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Limousines, dieticians, chateau: Mohammed bin Salman's opulent Europe trip

Saudi crown prince makes extravagant return to Greece and France, four years after murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi
French police guard the entrance to the Chateau Louis XIV, belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Louveciennes outside Paris, on 28 July 2022 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's crown prince returned to the European Union this week after a four-year enforced hiatus, and he's making up for lost time and expenses. 

Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler, visited Greece and France this week for the first time since becoming an international pariah in October 2018 following the murder of Middle East Eye and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul.

In Athens, home to milennia-old extravagant marble structures dedicated to ancient gods and kings, it was the crown prince who was leaving no stone unturned on opulence and detail.

He landed in the Greek capital on Tuesday with a delegation of 700 people who arrived on seven aircraft, according to a report by local publisher iefimerida. 

One of the planes was empty, in case anything urgent was needed, while another was converted into a makeshift hospital. 

The crown prince's security staff reportedly comprised 185 of the entourage, of whom 70 were employed to check cars and venues. 

The Saudis employed the services of 350 limousines, so many that the vehicles had to be imported from Bulgaria and Germany.

Suitcases and dieticians 

Most of the delegation stayed at the Four Seasons in Vouliagmeni on the Athenian riviera, to which they brought their own crockery, cutlery and bed linen to ensure the fearful crown prince did not have to use anything unfamiliar to him. 

Those responsible for the de-facto leader's clothes, shoes and personal belongings turned up to the hotel with 180 suitcases. 

Twenty people were in charge of the crown prince's diet: he is said to have refused all food outside of the hotel, with the exception of a state dinner at the Acropolis Museum. 

"Mohammed bin Salman's large entourage and lavish spending on vehicles and hotel rooms shows that he is now travelling as the king of Saudi Arabia, not just the crown prince," Andreas Krieg,  assistant professor at the Defence Studies Department of King's College London, told Middle East Eye. 

The autocratic Gulf royal was given a private reception at the Acropolis in Athens, the birthplace of democracy 2,500 years ago. 

He stayed at the hilltop for a long time, admiring the detailed sculptures of the Parthenon, the Erechtheum and the Propylaea temples, according to Greek outlet Tovima

'Mohammed bin Salman's large entourage and lavish spending on vehicles and hotel rooms shows that he is now travelling as the king of Saudi Arabia not just the crown prince'

- Andreas Krieg, assistant professor

The night concluded at the Acropolis Museum, where the crown prince was treated to traditional gamopilafo, dolmades and Cretan lamb, Tovima reported. 

Dessert was kataifi, a traditional pastry made with a nut filling popular in the Middle East, which all guests reportedly agreed was a "purely Greek sweet". Don't tell the Turks or Arabs.

Aside from the pomp and luxury, there was a business element to the trip. Some 17 bilateral agreements were signed across several sectors, including energy, defence, food and culture. One of the deals, worth around $1bn, was for an underwater data cable system. 

The agreements were signed at the museum, something the Greek government confirmed had never been done before. 

The visit came just days after US President Joe Biden met the crown prince in Saudi Arabia, where he sought to recalibrate Washington's ties with Riyadh, boost oil production and take steps towards further integrating Israel into the region.

"This trip to Europe is a sign of a newly gained confidence with which MBS is returning to the world stage after the emboldening Biden visit," said Krieg.

"Biden embracing MBS, prioritising realpolitik over values, seems to have signalled to other western leaders that it is ok to do the same."

Chateau built by Khashoggi cousin

The opulence carried on full steam as the crown prince travelled to France on Thursday. 

He stayed in the Chateau Louis XIV, in Louveciennes outside Paris, described by Fortune magazine as the world's most expensive home, ahead of a meeting with President Emmanuel Macron.

The chateau was sold to a mystery buyer for $300m in 2015, and, though its ownership is concealed through shell companies, advisers to the royal family confirmed to the New York Times that Mohammed bin Salman was its ultimate owner

In a grim twist of fate, the luxury property was built in 2009 by Emad Khashoggi, a cousin of murdered journalist Jamal. 

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"I am scandalised and outraged that my fiancé's executioner is received with great fanfare at the Elysée. It's a shame!" tweeted the late Jamal Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz. 

Macron greeted the prince with a lengthy handshake outside the Elysee Palace in Paris on Thursday, marking a contrast to the fist bump with Biden a week earlier

The French president's office said on Friday that the two leaders agreed to "ease the effects" of the Russia-Ukraine war during the working dinner in the palace.

A day earlier, following criticism from activists, a senior aide said the French president would raise the issue of human rights with the crown prince. 

"The era of ostracisation post-Khashoggi is clearly over," said Krieg.

"Western leaders are happy to widen their say-do gap of preaching human rights and liberal values while normalising with authoritarians."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.