In ‘Blood and Oil’, Bradley Hope and Justin Scheck write about Mohammed Bin Salman’s ruthless quest for power, his toys, and a 2015 party.
The models arrived first, one boatload after another of long-legged young women pulling up to the dock at Velaa Private Island. The resort’s butlers and housekeepers were amazed. There were just so many of them, around 150 in all, and most had traveled for days, flying from Brazil or Russia to Male, the capital of the Maldives, a tiny nation in the Indian Ocean. From Male the women took smaller planes to a northern archipelago, where they boarded boats across a turquoise expanse of the Indian Ocean to Velaa. The resort had staffers on hand to greet each woman and politely shuttle her by golf cart to a medical center to be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. Only after the testing was done and the women had settled into their villas did the seaplanes carrying Mohammed bin Salman and his friends arrive.
It was the summer of 2015, and Mohammed was closer than anyone could have predicted to the Saudi throne. In the six months since his father had become king, he had hit Riyadh harder and faster than any prince in recent memory. Mohammed had taken charge of the economy of one of the richest nations on earth and was free to spend its money however he deemed fit. He was leading a war in Yemen and getting to know politicians in the world’s capitals. And that came after three workaholic years of reforming his father’s charities and building political capital with powerful Al Saud members. Now it was time to celebrate.
That required a discreet place in keeping with his outsized new status. The Maldives were the perfect choice: a stunning setting in the open ocean replete with tucked-away resorts that could be closely controlled for as long as the prince wanted, overseen by a government so sympathetic to the Saudis that it was discussing selling an archipelago to the kingdom.
Mohammed had first visited Velaa about a year earlier with his father’s entourage and was taken by the resort. Since the Maldives government prohibits resorts from putting up buildings higher than the surrounding trees, Velaa’s developer installed extremely tall palm trees along one beach so he could erect a tower with a view over the ocean. Its roof just reaches the crowns of the transplanted palms. Beneath that tower is a cellar stocked with exorbitantly priced French wine. And that’s separate from the resort’s main restaurant, which is built over the water so diners can watch sea turtles swim below while eating meals prepared by a gourmet chef.
Velaa has a combination of service and secrecy hard to match anywhere in the world.
It was a vacation fit for a prince, starting with what workers called a “buyout” of the resort. That meant Mohammed and his guests had the entire island to themselves for close to a month. The Miami rapper Pitbull agreed to attend, though he stayed at another resort on a nearby island. The Korean pop star Psy and Afrojack, one of the world’s most popular DJs, came too.
Money wasn’t an issue for Mohammed. His office agreed that each of the resort’s three-hundred-plus employees would get a $5,000 bonus, a big deal for workers who made $1,000 to $1,200 per month. And that was before the expected cash tips.
To maintain the prince’s privacy, Velaa managers told staff they were not to bring smartphones onto the island during the visit. Each could bring a basic Nokia 3310 or no phone at all. Two Velaa employees got fired on the spot for breaking the rule.
There was a good reason for secrecy. Mohammed knew that Saudi Arabia’s young people were tired of decades of obscene spending by the ruling family and frustrated by online accounts of princes’ ostentatious homes, spending sprees at Harrods, and sports cars racing through the streets of Mayfair. He was cultivating the image of a reformer and didn’t want to be seen in the same light as the famously spoiled princes of his generation— like King Fahd’s son Abdulaziz bin Fahd, for example, a powerful prince famous for traveling the world with an entourage of two dozen, which has been dogged by sordid tales of sex and violence described in court filings.
He’d seen what could happen during the Arab Spring, when the Muslim Brotherhood, a ninety-year-old Islamist movement, temporarily won the presidency of Egypt citing the high-flying, alcohol-drenched ways of Saudi royals as proof of the corruption of the Gulf regimes.
So it was especially important that the Saudi people not find out that Mohammed was paying Velaa some $50 million for a vacation with his entourage.
Once the sun went down and the entertainers arrived, the men emerged. A DJ (some nights a band) set up on the main dance floor, near the pool, while smaller acts set up on other stages around the island. One night Afrojack, a Dutch DJ who performs for stadium crowds, put on a show. He was playing electronic beats that started calmly and climaxed to throbbing dance grooves when an excited Mohammed climbed onto the stage. The men and models cheered when Mohammed took over the DJ table and started playing records of his choice while Afrojack skulked away muttering, careful to curse out loud only when he was out of the prince’s earshot.
The parties continued until dawn, when many of the men retired to a villa. They’d emerge late in the afternoon.
Even during a time of revelry, Mohammed seemed unable to completely lose himself. Walking during the day in shorts and a T-shirt with a couple of friends, he seemed to turn inward, says someone who observed him there. While the other men spoke animatedly, Mohammed was silent, apparently thinking about something more serious than women and music.
Then all of a sudden it was over. News of Mohammed’s visit leaked in a local publication, and Iranian-backed news picked it up. Less than a week after the trip started, Mohammed and his delegation were gone. The women left soon after.
Mohammed was also buying some serious toys. He rented the Serene—a 439-foot yacht that Bill Gates rented in 2014 for $5 million a week—for a half day after spotting it from the air. Mohammed loved it. The yacht had an underwater viewing room, a jacuzzi, two helicopter pads, and a business-style conference room. It was sleek and luxurious, perfect for hosting VIPs, but it could also transform into a party palace for nights with close friends.
Over the subsequent six weeks, Mohammed’s team negotiated with agents of Yuri Shefler, the owner. They finally reached a deal for 429 million euros, about double the original cost. His team also bought a garish French chateau near Versailles—with fountains, stately grounds, and even a moat—for more than $300 million.
Watching from Riyadh and their multi-million-dollar homes abroad, Mohammed’s rivals were increasingly uneasy.