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Marbella and the Saudis
29 March 2020

Marbella is well known as the classy part of the costas, but do you know the story of how it got that reputation? How did the Saudi royal family become involved ? What's Donald Trump's luxury yacht doing there? Follow me gentle reader and see how the other half live!

The little fishing village of Marbella had never been important during Spain’s turbulent history. It was just one of a dozen or so fishing villages scattered along the south coast. It was always a poor sister to Málaga, which had been used by the Phoenicians, Romans and Moors over the centuries and still is a busy international port for Mediterranean trade. Marbella had an old Moorish castle dating back to the 9th Century and there are Roman ruins throughout the municipality. La Concha Mountain towers in the background, diverting winds and giving Marbella the best weather of any village on the coast.

Ricardo Soriano (Marquis of Ivanrey) first visited Marbella in 1943 and saw its potential for vacations. His mother was a native of Málaga, and Ricardo had lived in his aunt’s home, the Palacio del Rey Moro in Ronda. He had been invited to stay in Marbella by one of his landowner friends, and was impressed enough to buy a nearby estate in San Pedro de Alcántara, comprising of Rodeo Alto and Rodeo Bajo for 110,000 Pesatas (160 Euros, unadjusted for 1943 values.)  Ricardo was an eccentric aristocrat, but also a businessman, politician, great inventor, sportsman, and adventurer. His plan was to build accommodation next to his house, so that rich French travellers on their way to Algeciras and the French protectorate of Morocco could stay overnight. For their entertainment, Ricardo even built the first cinema in the province to be equipped sound. 

It was Ricardo who in 1946 invited his nephew, Prince Alfonso von Hohenlohe, and Alfonso’s father, Prince Maximilian Egon von Hohenlohe-Langenburg, to see and experience the south coast and Marbella first hand. Prince Maximilian drove from Gibraltar to Málaga in his Rolls-Royce with Prince Alfonso. They passed through Marbella, and stopped for a picnic in the shade beneath the umbrella pines. A crumbling farmhouse was for sale close to where they had stopped, and Soriano decided to buy it. The old house came with 24 acres of land and, charmed by its beauty, he bought it for 150,000 pesetas. (900 Euros) 

You could say that Prince Alfonso was well connected.

Prince Alfonso Maximiliano Victorio Eugenio Alexandro Maria Pablo de la Santisima Trinidad y todo los Santos, was born in Madrid. He was baptised at the royal palace, with King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia standing as godparents. His father was Prince Max Egon Maria Erwin Paul von Hohenlohe-Langenburg. His mother was Dona Maria de la Piedad Iturbe y Scholtz, and was the Marquesa de Belvis de las Navas in her own right, a title which came from her Basque grandfather, who had made a fortune in Mexico. His uncle married Margarita, the sister of our Queen’s husband, Prince Philip. The Marquesa had been invited to the coronation of the last Russian Tsar, and her property at the time of her marriage to Alfonso's father included a castle in Madrid, a hotel in Malaga, and vast estates in Portugal and Mexico. 

Unfortunately, the Second World War had been unkind to the Hohenlohe family. With the post-war partition of Germany, their estates in the east were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Worse, the Mexican revolution took away all their assets in that country. They were on the lookout for opportunities to build up their finances again. Alfonso saw the potential of the bay and its beaches.

Hohenlohe persuaded his father to sell off his wine cellars in Malaga whilst he returned to the village to build the first new houses in Marbella. Prince Alfonso spread the word amongst his rich friends and family that quiet sleepy Marbella would be a better place to spend the summer than rainy San Sebastian or Biarritz. Guests were culled from the Alamanach de Gotha, the royal houses of the Middle East and Hollywood’s new “jet set”. He still had land to spare, and sold plots to his Rothschild and Thyssen friends. His own residence, Finca Santa Margarita, became so popular with visitors that he turned it into the Marbella Club in 1954, making it the Costa del Sol's first luxury hotel.

Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier used to stay at the club on what's now called the Golden Mile. The club boasted a piano player by the name of Don Jaime de Mora y Aragon, who was directly descended from 56 kings, and also happened to be the brother of the Queen of the Belgians. The reputation of the club grew amongst the Prince’s Spanish nobleman friends.

Soon there was a disco, with rave-ups on Tuesday and Friday; the Horcher family, the great restaurateurs of the Third Reich, came out of exile to open La Fonda. Photographs from the time showed everyone from Sophia Loren to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor having the time of their lives; there was James Hunt in his bell-bottomed trousers playing golf, and Patrick Lichfield cradling his camera.

Prince Alfonso outside his luxury club.

Prince Hohenlohe took a close interest in every aspect of his creation from the architecture and the layout of gardens, to the decor of the bedrooms and the food on the menu. Marbella’s hillsides became studded with new pueblos, hotels, restaurants and sports clubs and  the Prince’s rich and famous connections, ensured that his projects were immune from planning permission or labour laws.

 In 1966 a businessman by the name of José Banus, who had bought farmland to the west of Marbella to breed bulls for the bullring came to speak with Prince Alfonso. Hohenlohe introduced him to two architects, Noldi Schreck, who had helped design and build Beverley Hills, and Marcos Sainz,. They were both there to design the Hotel Marbella Club. Banus wanted to build tower blocks for holidaymakers on his land, but the two architects steered him away from his original designs in favour of more traditional Mediterranean architectural style. What they eventually came up with was a glamorous marina that still had the quaint feel of an Andalucian fishing village.

Banus approved, and the port facilities and part of the apartments and service areas were officially opened in May 1970 in a lavish ceremony attended by a host of stars including film director Roman Polanski, Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco. A young Julio Iglesias was also hired to sing for the 1700 guests. Puerto Banus quickly became a favourite with the jet-set, and businesses were soon vying to set up here. Banus became the largest developer of residential tourism complexes on the Costa del Sol. Film stars came here to buy properties and just walking along the streets you could bump into the likes of Deborah Kerr, Jimmy Stewart, Teddy Kennedy, Jean Negelesco, Prince Rainer of Monaco with Grace Kelly, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Sean Connery or Guy de Rothschild. Many brought their private yachts which were arrayed at their moorings like floating palaces. 

As head of the Costa del Sol Promoters’ Co-operative, Hohenlohe lobbied successfully for improvements in roads, airports and water supply. His conference and exhibition centre spurred the growth of Torremolinos as a mass market holiday destination.

Ira and Egon von Fustenberg in 1955

Possessed of considerable charm and once described as having "the moustachioed good looks of a South American taxi driver," Hohenlohe early established a reputation as a ladies' man. In 1955 he scandalised European high society by marrying Princess Ira Furstenberg (the Fiat heiress and niece of Gianni Agnelli) when she was just 15.  Four hundred people attended the 16-day wedding party and the Pope had granted devoutly Catholic Alfonso a papal dispensation for the marriage. Five years later, he asked the Pope for a further dispensation for divorce; Ira left him for another notorious 1950's playboy, "Baby" Pignatari.

One of the jet-set personalities that spent time in the growing Marbella was a young Saudi-born dilettante called Adnan Kashoggi. Adnan had a lavish lifestyle and his party-going appetite was to become the stuff of legend over the years. He made his money from arms deals and by 1980, he could afford Nabila, named after his daughter. At 281ft (86.6 metres) long, it was the largest private yacht in the world at the time.  It had a sundeck with bullet-proof glass, solid gold sink in the master suite, with hand carved onyx, sculpted by “the finest craftsman from the hills of Italy,” as described by the next owner, Donald Trump, who bought her in 1987 for nearly $30m.

Kashoggi was the ultimate showman and he allowed the Nabila be used for the 1983 Bond film Never Say Never Again.  It appeared as the floating HQ of international super-villain, SPECTRE agent Maximillian Largo. He was never far away from the probing eyes of various security and international lawyers, to say nothing of the world’s paparazzi. Some of his offshore parties were nothing more than orgies meant to smooth the way for lucrative deals. In 1989 Vanity Fair magazine bluntly described Khashoggi as “One of the greatest whoremongers in the world.”  Very few of his business associates ever complained.

Romantically, Khashoggi did not always have everything his own way. In 1961 he married Sandra Daly, half his age, double his height, who grew up on a Leicester council estate and who met him while visiting Paris with her mother. The new Mrs Khashoggi, now converted to Islam and renamed Soraya, divorced him in 1974, receiving a divorce settlement of $875 million, which at the time was the largest ever.

Worse was to follow, during another investigation in 1999, it was revealed that Kashoggi was not the biological father of Soraya’s daughter Petrina.  The real father was Jonathan Aitken, ex-Conservative minister for Defence Procurement, who was at the time awaiting court proceedings that would lead to him being jailed for perjury.    

However, Kashoggi’s biggest Marbella coup was when he persuaded Prince Fahd to cancel a planned visit to Monte Carlo and visit Marbella instead. The problem was that Hohenlohe’s Marbella Club didn’t have the 32 rooms required by Fahd and his retinue.

A phone call to Prince Alfonso solved the problem. Alfonso knew that the Incosol clinic had just finished work on a second story, and asked Ignacio Coca if he could spare 32 rooms. The reply was yes. Fahd landed in Marbella, and moved into the clinic, which had now become an extension of the Marbella Club. The following day, Alfonso’s son appeared at lunch weeping because he had lost his beloved falcon. Prince Fahd, touched by the boy’s tears sent his private plane back to Saudi Arabia to bring the boy not one, but two of his own falcons. 

Prince Salman

Fahd must have enjoyed his stay, because shortly after the Saudi consul requested permission to build a home for the Prince. He built a palace and several other properties on a 48,000-hectare chunk of prime real estate called Las Lomas, a hillside overlooking the Golden Mile.  

Meanwhile, others of the royal family bought several large properties in Marbella and the Prince had a mosque built in 1981, followed by another, for his family’s use, a few years later. He also funded a number of low-cost housing units, as well as a hemodynamic plant at the local hospital. And, of course, he converted Marbella into the summer residence of his extensive family, many of whom have since built their own palaces.

In 1995 Fahd constructed a mosque 60 kilometres down the coast at Europa point in Gibralter. It was a present for the Muslims of the town, who make up 4% of the largely British population and cost £5 million to build.

King Fahd ruled Saudi Arabia between 1982 and 2005 had his annual vacations in Marbella, later building a number of luxury properties. Now the Mediterranean resort is celebrating the ascent to the throne of Salman bin Abdulaziz, known locally as amigo Salman, and no stranger to Marbella. Salman funds the Marbella mosque, which has a Moroccan imam named Allal Bachar El Hosri, an affable and calm man who has lived in Spain for almost 40 years, and now has Spanish citizenship. Bachar says Salman made sure that he held on to his job, despite pressure to appoint an imam with more radical views. When asked about his post he says, “I am a Maliki [the predominant Sunni school of Islam in North Africa] and am here thanks to Salman.”

Despite the legends about its excesses, the life of the Saudi royal family in Marbella has been characterized by discretion. Its members have largely kept themselves to themselves, preferring to hire the same suppliers over the years. For example, the first gardeners they hired have in turn recommended other gardeners, and the same goes for their trusted butchers, florists and drivers. They rarely use service companies, instead preferring a personal network. The Saudi Arabian consul in Málaga takes care of any other details, with the usual discretion. The life of the Saudi royal family in Marbella is largely nocturnal, consisting of all-night private parties in their palaces or yachts. They spend the mornings sleeping, and the afternoons shopping. The Saudi king’s yacht, Shaf London, is moored permanently in Puerto Banus. He has also had a palace built in Tangiers, and spent more time there last summer than in Marbella. The 79-year-old’s health is fragile, and he has early-stage Alzheimer’s.

King Fahd and that of his son Salman’s patronage is said to have boosted the local economy to the tune of 40-80 million euros per year With those kind of numbers, it is no exaggeration to say that he single-handedly transformed the economic fortunes of Marbella and the surrounding Costa del Sol. His son, King Salman bin Abdulaziz , visits the town each summer, as he has every year for the last three decades. But the Saudi reign in Marbellla might be over now.

In August 2017, armed police officers stormed two luxury restaurants where Prince Abdullah, was eating with his wife and family. They then swooped on a second eatery where his daughter, Princess Susu, was celebrating her 17th birthday.

Prince Abdullah has complained to the Spanish Interior Ministry, describing “the humiliating treatment by police to my family.” A Saudi Royal House member since the 1980’s he said he had never seen police behaviour like it.

“They treated us as if we were terrorists, pointing weapons at us, and Princess Susu, the king’s granddaughter, cried in terror. King Salman no longer wants to come to Spain and will make sure that his children don’t want to visit Marbella either. These people spend an average of €15- 20,000 per day when they are in Marbella. This is the type of tourism that they should be taking care of.” A council spokesman said.

The police action came after a probe revealed four royal family security team members did not have professional qualifications. The National Police press department said both operations were carried out “without violence or intimidation… the Territorial Security Unit was pursuing an irregularity in terms of false security guards.” But this was denied by the entourage member who said the police acted unreasonably.

“They asked for our passports and documentation without letting us explain while pointing machine guns at us.” The prince was dining under the watch of the security they have used for years, which include an ex-soldier and two police officers. If the Prince carries out his threat, it would be a sad ending to a lucrative royal patronage.

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If you are stressed by Coronavirus, take a break and read a book.
26 March 2020

OK, I know it's worrying, but you need to keep positive. Keep your cool, and remember that we will probably all come out of this fine. Reading takes your mind off the looming problems and relaxes you.  So leave the disaster alone for a while and let your mind go elsewhere.

Listen to this story.

The south-eastern coast of Spain is one of the driest, dustiest places on the peninsula and has been conquered and colonized by waves of cultures over the centuries. The forbidding landscape inland is softened at the coast by Umbrella Pines, firs and palmitos, a form of dwarf palm. In the rocky soil grow a host of aromatic herbs amidst the hardy grasses.

 La Dama de Elche was found in this area. She was carved in limestone by a Punic Iberian culture four centuries before Christ. The elegant Dama wears what looks like elaborately carved cartwheels (Known as Rodetes.) in her hair and supposedly has the best lips in antiquity. 

Nine hundred years before Christ, the Celts owned this land, but then the Phoenicians settled here followed by the Greeks, and Carthaginians. The Roman Republic arrived in the second century BC but they were conquered in turn by the Visigoths in the 5th century AD. Then in 711 Islamic North African Moors invaded and held the land until they were driven out by the Catholic Kings.

Many of the names of towns still carry the unmistakable flavor of Arabic. A few kilometers north from the old Moorish port of Al-acant (Alicante.) is another port which used to be called by its original Arab name of Beni-Darhim, meaning son or followers of Darhim. Now it’s better known as Benidorm.

 Benidorm is on a beautiful stretch of coast which was called La Marina before a tourist department renamed it the Costa Blanca (White coast.). Eighty years ago, Benidorm was a small fishing village perched on a promontory dividing two bays, Poniente and Levante (West and East.) each with rolling dunes of golden sand. In those days, small fishing boats or Tarrafes would sail at night with four lanterns hanging over the water to attract the fish.

Other sailors would work on the almadraba which is an annual event requiring a complicated system of nets to trap migrating tuna. The almadraba required more than a hundred kilometers of cable, netting fixed to the sea bed by hundreds of anchors, rings and gates, which covered six square kilometers of sea. The sailors of Benidorm were renowned for their expertise in this form of fishing. They were often called from as far away as Sicily and Tunisia to trap tuna there. Their women, meanwhile, tended the groves of olive, almonds, lemons and orange trees.

There were few visitors to Benidorm compared with today. It was not called tourism then, but summering, or veraneo. In the 50’s Benidorm did not even have any running water supply. Drinking water was sold by a man who brought it in a huge cask on wheels pulled by a mule. In the fields, the watering system dated from the time of the Moors who used water wheels to fill the irrigation channels. Daily waste from the houses was tipped into the sea or put on the land.

Then in 1950 Benidorm got a new mayor, Pedro Zaragoza Orts. In his early twenties, Zaragoza was a rebel with vision. He knew the future was not agriculture, but tourism. He began to plan wide boulevards and skyscraper hotels with gardens, swimming pools and ample car parking. He intended to lead a new invasion of Spain; an invasion of tourists.

Pedro Zaragoza Orts: Photo Eye on Spain

In his first year, Zaragoza began to invent a new town. He organized a pipeline to bring water from Polop, a village fifteen kilometers away where there was an estate for sale with a good well. Fifty seven villagers put in to pay the loan needed to buy the estate and put in the pipeline. By 1960 Benidorm had running water. Meanwhile, Zaragoza got the plans for his dream boulevards approved along with permission for the hotels.

At the same time, fifteen hundred miles away in 1950’s London, a man called Vladimir Raiz began a travel company in Fleet Street called Horizon, and took a group of tourists to Calvi in Corsica in an aircraft fitted out for solely for carrying holidaymakers. Post war Dakotas were parked all over England, unwanted and unused. The pilots who flew them and the engineers who maintained them were trying to fit into dull civilian lives after being part of a huge military wartime machine. Within a few years both the aircraft and the people who could keep them flying were all employed in the new tourism business. In 1953 Horizon took 1,700 ‘package tourists to Spain.

By 1959 the first fruits of Zaragoza´s dream were beginning to form when package holiday flights began to arrive at Valencia airport, bringing tall blond northern European people. The Spainish clergy had already decided that tourism and a beach culture would be a moral danger to the nation. When Zaragoza signed a municipal order to allow bikinis to be worn on Benidorm’s beaches he had no idea how serious the consequences would be. After heated debates, the clergy discovered that Zaragoza had no intention of rescinding the order. The war of standards escalated and the Archbishop began an excommunication process against Zaragoza.

Excommunication was a serious undertaking for the church. For Zaragoza it would be a disaster, making him a leper in society. His friends in high places turned away when he took on the church, especially when two government ministers backed the excommunication campaign. He became one of the few Spaniards alive who had had an excommunication process started against them.

One day, at his wits end, he rose at four in the morning, stuffed newspapers down his shirt to keep warm, set off on his Vesper scooter and rode for nine hours to Madrid, where he asked to asked to see Franco. He was ushered into the office of the Caudillo where Franco asked him how he had arrived in Madrid. When Zaragoza told him he had ridden all the way on his Vespa, Franco was impressed. After talking to the Dictator and explaining his problems and his dreams, Zaragoza rode all the way back to Benidorm.

Eight days later, Franco’s wife and the Minister of Governance and his wife arrived in Benidorm and stayed with Zaragoza in his house. They publicly re-confirmed his appointment as mayor and gave him a pass to wear on his jacket so that he could enter El Prado in Madrid whenever he wanted. In the following years Carmen Polo, (Franco´s wife.) would come to stay for eight days in the summer and fifteen days in the autumn at his house.

The church got the message. The excommunication order was dropped. If Franco had not supported Zaragoza he would have had to back down to the all- powerful church. Legislation on the beaches might have killed the budding tourist industry and the eager holidaymakers would have gone elsewhere.

Benidorm now is to package tours as Las Vegas is to gamblers; the undisputed capitol of the world. Zaragoza´s original idea of a middle class holiday utopia did not quite turn out as he expected. Benidorm, for the British tourists anyway, has turned out to be a Skegness or Blackpool on the Med. It´s a homely place with all day cooked breakfasts, fish and chips, pies and English pints. Paella and sangria have stopped being Spanish and become just another item on an otherwise wholly English menu. Nevertheless, five million people a year come to stay in Benidorm for their allotted two weeks holiday. Many come back year after year to the same hotels. “The comedians in the clubs are great.” One said, referring to the British stand-up comics who come here to work the summer season.

Zaragoza is philosophical about the Benidorm that grew from his dreams. When asked the question that Benidorm was an ugly blight he replied. “ I don´t know if Benidorm is more or less attractive to look at then it was, but we have running water, we have asphalt, we have hospitals. We didn´t have them before.” Most of the critics have never set foot in Benidorm. On the radio he had heard a town councillor from Marbella warning that his town was going to rack and ruin and would end up like Benidorm. Zaragoza rang him up to speak his mind but the rattled councillor would not come to the phone. 

The latest addition to the high rise hotels is the Bali. 186 meters tall, fifty two floors, the Bali is most spectacular at night and from a distance. Then it looks like a massive silver knife projecting silver beams into the clouds. By day it is a dull grey concrete and glass giant. The building of the Bali was an epic affair. It was put up gradually over fourteen years by a group of local hotel owners who poured their annual profits into it. No loans were taken out. The Bali was built on the back of a boom.  During good years it rose steadily upwards. On excellent ones it rose faster. It is a huge vertical container for package tourism. Holidaymakers are cycled in and out in a steady stream, generating work for thousands, and holidays for tens of thousands of tourists. In short Benidorm has become, in the words of one Spanish observer, “The great touropolis.”

The Spanish who remember the 50´s and the fishing village are still here and what they think of the new glitzy Benidorm is a mix of emotions. Some speculated and won the jackpot. Many more thousands more found permanent employment for their families and friends. Nobody can deny that Zaragoza kick started the tourism boom when he kick started his little Vespa scooter at 4am in the morning all those years ago. For better or worse, Zaragoza’s dream brought work for the Spanish and cheap holidays to millions of people. In retrospect, that was not a bad achievement.

Taken from: The Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlet. (not word for word, but very close.)

Like 2        Published at 18:22   Comments (0)

Something to do during the lockdown
19 March 2020

Hi everybody. I know that it's a pain to be confined to your house, so for those of you who like to read, why don't we start a book forum. Since we live in Spain why don't we make it a forum about Spain, its history, art, culture and its people. That way we learn a little about what shaped our adopted country. It's sure to make the long hours pass pleasantly.

Tell everybody all about your favourite novels and paintings, both in antiquity and present. I am not selling anything. This is just to help with the boredom of lockdown. I can start the ball rolling, but it's up to you now.

What do you say? 


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