellow Saudis.
He bought a 439 ft superyacht called the Serene which Microsoft founder Bill Gates had previously rented for $5million (£3.8million) a week. It had everything from a conference room and underwater viewing chamber to a giant Jacuzzi and two helicopter pads. Bin Salman spent only half a day on board before deciding he had to have it — so much so that he paid its owner, a Russian vodka tycoon, 429million euros (£383million), about twice its original price.
The Crown Prince, who uses it to host world leaders as well as his less salubrious friends, has installed state-of-the-art multimedia equipment that allows him to address both needs. At the touch of a few buttons, it can be converted from a political summit venue to a party palace.
A former helicopter hangar on board houses a nightclub complete with poles for dancers. ‘The ship’s crew aren’t allowed to go there under any circumstances,’ say the authors.
Yet even Serene wasn’t enough to satisfy Bin Salman’s nautical desires. It apparently travels in a convoy of 11 yachts, including support vessels and smaller yachts for additional guests
Naturally, MBS needed an equally impressive land base. The same year, he bought a similarly over-the-top French chateau for more than $ 300million (£230million), prompting Forbes magazine to call it the ‘world’s most expensive home’.
The Chateau Louis XIV near Versailles was the garish, no- opulence-spared creation of Middle Eastern developer Emad Khashoggi, nephew of the late arms dealer Adnan, who bulldozed the existing 19th-century building and replaced it with a mock 17th-century mansion, featuring a gold-leaf fountain, endless marble statuary and moat, all set in a 57-acre landscaped park. The moat features an underwater chamber with koi and sturgeon swimming overhead, while the fountains — along with the mansion’s lights, sound system and air-conditioning — can be controlled remotely with an iPhone. Reality TV star Kim Kardashian reportedly considered using it as a venue for her wedding to rapper Kanye West.
The Crown Prince took his charm offensive abroad in 2018, stopping off in London where he met the Queen (pictured: during a private audience at Buckingham Palace, 2018)
Bin Salman also bought a 620-acre estate known as Le Rouvray an hour’s drive from Paris, later applying for permission to build a hunting compound in the grounds. As with the purchase of Serene, the French properties’ connection to Bin Salman was concealed by a string of shell companies.
In 2017, it emerged that the prince had added another expensive bauble to his collection in the form of a $450million (£340million) painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Hailed as one of the world’s masterpieces, the Salvator Mundi — which depicts Christ, one hand raised in blessing and the other holding a glass orb — achieved the highest price for any work of art sold at auction.
The anonymous buyer turned out to be an obscure Saudi prince who — U.S. intelligence officials later confirmed — had been acting on behalf of the Crown Prince.
The revelations of his obscene private spending have certainly battered Bin Salman’s carefully contrived image as fundamentally different to previous Gulf playboy princes, a social reformer who would push against corruption and open up Saudi society and the economy.
While filling his own coffers was always going to be a sensitive issue, MBS was happy to be seen shelling out vast sums on vanity projects, as he tried to shift international perceptions of Saudi Arabia as illiberal and backward looking.
After shocking fellow Saudis by announcing, in 2016, the sale of part of Aramco, the country’s state oil company and the mainstay of its wealth, he invested many millions in yet more indulgent purchases.
They have included a museum and ‘performance space’ in the desert that looks like a spaceship, a $55million (£41million) complex in which to stage his beloved annual camel beauty pageant and — craziest of all — his flagship project, Neom, a $500billion (£388billion) futuristic desert mega-city.
Powered entirely by wind and solar power and partly designed by British architect Norman Foster, it will be serviced by robots (including robot dinosaurs) and flying cars.
Bin Salman announced Neom at what was billed as ‘Davos in the desert’, a 2017 summit in Riyadh that drew Western dignitaries and businessmen, all of them eagerly buying into Bin Salman’s promise of a new Saudi Arabia — and no doubt excited by the lucrative commercial possibilities of his pledge to start a $2 trillion (£1.5 trillion) investment fund.
He buttered up President Trump — not difficult, admittedly — who arrived at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel on his first foreign trip from the White House in 2017, to be greeted by a 50ft-high projection of his own face.
Bin Salman’s promise of $200billion (£150million) worth of business deals and $110 billion (£83million) in arms purchases from the U.S. were ‘wildly inflated, but it served Bin Salman well’, according to the authors — journalists for the Wall Street Journal and specialists in Saudi affairs — in Blood And Soil. The Crown Prince took his charm offensive abroad in 2018, stopping off in London where he met the Queen. His aides spent millions buying up billboard space in the UK to fill with pictures of MBS alongside positive slogans.
His security was so worried about threats and protests that they recruited dozens of British bodyguards. He then went to California to drum up interest in investment in Saudi Arabia, pressing the flesh of the Silicon Valley kings, including Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin and electric car entrepreneur Elon Musk. In Los Angeles, he met Hollywood chiefs and TV queen Oprah Winfrey, while media tycoon Rupert Murdoch hosted a dinner where he was introduced to A-list actors Michael Douglas and Morgan Freeman.
But, according to the book, the liberal-minded Americans who flocked to meet him suffered from a fundamental delusion. Despite his insistence that he wanted to bring a ‘moderate’ Islam to Saudi Arabia, Bin Salman is in many ways a traditionalist.
Just as his social reforms — such as re-opening cinemas and allowing women to drive — were designed to placate disaffected young Saudis, his wooing of U.S. approval was skin-deep and simply intended to ensure the House of Saud maintained its grip on power.
‘While Americans celebrated Saudi Arabia’s new freedoms for women, Mohammed’s men were carrying out a round-up of the very women who pushed for the new reforms,’ say the authors.
They record how Bin Salman had a friendly dinner with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos in Los Angeles, but they omit to mention subsequent claims that Bezos, the world’s richest man, had his mobile phone ‘hacked’ after receiving a WhatsApp message that had apparently been sent from the Crown Prince’s personal account.
Large amounts of data were allegedly extracted from Bezos’s phone within hours, although the Saudis insist they are innocent.
While Western leaders and business bosses were willing to overlook all manner of alleged abuses of power, so long as he might fling some of his billions their way, they couldn’t ignore the terrible killing in October 2018 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the regime’s most persistent critic.
In a carefully planned operation that was recorded by Turkish intelligence, he was ambushed on a visit to the Istanbul consulate, suffocated and dismembered by a 15-strong team of assassins.
The Saudis eventually admitted he had been killed but insisted Bin Salman had not ordered it — a claim dismissed by both Turkey and the CIA.
It was then than Bin Salman’s friends in the West ran for the hills.
Richard Branson pulled out of a plan to cooperate over his space travel company, texting MBS with advice on reforms that ‘would show the world the government is truly moving into the 21st century’.
Footballer Wayne Rooney was one of the few celebrities who flew over for an electric car race in Riyadh in December 2018, but by the following year’s Red Sea Week, a glitzy regatta organised by Bin Salman with catering by Michelin-starred British chef Jason Atherton, the international super-wealthy were starting to drift back.
Ultimately, Bin Salman is just too much of a big spender and — more important — too ‘tangled up’ in the U.S. economy to be cold- shouldered for ever.
Some will never forgive him but, for others, no crime may be too awful to be permanently held against the ruler of a country as rich as Saudi Arabia.
Blood And Oil: Mohammed Bin Salman’s Ruthless Quest For Global Power by Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck. Published by John Murray, £20.