A week after French President Emmanuel Macron opened the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi, a painting attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci went on sale for a record $450 million at an auction in New York City.
It was then reported that the buyer turned out to be none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia with whom Macron is said to enjoy a close, personal rapport.
The 500-year-old renaissance portrait of Jesus Christ – entitled ‘Salvator Mundi’ (‘Savior of the World’) – will henceforth go on display in Abu Dhabi’s franchise of the Louvre, presumably on long-term loan from the Saudi monarchy.
The story here is one of the French presidency and the Saudi heir using culture and arts for “soft power” projection – or, less prosaically, as public relations to launder their international image. It also ties in with how Macron is disguising pernicious French meddling in Middle East affairs under the image of being a benign diplomatic broker.
The Louvre in Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates, is the only one anywhere in the world that is an official affiliate to the famous Paris museum of the same name. It opens after 10 years of construction, for which the UAE reportedly paid France over $500 million in order to be able to use the famous Louvre name.
France, the UAE and the closely aligned Saudi rulers stand to gain much international prestige, especially after the Saudi Crown Prince reportedly purchased the most expensive artwork in the world to date by the renaissance master Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci’s other celebrated portrait, the Mona Lisa, is displayed in the Paris Louvre. A certain neat symmetry there.
However, beneath the veneer of classic art lies the grubby, sordid world of politics.
Last weekend, the French president hosted a conference in Paris entitled the International Support Group for Lebanon, whose chief guest was Lebanese premier Saad Hariri. Macron reportedly concluded the summit by saying it was “imperative for foreign powers not to interfere in Lebanese internal affairs”. The implication of that statement was fingering Iran as the culprit of interference through its association with Lebanese coalition government member Hezbollah.
The irony here is that if any country in the region has been guilty of brazenly interfering in Lebanese politics it is Saudi Arabia. Hariri tendered his resignation as prime minister on November 4 after he was summoned to Riyadh by the Saudi rulers who sponsor his Sunni Islam-affiliated political movement in Lebanon. In explaining his surprise resignation, Hariri dramatically and provocatively accused Iran and Hezbollah of plotting to assassinate him.
Hariri has since returned safely to Lebanon and has reversed his earlier resignation announcement. Both Iran and Hezbollah have rejected his claims of intended malice as ridiculous. It seems Hariri was trying to project a well-worn Saudi narrative to criminalize Iran and Hezbollah, whom the hardline Sunni (Wahhabi) Saudi rulers view as “Shia heretics” and regional nemesis – especially after recent military victory in Syria.
Evidently, Hariri is still doing the Saudi rulers’ bidding. Last week before the Paris summit, he told Paris Match in an interview that the Syrian government of Bashar al Assad – an ally of Iran and Hezbollah – wants him dead. He reiterated baseless accusations that Syria had been involved in the assassination of his father Rafic in 2005. The Paris summit a few days later then endorsed Hariri’s demand that Hezbollah, and by extension Iran, must “disassociate” from regional influence. France’s Macron publicly backed this demand.
That brings us to the art of deception. Saudi Arabia’s antagonism against Iran, Hezbollah and Syria is being finessed with French diplomatic sophistry. French President Macron and his foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian are subtly lending credence to Saudi attempts at demonizing Iran and Hezbollah, accusing both for regional instability – when in reality Riyadh and Paris are much more to blame.
Lebanon is only one such instance of Saudi meddling, which is being given a respectable cover by French diplomatic posturing. When Lebanon’s Christian President Michel Aoun and many Lebanese citizens were condemning Saudi rulers for “kidnapping” Hariri during his extraordinary two-week sojourn in Riyadh last month following his resignation, it was France’s Macron who deftly diverted attention from Saudi interference by extending a personal invite to Hariri to visit Paris along with his family. That invitation to Paris for Hariri on November 18 let the Saudis off the hook over claims that they were holding the Lebanese politician under duress.
Another instance of egregious Saudi-French meddling is Syria. The country has been ravaged by a nearly seven-year war that was largely sponsored covertly by Saudi Arabia, France and other NATO allies. That war has only been put to an end by the military intervention of Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.
In Yemen, the Saudi rulers have devastated the poorest country in the Arab region with a nearly three-year war that has been fueled with massive American, British and French weapons exports. A $3.6 billion arms deal that France signed with Lebanon at the end of 2014 for which the Saudis said they would foot the bill has ended up being diverted to Saudi Arabia for its war in Yemen, according to L’Observatoire des Armements.
French weapons reportedly include Cougar troop-transport helicopters, Mirage fighter jets, drones, and mid-air refueling tanker planes, which have enabled a Saudi bombing campaign that has been condemned for multiple war crimes from the targeting of thousands of civilians. French weapons also include navy corvettes and patrol boats which have helped enforce the Saudi naval blockade on Yemen. That blockade is inflicting starvation and disease on millions of children.
Given the scope of criminal Saudi-French interference in the region, it is therefore a travesty that these two countries are promoting a narrative seeking to impugn Iran and Hezbollah.
But this travesty is being given credence by an uncritical Western media, and by French President Macron donning an image of a progressive, liberal, cultured politician.
When Macron opened the Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi on November 8 he gave a speech in which he eulogized the “beauty of art” being a source of healing power to overcome “discourses of hatred”. He said the museum would “defend beauty, universality, creativity, reason and fraternity”.
This nauseating self-indulgence sounds rather like pretentious French pseudo-philosophy. A load of lofty-sounding cant which seeks to conceal what are brutal French state interests – weapons sales and fueling conflict – as somehow wonderfully benign and enlightened.
The next day, after his “emotive” speech in Abu Dhabi, Macron made a reportedly unscheduled flight to Riyadh to meet the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. This was while Lebanese premier Saad Hariri was still in the Saudi capital, apparently being held against his will.
One week later, on November 15, the Da Vinci portrait, ‘Salvator Mundi’, goes on sale at Christie’s auction house in New York. The buyer remained unknown until last week when the New York Times reported that it was Crown Prince MbS who splashed out the $450 million bid. The question is: was the young 32-year-old Saudi despot acting on advice from his cultured French friend Macron, as a way to gain some good international PR? It certainly smacks of orchestration.
Such profligate spending by the Saudi heir comes at an awkward time when he and his ruling clique have arrested some 200 other Saudi royals in a purported crackdown on corruption and graft. The embarrassment seems to have prompted the Saudi rulers to subsequently deny that MbS is the buyer, claiming instead that it was a cousin of the Crown Prince who was acting as an agent for the Louvre in Abu Dhabi to acquire the venerated art piece.
Whatever the truth about the precise buyer of Da Vinci’s ‘Savior of the World’, it seems clear that the French state and the Saudi monarchy are in any case engaged in a cynical image-laundering exercise. They are exploiting high-brow culture and religious sanctity as a way to project an image of civility and beneficence.
Macron in particular is serving as a sophisticated public relations agent for the Saudi rulers, laundering their badly tarnished image. In return, no doubt, Macron is securing lucrative future French arms sales to the Saudis, as well as to the Emiratis. Saudi Arabia is the top export market for France’s weapons industry.
French weapons-dealing with the Saudis is directly responsible for a slaughter of innocents in Yemen and Syria. And at the same time French diplomatic sophistry is covering up for Saudi subversion of Lebanon’s internal affairs. Yet, the Saudis and their French PR President Emmanuel Macron have the audacity to accuse Iran and Hezbollah of regional interference.
That’s the “beauty of art” indeed. The art, that is, of deception.