Town & Country (USA)
A GAME OF THRONES
[CONTINUED FROM PAGE 127] businessmen and politicians and selling the compromising information to their rivals. (Villarejo, whose trial is ongoing, denies the charges, saying the Spanish secret service is responsible for the recordings.) In a recorded 2016 meeting in London with Villarejo, zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, as reported in El País, came forth with a series of stunning revelations. She talked about $7 million in cash bestowed on the king from the leaders of Kuwait and Bahrain in 2008 and 2009; and a $100 million payment in 2008 from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia—a reward for Juan Carlos, she said, for brokering a multibillion-dollar contract between Saudi Arabia and a consortium of 12 Spanish and two Saudi firms to build a high-speed railway between Mecca and Medina. That money, in turn, was the source of $65 million that Juan Carlos transferred into a Bahamian account belonging to zu Sayn-Wittgenstein—in 2012, after the Botswana debacle.“I think it was recognition of how much I meant to him, how much [my son] meant to him,” she would tell the BBC in 2020. She said that when Juan Carlos had demanded the money back in 2014, she refused, claiming it was an “irrevocable gift.”
The recordings were leaked to two small online Spanish publications in 2018. That was enough for Swiss prosecutors (and, later, Spanish ones) to open probes into the ex-king, which, El País reported, uncovered documents connecting a foundation and a labyrinth of accounts in Switzerland and the Bahamas to money from Arab leaders. In the end, Swiss and Spanish investigators would determine that no proof existed of quid pro quos for the gifts. But public perception that the king was wheeling and dealing, supporting his lifestyle through secret transactions with foreign billionaires, coupled with more allegations of a string of extramarital liaisons, shattered what was left of Juan Carlos’s reputation. Coming at a time of indifference toward the corona from a new generation of Spaniards, and overt hostility from secession-minded citizens in Catalonia, such revelations “put the Casa Real in the center of a political storm, and it was terrible for King Felipe,” says Carlos Pérez Gil, editor of the Spanish news service Agencia EFE. The final straw, Irujo says, was Felipe’s discovery that his father had named him as a beneficiary in the Lukum Foundation fund, one of those secretive financial structures being investigated by the Swiss—an apparently paternal move that backfired badly. Felipe was “furious,” Irujo says, that he had been dragged into his father’s shenanigans.
On March 15, 2020, the first day of Spain’s coronavirus lockdown, Felipe issued a statement announcing that he had renounced his inheritance from his father and terminated the former king’s pension. On August 8, Juan Carlos boarded a private jet in the city of Vigo, near Sanxenxo, and flew to Abu Dhabi—the oil-rich emirate controlled for centuries by his close friends the Al Nahyans—to begin an indefinite exile.
How could Juan Carlos have botched things so badly? For one thing, Peñafiel and other longtime observers say, his obsession with attaining the stature and lifestyle of the Windsors had clouded his moral judgment and driven him to accept cash handouts without regard to how they might look. Compounding that was his belief that the affection of the population he had won by staring down the coup plotters in 1981 was eternal.“Juan Carlos had been elevated to a kind of saint, the man who brought democracy to Spain,” says José Alvarez Junco. “He thought he was invulnerable.” And, living in a bubble of hunting trips and yacht races, surrounded by courtiers willing to cater to all his appetites (“There were no limits to his behavior,” says Irujo), he badly misread the mood of Spaniards and of the Spanish media. In an era marked by a newly aggressive press at home and relentless exposure of the bad conduct of celebrities worldwide, including monarchs, Juan Carlos remained hopelessly out of touch.
And then, of course, came his fatal misjudgment—of character. A charismatic romantic (the charitable view) who had cut a swath over six decades, Juan Carlos had met his match in Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. “She took him down,” says de Cozar.“It was a huge miscalculation on the part of Juan Carlos and of the Spanish deep state. Nobody fully realized the trouble that this woman was going to cause.” (And she’s not done with Juan Carlos yet. In 2020 she filed a civil suit against him in London’s High Court charging him with harassment and “great personal injury”
for the efforts of Spanish intelligence, in the wake of the Botswana episode, to keep her quiet. In March 2022 a High Court judge rejected Juan Carlos’s claim that he is entitled to immunity from the jurisdiction of the English court. A UK court has permitted the ex-king to appeal that rejection.)
Today the king emeritus resides in a $12 million, six-bedroom seaside villa on Zaya Nurai, a speck of an island a 15-minute boat ride from the Abu Dhabi mainland. He spends his days lazing around the compound and entertaining a handful of friends. Even in his isolation, the ex-king has shown a knack for seeking out the wrong people. One occasional visitor, El País reported, has been the Lebanese-Spanish arms dealer Abdul Rahman El Assir, who is wanted by Interpol for tax fraud and other crimes but who moves freely about the emirate.“Juan Carlos’s best friends are telling him, ‘This man is a criminal. Do not be with him. Other countries are looking for him.’ And he answers, with a whiskey in his hand, ‘Bah,’ ” Irujo says, citing palace sources.“I don’t think he’s ever preoccupied…or afraid. And he just doesn’t believe he’s ever done anything wrong.”
Meantime, at Zarzuela Palace King Felipe is still trying to right the listing ship. Since he took over in 2014 he has earned respect for restoring decorum and integrity to the tattered throne. His wife, Queen Letizia, with whom he has two daughters (Leonor, Princess of Asturias, 16, the heir to the throne, and Infanta Sofía of Spain, 15), may be the monarchy’s most popular figure, perhaps in part because she is reported to have stood up to the former king. (Juan Carlos opposed the marriage, says Peñafiel, because Letizia, a lively commoner from Oviedo who was a divorced former journalist and news anchor, was the “granddaughter of a taxi driver.”) Recent polls, however, show that the monarchy’s approval numbers have slipped dramatically among Spaniards under thirty, with less than 30 percent saying they wish to keep it. And unlike his father, who came across as a symbol of unity and reconciliation, Felipe can be a polarizing figure. He took a harsh line toward the independence movement in Catalonia, accusing its leaders of “inadmissible disloyalty.” On recent visits to the region, crowds booed him.
The mystique and power of the Borbón dynasty, so closely associated with Juan Carlos, has drastically dissipated. “We started as a modern country with the constitution in 1978, and that country was built by Juan Carlos. The power he had was amazing,” says de Cozar. “So many people were not monarchists, they were Juan Carlists. And now…something has been destroyed.” It is the great irony of Felipe’s position that, in removing the man who he believed betrayed the family and the crown, he may in fact have accelerated the monarchy’s dissolution. The question, de Cozar says, is this: “Are people Felipists? Are new generations of Spaniards going to support the idea of the Spanish monarchy without Juan Carlos? I just don’t see it.” For the moment, the monarchy appears stable, but it’s a stability not backed by much enthusiasm, reflecting a global trend.
Abolishing the Borbón monarchy is a long shot. It would require an amendment to the constitution, a tortuous process that would necessitate approval by two-thirds of each of Spain’s two legislative houses, followed by a popular referendum. Nevertheless, the Republicans did away with the monarchy in 1931, a trauma stamped into the mind of every Borbón, and it’s not out of the question that Spain could, in the not so distant future, become, like France, a republic again. Not everybody believes that would make for a healthier democracy. The British actor-historian Stephen Fry, for one, points out that constitutional monarchs can serve as the moral authority of a nation and a check on overreaching politicians. The British monarchy, he says, is “preposterous” but “it works terribly well.”
As for Juan Carlos, the 84-year-old ex-king is still hoping to make a permanent return to Spain, according to journalists who follow the story. In early 2022 he paid the Spanish treasury $5.2 million in back taxes and penalties for undeclared income he owed as a result of the investigation, a necessary step toward putting him on safe legal ground for a homecoming.“He’ll try to normalize his visits here,” says Carlos Pérez Gil. (A June 10 visit was canceled “for private reasons,” and there is no word yet on the next one.) Pérez Gil believes, too, that if the current Socialist government loses to a right-wing party—generally more supportive of the Spanish monarchy—in the 2023 national elections, the new atmosphere might work in the former monarch’s favor. De Cozar is less sure.“Felipe doesn’t want him back. The politicians don’t want him back.”
The economic adviser I meet in Madrid dares to express the unthinkable: The bestcase scenario for all concerned, he believes, would be for the elderly Juan Carlos to pass away quietly in Abu Dhabi exile. “His body will return in an airplane,” he tells me, asking again that I don’t identify him. “There will be magnificent memorials. And Spain will wash itself of the problem.”