No sign of austerity as Saudi king travels with 1,500 in tow

Spending cutbacks at home forgotten as King Salman’s delegation tours in six Boeing jets

You could call it bling diplomacy. As part of a month long tour in Asia to promote economic ties, King Salman of Saudi Arabia arrived in Indonesia on Wednesday to great fanfare, accompanied, the news media said, by a retinue with a net worth in the billions of dollars, including about 1,500 people, among them 25 high-ranking princes, 10 ministers and more than 100 security personnel.

They arrived in six Boeing passenger jets and one Lockheed C-130 Hercules, a military transport aircraft carrying 460 tonnes of cargo, two Mercedes-Benz S600 limousines and two electric elevators for the king's personal use.

An Indonesian freight company told the Antara news agency that it employed 572 workers just to deal with the delegation's luggage. The 81-year-old king used a golden-hued escalator to descend from a jet painted with the words "God Bless You."

Pageantry is hardly unusual for any royal family, even less so for the Saudis, who are famously extravagant spenders even as their citizens are struggling under a government austerity programme. Details about his entourage made headlines around the world, and appeared to overshadow the purpose of his trip.


But the size and pomp of the king's entourage may indicate efforts to strengthen trade ties with Asia at a time of falling oil prices, experts said: A demonstration of wealth can be a show of power. It involves "stroking egos and putting on a show: The Saudis are in town," said Peter Salisbury, a research fellow at Chatham House in London. "When that number of people show up, it creates a stir. It's symbolism."

There's also an economic benefit to a visit by a delegation that is bigger and more opulent than average, Mr Salisbury said, as the visitors are likely to splurge on dinners, shopping, luxury villas in Bali and other extravagances. ("I wonder if King Salman and his 620-strong entourage will sample the delights of hedonistic Kuta?" a Twitter user asked, referring to a beach on Bali famous for its alcohol-drenched night life.)

French chateaus

The royal family’s fortunes are tied to vast reserves of petroleum and other assets estimated to total more than $1.4 trillion (€1.33 trillion). The sale of oil provides billions of dollars in annual allowances, public sector sinecures and perks for royals, the wealthiest of whom own French chateaus and Saudi palaces, stash money in Swiss bank accounts, wear couture dresses under their abayas and frolic on some of the world’s biggest yachts out of sight of commoners.

In 2015, the king and his 1,000-person retinue closed off part of a beach on the French Riviera, provoking public outrage. Locals also complained that the Saudis had poured concrete directly onto the sand in an unauthorised attempt to instal an elevator.

In 2014, the king infuriated tourists after booking three entire Maldive island resorts. (He also brought along a floating hospital.) Among his other royal perks, King Salman travels with roughly 100 bodyguards; the deck space on his yacht, moored in Marbella, Spain, is bigger than a football field. And despite his appetite for luxury, he maintains a private jail for "errant princes and spendthrift princesses who neglect to pay their bills," according to Time Magazine.

King Salman's Asian trip, planned before US president Donald Trump's election in November, began on Sunday in Malaysia. After Indonesia, where his stop was the first by a Saudi monarch in 46 years, he is expected to travel to Brunei, Japan, China and the Maldives.

The visit is part of the king's efforts to diversify the Saudi economy and lure Asian investors into buying a 5 per cent stake in Aramco, the state-owned oil company. The Indonesian government said it hoped to attract $25 billion in new investments from Saudi Arabia. The two governments agreed to a $6 billion joint venture between Aramco and its Indonesian counterpart, Pertamina. On Tuesday, Aramco signed a deal to invest $7 billion in a Malaysian oil company.

New York Times