The king's in town
By Nick Foulkes 21.08.02
It's more than 30C outside, but in Brioni's luxury flagship store at the Marbella Club, the airconditioning is powerful enough to convince one visiting Saudi to try on a minklined, mink-collared leather jacket made up of an intricate patchwork of butter-soft black leather squares the size of postage stamps - his for a mere £7,695.
Finely tuned to the nuances of customers who hail from the Gulf, Brioni's chief executive, Dr Umberto Angeloni (tailor-by-appointment to Pierce Brosnan's James Bond), has just ordered an emergency airlift of crocodile-and-ostrich-skin blousons from Italy, in larger sizes for the fuller figure, at a cost of £15,000 each. With the Saudi royal family in town, it's business more than usual.
The Mediterranean resort is rubbing its hands in anticipation of the petro dollars which could pour into local coffers as the ailing King Fahd and his royal household settle down after jetting into Malaga airport last week for their summer holiday. Entire floors of five-star hotels are booked out, super-expensive villas have been hired, and requests are already pouring in for extra luxuries like air-conditioning for outdoor tents, one £25,000 order for silk sheets, and thousands of pounds' worth of fresh flowers for royal suites.
It is easy to spot members of the Saudi Arabian king's entourage: King Fahd's fixers appear to have combed the entire German nation for new Mercedes limousines, and the cars now cruise around the busy streets of hedonistic Puerto Banus and the environs carrying German number plates; some still have bar codes attached to their bodywork.
Marbella is no shy little fishing village or cypress-encircled hill town, peddling a rustic holiday idyll of simple living to middleclass northern Europeans. It is a full-on five-star jet-set playground, its status largely achieved by Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, who founded the Marbella Club here in the early Fifties. It is in the premier league of pleasure, along with St Tropez, Porto Cervo, Capri and so on. Yet even this sophisticated community is impressed by the arrival of the king and his entourage, which is now counted in the thousands. Estimates of their living expenses run to around £3 million a day - and that's before they start shopping.
This is not the first time the octogenarian Saudi monarch has come to Marbella. He was a frequent visitor in the Seventies to the then newly opened Instituto Costa del Sol, a five-star hotel and medical spa created by Franco's son-in-law, the society heart surgeon the Marquess of Villaverde.
Known as Incosol for short, and set back from the coast, its medical facilities and healthy regime could be enjoyed in relative privacy. Apparently, the unique climate of Marbella lifted the king's spirits and improved his health, and he now has a palace here, a copy of Washington's White House, with a giant white scimitar highlighted in huge fairy lights on the lawn.
He last dropped by in 1999, and Marbella still talks with wonder of this time, when official estimates put the amount he pumped into the local economy during his stay at £57.7 million. Hopes for an increase on that figure are high for this visit; Fahd's personal wealth is reckoned by Forbes magazine to be in the region of £19.5 billion.
"The visit of King Fahd and his entourage is the most important thing that can happen here," explained Pedro Rodriguez, the president of the local chamber of commerce. Doubtless this view is shared by the managers of the new Dior store in the port, the local branches of Cartier and Hermes, Frette and Ferragamo, all presumably awaiting the call to bring along some trifles to amuse the bored ladies of the court.
Those Saudis closest to the king have houses and apartments within the palace grounds. Those who have not rented villas have reserved hundreds of rooms in luxury hotels, from the Marbella Club almost opposite the palace, to hotels as far away as the Kempinski, down the coast in Estepona. Sadly for many of the Saudis, the Marbella Club was already more or less full with its usual complement of affluent French, Italian and Russian holidaymakers including such European visitors as the Duke and Duchess de Rochefoucault, a scion of the Bourbon dynasty, Country Life editor Clive Aslet, and Brioni's Dottore Angeloni.
As news of the king's arrival circulated locally a couple of weeks ago, a crowd of manual workers - mainly Moroccans - eager to find casual jobs, set up camp outside the gates of his palace, oblivious to daytime temperatures above 30C and the rapidly accumulating carpet of detritus that has lent the slopes around the appearance of a refugee encampment. Since the king arrived, the crowd outside has swollen and acquired its own police detail.
Meanwhile, local florists are bringing in about a thousands pounds' worth of fresh flowers daily, hundreds of new mobile phones are being delivered, and a daily order for 50 cakes is keeping tills ringing at nearby confectioners. It is said that the local department store, El Corte Ingles, has been asked to be on stand-by 24 hours a day to supply any further requests.
Round the corner from the palace, outside Marbella's mosque, conveniently located for the beach, the Spanish police are doing their best to cope with the traffic jam of eager worshippers; tape cordons off part of the road.
Inside the sprawling royal compound, aides are finessing lastminute alterations to the accommodation, which has recently been updated at a cost of many millions. Among the latest additions is the installation of hydrotherapy equipment, involving water hoses and high-pressure jets. King Fahd - who in recent years has suffered a stroke and had cataract operations - has access to all sorts of other medical help. His cadre of doctors is said to number 60, the palace has its own hospital with an operating theatre, and one of his fleet of aircraft is said to have been fitted out as a flying hospital.
Elsewhere in Marbella, health-conscious Saudis have been making themselves at home. At the Incosol, one prince booked 40 rooms, and had a similar number of DVD players delivered. Other extras for his party include having plastic grass laid on the balconies, additional telephone and fax lines, a giant fridge (of the sort found in restaurants to chill wines) full of various mineral waters, £25,000 worth of silk sheets from top Italian linen marque Frette and, bearing in mind that silk sheets can get a bit warm, additional airconditioning.
The man for whom the rooms were reserved made a low-key visit with a motorcade of only around 20 Mercedes, inspected arrangements, looked in the fridge, then ordered a ginger beer from room service, drank half of it, emptied his bladder and left. He is now believed to be in Morocco for a short break; the rooms are awaiting his return.
Dozens of superluxury villas are being rented out. Irish financier and racehorse owner John Magnier is letting his villa near the Marbella Club for a rumoured £20,000 to £26,000 a month. It isn't clear whether this sum involves damage to the immaculate lawns. I had heard that tents had been pitched in the gardens of his house, one of them with a giant television screen with eight smaller screens. I thought that this might be an apocryphal tale, but I did indeed catch sight of an open tent, complete with opulent armchairs and, rather touchingly, portable airconditioning units engaged in a Canute-like battle with the Andalucian sun.
The Marbella Club had recently bought a mega-villa by the sea, which had been on the market for £16.5 million. It was in the process of being remodelled as a grande luxe hotel within a grande luxe hotel. Work had barely begun on renovating the property - which in its current state looks like a James Bond villain's love nest circa 1980 - when the Saudis rented it for around £260,000 a month, on condition that the antique furniture was removed. They replaced this with new furnishings. Having visited the property before their arrival, I hope they make the most of this unique building, which boasts its own discotheque, opening onto the main seaside promenade. Doubtless they will follow the health-conscious example of their leader and make full use of the discotheque's ensuite glass-walled sauna and steam room.
Those members of the caravanserai not fortunate enough to rent a villa with its own discotheque are making do with the nocturnal diversions of Marbella. Shortly before 2am I chance upon such a group of young men in the VIP area of Marbella's most charming niterie, the Beach Cafe, a nightclub, bar and restaurant that spills out of the bottom of the Puente Romano and onto the beach.
I'd been told that the night before, a group of fun-loving Saudis had been ordering Sangria made with Vega Sicilia (the Petrus of Spain) at £355 a bottle. The young group I could see sat at tables strewn with bottles of beer and the jet set's favourite Scotch, Johnny Walker Blue Label at £300 a bottle, amusing themselves with Arabic text messages on their glowing mobiles.
In Puerto Banus a Middle Eastern singer did her best to ginger up several tables of heavily cowled women and fuller figured gentlemen smoking postprandial waterpipes. Given that it was three in the morning and her audience showed no sign of getting up to dance or go home, I found her rendition of a song set to the tune of Boney M's Ma Baker surprisingly spirited.
As yet it seems that the Saudis are still settling in to their surroundings. So far there have been no reports of huge losses at the casino in Marbella or down the coast in the private gaming room at Torrequebrada, but that is not stopping the local rumour mills churning out tales of excess. One man told me that a London escort agency had been contracted to supply blonde female companions to make Marbella's visitors feel less lonely, with the proviso that, like the water in a swimming pool, the girls are changed each fortnight.
These are not the only rumours. The mood is an odd one. Marbella's Saudi visitors are restless and unsure how long they will be staying; it has been suggested that the ailing monarch has this time come to his favourite summer spot to abdicate or to die. In the past, Spain's king has made his way down to the Costa del Sol to pay his respects. Juan Carlos is expected to visit his old friend again. Speculation as to other supplicants to the Saudi king embraces everyone from Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in addition to Arab leaders and numerous family members.
What satisfaction they will derive from their audiences is unsure; the king is far from well and is said to have difficulty seeing and speaking. However, for the time being, to Marbella's delight, his capacity to spend seems unimpaired.