ANTIBES, France — Saudi Arabia’s 79-year-old King Salman arrived on the French Riviera over the weekend. With him, on two private Boeing 747s, came an estimated 1,000 members of his entourage, and a big problem for one long stretch of Côte d’Azur. Normally and by law it’s a public beach in front of the usually empty royal villa, with the usual contingent of sunbathers in states of more or less undress. But now, for the sake of the Saudis, it’s been closed.
Dueling petitions for and against the royal visitors’ suddenly imperious presence near the town of Vallauris have turned into a midsummer smackdown, but local officials say they don’t have the power to do much about it, and not a few merchants are happy to have big spenders arriving in such numbers.
Nice’s Mayor Christian Estrosi joined the fray on Monday, criticizing the closure of the public beach. “A head of state should be received with courtesy and safety measures, but there is no excuse for allowing a public space to be taken over,” Estrosi told the RTL radio network on Monday morning.
Once called the Chateau de l'Horizon, the multimillion-dollar villa was built in 1932. Actress Rita Hayworth celebrated her wedding to Prince Aly Khan of Pakistan there in 1949. But for the next few weeks, the villa will be off-limits to the locals and protected by a so-called “exclusion zone” of 985 feet.
French police vans have been parked at the entrance to the villa, two police boats are poised in the sea in front of the home, while a police sign at the Mirandole beach greets locals and vacationers saying, “Access and circulation are forbidden on this public maritime domain and swimming is banned under the right of the residence of the king of Saudi Arabia.”
The grumbling has an international flavor on the chic Mediterranean strand.
“So if you have billions you can just shut down a beach that’s otherwise open all year round? I think that sucks,” said Robyn Spencer of Manchester, England, who is renting an apartment in nearby Cagnes-sur-mer for a month.
Kevin Rooney, an American comedy writer who lived in nearby Nice half the year, said that he could not believe the crowd the Saudi king brought with him. “A thousand people? Who did he leave in Saudi Arabia?”
Rose Leroux, a teacher from Mougins, France, said she was “disgusted” by the “privilege” afforded the Saudi king. “I don’t even have words for this travesty,” Leroux said. “This is a shameful French political genuflection to the Saudi king. I don’t have words, only a date: 1789."
A petition that had gathered more than 120,000 signatures by Monday noontime dwarfed an opposing petition supporting the king’s right to take over the beach because some hope it will be a boost to the local economy.
“We recall that this nature zone, like all maritime public estates, is an intrinsic public property that should be available for the benefit of all, residents, tourists, French, foreigners or people passing through,” the petition reads. “We ask the state to guarantee the fundamental principle of the equality of all citizens before the law.”
Marie Briot of Vallauris, however, said she didn’t understand what the fuss was about. “I don’t think it's such a bad thing,” Briot told The Daily Beast. “It’s only three weeks and he [the king] and his staff are going to be spending a lot of money while they’re here and that’s good for us. And,” she said, reiterating, “it’s only for three weeks.”
Michel Chevillon, president of an association of Cannes hotel managers, told the BBC that the visit was “clearly good news” for hotels and the local economy. More than 700 of the king’s staffers are staying in Cannes-area hotels. “These are people with great purchasing power,” he said.
Agence France Presse reported that at least 400 black cars with tinted windows have been hired to ferry the King’s relatives and friends around the region to local tourist spots and beaches. “They ask us to take them to restaurants, or they say they want to visit Saint Tropez, Monaco, Nice, or villas in the area, because they want to buy property,” one driver told the AFP.
Vallauris’s Mayor Michelle Salucki wrote to French President François Hollande to protest what the town says is the unauthorized construction of a concrete platform on the beach to provide a lift to the villa. Representatives of King Salman have said it will be removed after he leaves, but Salucki was still annoyed.
(“He could have stayed home and installed pavement where he is the legitimate King of Sand,” says Kevin Rooney.)
“We understand the security reasons and the nation’s greater interest,” Salucki wrote over the weekend. “But nobody can exonerate himself from the laws of the land.”
On Monday, however, a spokeswoman for Salucki told The Daily Beast that there was “no choice” but to obey orders that came down from the highest level of the state, she said.
“We can’t officially say if we’re for or against,” the spokeswoman said in a telephone interview, asking that she not be named. “This is a security issue. The king is a head of state. It’s no different than if President Obama came to town. The king’s villa runs right down near the beach. Someone could throw a grenade right through one of the windows if they were walking by on the beach.”