A $300 million chateau is one of a string of extravagant purchases for a prince who is cracking down on ill-gotten wealth and preaching fiscal austerity.
LOUVECIENNES, France — When the Chateau Louis XIV sold for over $300 million two years ago, Fortune magazine called it “the world’s most expensive home,” and Town & Country swooned over its gold-leafed fountain, marble statues and hedged labyrinth set in a 57-acre landscaped park. But for all the lavish details, one fact was missing: the identity of the buyer.
Now, it turns out that the paper trail leads to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the Saudi throne and the driving force behind a series of bold policies transforming Saudi Arabia and shaking up the Middle East.
The 2015 purchase appears to be one of several extravagant acquisitions — including a $500 million yacht and a $450 million Leonardo da Vinci painting — by a prince who is leading a sweeping crackdown on corruption and self-enrichment by the Saudi elite and preaching fiscal austerity at home.
“He has tried to build an image of himself, with a fair amount of success, that he is different, that he’s a reformer, at least a social reformer, and that he’s not corrupt,” said Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and author. “And this is a severe blow to that image.”
The story of Chateau Louis XIV, as pieced together through interviews and documents by The New York Times, unfolds like a financial whodunit, featuring a lawyer in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and a fixer for the very rich from the Mediterranean nation of Malta. Even Kim Kardashian made a cameo at the chateau, reportedly considering it for her wedding to Kanye West.
The ownership of the chateau, in Louveciennes, France, near Versailles, is carefully shrouded by shell companies in France and Luxembourg. Those companies are owned by Eight Investment Company, a Saudi firm managed by the head of Crown Prince Mohammed’s personal foundation. Advisers to members of the royal family say the chateau ultimately belongs to the crown prince.
Eight Investment was the same company that backed Prince Mohammed’s impulse buy of the 440-foot yacht from a Russian vodka tycoon in 2015. The company also recently bought an 620-acre estate in Condé-sur-Vesgre, known as Le Rouvray, an hour’s drive from Paris. The chateau’s architect is refurbishing the manor house there and building structures for an apparent hunting compound, according to permit records at the local town hall.
Versailles Style, Modern Amenities
The chateau’s developer, Emad Khashoggi, nephew of the late billionaire arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, bulldozed a 19th-century castle in Louveciennes to make way for the new chateau in 2009. To the naked eye it appears to have been built in the time of Versailles, the royal palace that set a world standard for gaudy luxury. But the 17th-century design camouflages 21st-century technology. The fountains, sound system, lights and whisper-silent air conditioning can all be controlled remotely by iPhone.
Along with more standard flourishes for top-of-the-line properties, like a wine cellar and movie theater, the rotunda features an exquisite fresco on the ceiling while the moat includes a transparent underwater chamber with sturgeon and koi swimming overhead. A statue of Louis XIV made of Carrara marble stands watch over the grounds.
“The idea is tacky, and then once you visit it isn’t,” said Marianne Merlino, who was the town’s deputy mayor during construction. “Like in Versailles, that was way over the top too, and like Louis XIV, he achieved something really quite incredible.”
An Assertive Young Leader
In less than three years in the public eye, Crown Prince Mohammed, 32, has forged a reputation as an assertive — some critics say reckless — leader. He launched an air campaign in Yemen and spearheaded the blockade of Qatar. Yet he also appears to have won the popular support of many young Saudis for reining in the country’s religious police, promising to give women the right to drive and announcing that movie theaters will be allowed to open again.
But his swift rise has ruffled some of his elders, especially when he shoved aside his older cousin to become crown prince. He has come under even more scrutiny since the arrests last month of nearly a dozen of his royal cousins and hundreds of other businessmen or officials, who have been detained at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, now the world’s most luxurious jail. The government characterized the arrests as a crackdown on corruption but critics have called it a political purge and a shakedown.