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Feature Article
2021-04-09

Rebranding the Kingdom: Illusion or Reality?

A new wrinkle in the saga of the famous "Salvator Mundi" painting, acquired by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman for a record sum in 2017, shines a revealing light on his character, mirroring the gradual erosion of his own carefully cultivated image.

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

The sale by Christie's auction house in London of what was billed as one of only a handful of remaining works by the famed Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci was a lavish affair, attracting hundreds of well-heeled bidders and followed online by over 120,000 enthusiasts. The painting, the Salvator Mundi, or "Savior of the World", was a portrait of Jesus Christ that had been dubbed the "male Mona Lisa", and was expected to fetch a record sum. Indeed, after feverish bidding, the work ended up in the hands of Muhammad bin Salman (or MbS as he is commonly known), for the previously unheard of amount of $450 million. The actual bidder in attendance turned out to be a close associate of the crown prince, Badr bin Abdallah al-Farhan, an unknown but well-connected prince from a cadet branch, acting on behalf of MbS. The sale made headlines around the world, both because of the record price it fetched, but also because of the controversy surrounding its purchase - not only are representations of the human form anathema to Islam (and this not just any subject), but it came at a time when the Kingdom was urging belt-tightening at home. MbS himself was warning of the dangers of an economy too reliant on oil, and just embarking on his transformative Vision 2030 project. A high-profile art purchase (along with a French chateau and superyacht, the $440 million Serene he bought on a whim from a Russian oligarch) made a mockery of any "we're all in this together" narrative.

Subsequently, the painting was loaned to the Louvre Abu Dhabi museum, which unexpectedly, and without explanation, canceled its planned unveiling in September 2018. It was then rumored to be on the crown prince's yacht, moored in the Red Sea, but it may also have been passed along to a member of the UAE's ruling Al Maktoum family by this point. The only thing certain is that the painting has not been seen publicly since the Christie's sale. Now, however, a film by French cinematographer Antoine Vitkine, "The Savior for Sale", has tackled the mystery, and the filmmaker's bombshell conclusion is that the Salvator Mundi cannot properly be called an da Vinci original. He details how a prior scientific analysis by three experts at the Louvre in Paris had already concluded that the painting, though produced in Leonardo's workshop, was not by his hand alone, although the findings were suppressed. Other experts, after extensive analysis including X-ray techniques, also agree that Salvator Mundi was primarily the work of an assistant, with only "small retouchings" by the master himself. These misgivings explain the reluctance of the Abu Dhabi museum to present it, and apparently the controversy even caused a minor diplomatic spat, as MbS had apparently pressured the Louvre to lie about the authenticity of the painting. French President Macron even got involved, lending official weight to the Louvre's stand, to the chagrin of the Saudis. The crown prince was furious - he had tried and failed to prevent questions over Salvator Mundi's authenticity from making him look foolish. Had he just spent the record sum of $450 million on a fake? The money meant nothing; he only wanted to be spared the public humiliation.

The last few years have been devastating to MbS. When he first came to prominence, as his father Salman's annointed heir, the future looked promising - the young and dynamic crown prince had grand ambitions for the future. He was not afraid to go to war with the religious establishment, which he felt was the primary reason for the failure of the Kingdom to move forward. Unlike the previous generation of royals, which had to an unappreciated extent felt the same way, he wanted to take more than baby steps and did not shrink from provoking the ire of the clerics. No longer would the feared religious police, the mutawwa'a, prowl the streets, arresting or giving chase to transgressors.

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Past Feature Articles
It's Complicated: The Changing Nature of the US-Saudi Alliance

After the long-awaited release of a US intelligence report into the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Biden administration immediately took flak for seeming to give Muhammad bin Salman, named in the report as the man bearing key responsibility, a free pass. Has the White House made its point, or further emboldened the crown prince?

The Arab Spring Revisited: The Royal Response

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As world leaders rushed to send congratulatory messages to US President-Elect Joe Biden on his electoral victory, Saudi Arabia was notably silent. It was no surprise that the crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, had his hopes pinned on a Trump win, but has the apparent snub already set the tone for future relations for the new administration?

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