No-one would have ever known about King Juan Carlos of Spain’s elephant hunt in the Okavango Delta if he hadn’t stumbled and fractured his hip early last Friday morning.
But when his private jet flew into Madrid a day later, and he was rushed into hospital for emergency hip replacement surgery, the story ran riot.
The ensuing indignation amongst recession-hit Spaniards prompted the king to swallow his pride yesterday and make his first public apology in 36 years of reign.
The king’s faux-pas, literally speaking, comes at a time when the royal family is already under scrutiny because of an ongoing investigation into the alleged embezzlement of public money by the king’s son-in-law, ex-handball player Iñaki Urdangarin. Earlier this year the king suspended Urdangarin’s royal duties in an attempt to isolate him from the rest of the royal family.
But more importantly, it comes at a time when nearly a quarter of Spain’s active population is unemployed, and only a week after the government made budget cuts of a further 27 billion euro. Add to that the six-month waiting lists for hip replacement operations in some regions of the country, and it’s not really surprising that people’s noses have been put out of joint here by the king’s extravagant private life-style.
In a press conference on Tuesday, the leader of the United Left party, Cayo Lara, accused the king of “lacking ethics” for going on safari in the midst of an economic crisis and of “demonstrating a lack of respect to many people in this country who are suffering greatly at the moment.”
Tour operators have estimated in the Spanish press that a basic 14-day elephant hunt in Botswana, excluding the necessary transfers to and fro in private jets, could cost about 40,000 euro. The area chosen by the Spanish monarch, according to Vanity Fair, is a wilderness with no nearby human settlements and next-to-no tourist facilities, where only the world’s rich can afford to hunt, and wine and dine in luxurious fly camps.
Earlier this week politicians had raised questions about how the trip could have been financed as the king can’t actually afford to pay for such entertainment out of his own pocket.
Last year, following the Urdangarin scandal, the Zarzuela Palace made public for the first time the amount of money that the royal family receives annually from the state budget, and how it is distributed amongst its members. It was revealed that the king paid himself a salary of 292,752 euro from the royal budget in 2011. After taxes, his income was reduced to 175,651 euro.
It is a lot by normal standards, but hardly enough to cover the expenses of elephant-hunting.
Then it emerged yesterday that it was Syrian-born Spanish businessman, Mohamed Eyad Kayali, who actually paid for the pleasure of the king’s company.
Defenders of the king didn’t take long to point out that his long-standing friendship with Eyad Kayali, who is administrator of the Saudi Defense Minister, played a key role in securing the “high-speed desert train” construction contract with Saudi Arabia earlier this year. The project will connect the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, and with a value of over 6.7 billion euro, it is the largest international contract ever signed by Spanish companies.
The king’s defenders may be somewhat missing the point though, according to detractors who argue that if members of the royal family are to accept gifts of this nature, all details should be of public domain.
Opposition politicians have also called for greater transparency of royal finances in general. But a month ago the Monarchy was excluded from a Transparency Bill to be applied to the Spanish Parliament, Senate, Judiciary, and Court of Audit.
Antonio Torres de Moral, professor of constitutional law at the Granada University claimed in an article in El Pais yesterday that “it is impossible to deny the public dimension of the monarchy, and it should therefore be as transparent as the other institutions.”
The King has also come under fire beyond Spain’s boundaries. WWF, a nature conservation NGO, has initiated a process to withdraw the king’s position as Honorary President of the Spain branch, after receiving thousand of complaints from members. Even Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the President of Argentina, added insult to injury when, after seizing control of Repsol’s shares in the oil company YPF on Monday this week, she scoffed at Repsol’s decline in production, remarking that it resembled “an elephant’s trunk”, in a clear dig at King Juan Carlos.
The King of Spain’s exposure as an elite elephant hunter in his spare time couldn’t have happened at a worse time. And he knows it. Only a few months earlier, during his televised Christmas Day speech, he had held his head high and addressed the need for credibility in the Spanish institutions with the following wise words: “…those of us with public responsibilities should behave in an appropriate and exemplary fashion”.
But yesterday, as he leaned on his crutches and apologized to the nation, he just looked like a defeated, humbled old man.