Smiles all round: Saudi crown prince visits Spain to sign €2.2 billion arms deal

Saudi Arabia's crown prince held talks Thursday with Spain's king and prime minister in Madrid, the last stop of his global diplomatic charm offensive to try to project a new liberal image for his conservative kingdom.

Smiles all round: Saudi crown prince visits Spain to sign €2.2 billion arms deal
All smiles at the Zarzuela Palace. Photo: AFP

Spain's King Felipe VI met with Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who serves as  defence minister and also controls economic policy for the world's top oil  exporter, at the Zarzuela Palace on the outskirts of Madrid, before hosting a  luncheon in his honour attended by senior Spanish officials and businessmen.

King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia greet the Saudi crown prince. Photo: AFP

The Saudi prince then held talks behind closed doors with Defence Minister  Maria Dolores Cospedal and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.  

He is expected to sign five memorandums of understanding in the areas of  culture, science, employment, air transport and defence.   

Top-selling daily newspaper El Pais reported earlier this week that Spain  would likely make progress during his visit on a deal to sell five corvettes  warships to Saudi Arabia for around two billion euros ($2.5 billion).

“The signing of this memorandum of understanding (on defence) can be a step  in that direction,” a Spanish government source told AFP.    

A coalition of NGOs including Amnesty International and Greenpeace urged  Madrid not to go ahead with the deal because the corvettes could be used in  Saudi Arabia's military campaign against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen,  where thousands of civilians have been killed.

READ MORE: NGOs urge Spain not to sell warships to Saudi Arabia

But Spain's loss-making shipbuilder Navantia is placing a lot of hope on  the deal, which has reportedly been under negotiation for two years.    

Prince Mohammed is already seen as the country's de facto ruler controlling  the major levers of government.

He arrived in Spain late on Wednesday hot on the heels of a three-day  official visit to France and after a tour lasting several weeks of Egypt, the  United States and Britain that saw the self-styled moderniser sign  multimillion-dollar deals.   

Madrid is the last stop of his global diplomatic charm offensive.

Key countries

The goal of this global tour “is to present this young prince, who is quite  unknown, in countries he considers key for his plans to transform Saudi  Arabia,” Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, an analyst at Spanish think-tank Real  Instituto Elcano who specialises in the Awarb world, told AFP.

Spain is a leader in sectors such as renewable energy and infrastructure  which are key to Prince Mohammed's “Vision 2030”, a package of economic and  social policies designed to free the kingdom from dependence on oil exports,  he added.

As part of this plan Riyadh plans to spend 32 billion euros on  transportation infrastructure in the next decade and Spanish firms are keen to  score building contracts. Spain's public works ministry has identified Saudi 
Arabia as one a “nation of interest”.

Spanish firms have already won two major infrastructure contracts in Saudi  Arabia in recent years.

A Spanish consortium, Al-Shoula, is building a high-speed railway across  the desert to link the holy cities of Mecca and Medina while Spanish  construction group FCC leads one of three consortia building a rapid transit  system in the Saudi capital.

Spain and Saudi Arabia's royal families are very close as King Felipe's  father Juan Carlos was a close friend of the kingdom's late King Fahd, who  reigned from 1982 to 2005, and is close to his brother King Salman.

King Felipe visited Saudi Arabia in January 2017, three years after he  assumed the Spanish throne.




FOCUS: Can Spain’s King restore faith in the monarchy?

Families are frequently a source of embarrassment, but the recent troubles caused by Spanish King Felipe VI's relatives belong to an entirely different realm.

FOCUS: Can Spain's King restore faith in the monarchy?

From expedited Covid vaccinations to tax offences and shady financial dealings by family members, Felipe has found himself in a royal mess sabotaging his efforts to clean up the image of Spain’s scandal-tainted monarchy.

It has in some ways left him tilting at windmills. Earlier controversies led to him cutting off his own father’s allowance, among other steps, but now more may be on the way, as he seeks to balance
family concerns with understandable outrage in Spain.

Last week his father, former King Juan Carlos, announced he had settled a debt of nearly 4.4 million euros ($5.3 million) with the Spanish tax office due on the value of previously undeclared private jet flights paid by a foundation based in Liechtenstein.

It was the second such tax settlement in less than three months for Juan Carlos, who went into self-exile in the United Arab Emirates in August as questions mounted over the origins of his fortune.

The former king is the target of three separate probes into his financial dealings.

And on Wednesday King Felipe’s older sisters Elena and Cristina acknowledged that they were vaccinated for the coronavirus while visiting their father in Abu Dhabi, sidestepping the immunisation queue in Spain.

The king’s spokesman stressed his sisters, just like his father, were no longer officially part of the monarchy and he was therefore not responsible for their actions.

‘Protect monarchy’

“He takes it badly, logically…because like everyone else, he has a heart” but “his role is to protect the monarchy from the storm,” journalist Jose Apezarena, the author of several books on Felipe, told AFP.

“It is clear to him that if he has to choose between the family and the monarchy, he will choose the monarchy.”

After Juan Carlos abdicated in 2014 against a backdrop of scandals over his finances and love life, Felipe VI ascended the throne with the goal of restoring the monarchy’s prestige.

He promptly ordered an audit of the royal household’s accounts and issued a “code of conduct” for its members.

The following year he stripped the title of duchess from his sister Cristina who was implicated along with her husband Inaki Urdangarin in a wide-ranging case of embezzlement of public funds.

The couple stood trial in 2017. While the court acquitted Cristina, her husband is serving a jail sentence of five years and 10 months.

Last year Felipe renounced any future personal inheritance he might receive from his father, and stripped him of his annual allowance of nearly 200,000 Euros, after new details of his allegedly shady dealings emerged.

The king could be forced to go even further, according to Pablo Simon, a political science professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University.

“Felipe VI does not keep his family under control and their behaviour represents a huge reputation problem” for the monarchy, he said.

There will be further revelations regarding Juan Carlos’ questionable financial dealings in the coming years and Felipe will have “no alternative but to erect a clearer firewall”, such as asking the government to remove his title of king emeritus, he added.

PM under pressure

The royal scandals also put Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez in an “uncomfortable situation”, said Simon.

Socialist ministers have in recent days repeatedly praised Felipe as “exemplary” even as they criticise his father’s behaviour, and the party backs the continuation of the monarchy.

But the scandals give fuel to the anti-monarchy arguments of far-left party Podemos, the junior partner in Sanchez’s minority coalition government.

Podemos, along with smaller Basque and Catalan separatist parties which help the government pass legislation in parliament, are calling for a serious debate over the future of the monarchy.

Sanchez in December referred vaguely to a “road map” to renew the Crown “in terms of transparency and exemplarity”.

If a debate over the monarchy’s future were to open it would lead to “the fracture of the majority supporting the government”, said Simon.