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Feature Article

Royal Dalliance and Soft Power: Changing Mores or Sidelined Princes?

With the crown prince rumored to be dating American actress Lindsay Lohan, a similar affair from the past comes to mind, involving his predecessor and uncle, the late King Fahd. At the time, royal family opposition destroyed any chance of an enduring relationship; given Muhammad bin Salman's pre-eminent position within the family today, would the same dynamic hold?

by Senior Analyst Talal Kapoor

In the latest in a long string of tabloid headlines for the actress, Lohan, who has been partly based in Dubai for the past few years, has been linked to Crown Prince Muhammad (known as MbS). Although all parties deny anything more than a brief meeting at a Grand Prix event last year, associates of the actress have spoken of MbS flying her around in his private jets and showering her with presents - including a gift-wrapped credit card. They also claim to have seen text messages exchanged between the two. Word is that Middle Eastern dignitaries have been chasing after Lohan, so it is hard to say whether this fits a pattern, or whether MbS is happy to let rumor swirl for the sake of amusement (or perhaps does not care).

Involvement with a movie star would normally be scandalous in the conservative Kingdom, although the crown prince may view a dalliance (or the rumor of one) with a fair bit of cheek, thinking it adds to the playboy image he has, unconsciously or not, acquired, by virtue of his well-publicized travels and mega-yachts. Lohan's possible conversion to Islam would be unlikely to overcome the baggage acquired after years of fast living in the public eye (though she has never officially confirmed the conversion to Islam, she has spoken about her interest in learning about Middle Eastern culture, and said that the Qur'an has opened doors for her to find "another true meaning". She has also a well-known affinity for the culture and attire). As for MbS, he quietly married a daughter of Mashhur bin Abd al-Aziz in April 2008, and has four children. Whether this was arranged (his wife is a cousin, not uncommon among the royals), and he is actually on the prowl for a second wife is not known.

The gossip, if true, has a parallel with another scandal, also involving a crown prince and a foreign woman. In both cases, the object of affection was a non-Muslim and a non-royal, terms by no means disqualifying on their own, but family disapproval was strong in the case of Fahd and his lover Janan bint Harb. Her family were Christian hoteliers living in the West Bank town of Ramallah. She met Fahd in 1967 while she was working as a translator at the Venezuelan Embassy in Jiddah, and they married two years later (she was 19). Family opposition to the marriage, intense from the beginning, was not alleviated by the fact that she converted to Islam. Her convertion to Scientology in 1986 only further alienated her from the rest of the royals. Under pressure, Harb moved to London in 1970, where she had to be content with the occasional visit from Fahd. Outspoken about her treatment (and exclusion from an inheritance) following Fahd's death, she has also claimed she was not allowed anywhere near the palace and was prohibited from having children. Eventually a U.K. judgment recognized her right to the property Fahd had bought for her, but the marriage was never officially recognized by the family.

The cases are more similar than they first appear. Fahd had a reputation as something of a playboy, spending vast sums at casinos on the Riviera and known for his lavish palaces strewn across Europe, some of which he barely set foot in. Restraint was not in the royal vocabulary in the 1960s, and much like King Saud, it was a matter of 'do as I say, not as I do', despite the fact that the royals were purportedly the exemplars of proper Islamic living. Even if it was accepted that a Saudi would throw off the hijab as soon as the plane landed at a foreign airport, Fahd and others took their indulgence away from home to a whole new level. The gambling exploits of many of the senior princes became legendary, and their yachts and Costa del Sol palaces were the envy of the celebrities they entertained. With seemingly unlimited resources at their disposal from the Kingdom's oil revenue, the world was their playground. So too, is MbS in many ways a throwback to an earlier, heady time.

Related articles: Muhammad bin Salman And The Crushing Of Dissent: Derailing Succession Or Tightening The Grip?
A Palace Conflicted: Royal Family Or One-Man Rule?
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Page 2: the demise of council?
Saudi Business News
King Salman's Jordan Visit in Pictures
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Universities under probe for financial discrepancies
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Clerics and Confidantes: Royal Crackdown or Seismic Shift?

Shaykh Salman al-Awda, one of the most high-profile religious figures in the Kingdom, faces the death penalty for his perceived opposition to official government policy. Is his case unique, and the severity of his actions such that he represents a genuine challenge to power, or does he represent a shift in dynamic of the Al Saud's partnership with the religious establishment?

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?

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.