Why was the Saudi crown prince accused of buying a ‘Christian’ painting?

How a $450 million painting became part of a Qatari misinformation campaign against Saudi Arabia.

Christie's unveils Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' at Christie's New York on October 10, 2017 in New York City. (photo credit: ILYA S. SAVENOK/GETTY IMAGES FOR CHRISTIE'S AUCTION HOUSE/AFP)
Christie's unveils Leonardo da Vinci's 'Salvator Mundi' at Christie's New York on October 10, 2017 in New York City.
Qatar-based Al Jazeera claims Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman bought a painting that “is contrary to the teachings of Islam.”
“Why would a Saudi prince pay $450 million for a painting of Christ,” wonders The Catholic Herald. Good question. Even more intriguing when it turns out he didn’t pay anything for the painting; it was actually acquired by Abu Dhabi for a new museum.
Over the past week a carefully orchestrated misinformation campaign sought to tar the Saudi prince as a big spender on “Christian” art. Why?
According to The Wall Street Journal, the Saudi crown prince, who has been in the news recently for arresting high-profile suspects in a corruption investigation, was the “actual buyer” of the Da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi. The painting sold for $450 million at auction in November. The Wall Street Journal report has been picked up internationally.
According to the report, the listed buyer was Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud (Sometimes spelled Prince Badr bin Abdullah Al Saud). However “US intelligence” told the Wall Street Journal that MBS was the true owner. But isn’t Prince Bader the listed buyer? “He is a proxy for MBS,” an “unnamed figure in the Gulf art world” told reporters.
The odd story spread by “US government intelligence” and an unnamed “Middle East art-world figure” has continued to gather traction. Akbar Shahid Ahmed at The Huffington Post writes that the amount paid is the “highest ever in an art-world auction” and that it “damages his [MBS] claim that he will impose more transparency on the money accumulated by various members of the sprawling Saudi royal family.”
Pro-Iranian media, such as Al-Manar and Tasnim News, have seized on the story. The Daily Mail also reports that “Prince Bader had not been targeted in the crackdown and some have speculated that is because he is reportedly a close friend and associate of Prince Mohammed.”
Artnet News also bought into this story. “The blockbuster art acquisition now appears to be a move in a much bigger geopolitical game unfolding across he Middle East,” it claims. This is because it is an attempt by Saudi Arabia to win “cultural bragging rights,” and outbid the Qataris. Supposedly the Qataris had set the previous record, for a purchase of Cezanne’s The Card Player in 2012, and now the Saudis had trumped them.
The “crown prince buys painting” story was going well until it turned out on Friday that the painting was destined for Abu Dhabi’s new Louvre museum. Reuters reported that “a Saudi official denied MBS had purchased the work” and reported that “Christie’s can confirm that the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi is acquiring ‘Salvator Mundi’ by Leonardo da Vinci.”
Reuters also saw a document indicating that Prince Bader “was authorized to purchase the painting on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.” The document was dated November 12 and noted that Bader was acting as an “undisclosed agent” on behalf of the department for the November 15 auction. He was authorized to pay up to $500m.
“A UAE government official confirmed the painting belonged to the Abu Dhabi government.”
The media campaign to spread rumors that MBS was the buyer of the painting now appear to have been orchestrated partly by Qatar and its allies abroad. On December 9 Al-Jazeera put out a video claiming that MBS had, “after a massive campaign against corruption, bought $450m. [painting] contrary to the teaching of Islam.”
The New York Times also bought into the narrative that the purchase was linked to “palace intrigues in Saudi Arabia” and that Bader had bought a “controversial and decidedly un-Islamic portrait of Christ at a time when most members of the Saudi elite, including some in the royal family, are cowering under a sweeping crackdown against corruption and self-enrichment.”
The Times also claimed the purchase “is the clearest indication yet of the selective nature of the crackdown.”
Except, if he bought it for Abu Dhabi then why would that be?
Qatar has tried to portray the crown prince as a corrupt hypocrite, but if the painting was being sent to the UAE for the museum, then there’s nothing corrupt or “selective” in the story. Similarly, the assertion that the “painting of Christ also risked offending the religious sensibilities of his Muslim countrymen,” is presented without comment by any of those countrymen. Western reporters imagined Saudis would be offended, when the painting isn’t being hung in Saudi Arabia.
Why do Westerners buy into ideas of “palace intrigues” and “offended Muslims” without interviewing any Muslims? What if there are no Orientalist tropes of “palace intrigues,” but a more straightforward story? Why did a major US newspaper rely on “US intelligence” sources to pass on information about a painting to a newspaper, unless it was to harm the reputation of the crown prince?
Why did an unnamed source from the Middle East allege the Saudi royal bought the painting and neglect to mention – whoops – that the painting was destined for Abu Dhabi? It appears that media bought into an anti-Saudi narrative served up by anonymous sources, repackaging information about “palace intrigues” and “power struggles” without looking too deeply into it. This shows how easy it is to manipulate Western media to serve the purposes of foreign regimes.
None of the reports looking into the story even bothered to ask why the crown prince would suddenly want to buy a Da Vinci. They just assumed of course he wants this painting. When they found out it was destined for Abu Dhabi you can almost read the tone of their reports changing from a juicy story of “palace intrigue,” “corruption” and “offended Muslim sensibilities” to a banal story of a museum paying too much for a painting. And that’s not very interesting. It’s more interesting to listen to whispers of secret buyers and princes in the Gulf.