The Saudi Princess and the Multi-Million Dollar Shopping Spree

Saudi princess Maha bint Mohammed bin Ahmad al-Sudairi reportedly tried to stiff some of Paris’s most exclusive boutiques for $20 million and skip out on a $7 million dollar hotel bill. James Reginato follows her trail.

By James Reginato

It’s an old gambit—slipping out of a hotel in the dead of night to dodge the bill. But it’s a bit tricky when you have an entourage of 60 people, a balance of more than $7 million, and a fleet of limousines and other vehicles waiting to collect you and your mountains of bags. That was the situation at 3:30 A.M. on May 31, 2012, when Princess Maha bint Mohammed bin Ahmad al-Sudairi reportedly attempted to make something of a run for it at Paris’s five-star Shangri-La Hotel, in the 16th Arrondissement, where she and her retinue had occupied 41 rooms for five months. After a tense standoff that involved calls to high-ranking diplomats and officials, she was allowed to leave, whereupon she checked into the nearby Royal Monceau, owned by Qatar, a friendly neighbor of Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps Princess Maha thought she could slip away because just three years earlier in Paris, according to press accounts, she almost succeeded in ducking out on a $20 million tab during an epic shopping spree through the boutiques of the Avenue Montaigne, the Place Vendôme, and elsewhere. When it came time to ring up her purchases, Princess Maha reportedly shunned the usual payment methods, instead having a minion hand the merchant an embossed document stating, “Payment to follow”—a very fancy I.O.U. At some point, however, the checks stopped going out. “She was a very good customer for eight years, but then simply stopped paying,” the proprietor of the lingerie store O Caprices de Lili told reporters in June 2009, when she was awaiting nearly $100,000 in payment. The owner of a leisurewear store called Key Largo claimed that he had been stiffed for almost $125,000 worth of merchandise.

Related: Kate Middleton Went on a Shoe-Shopping Spree

Toward the end of that 2009 stay—this time at the George V—at least one of the approximately 30 vendors to whom she reportedly owed money spent days camping out in the lobby of the posh hotel in hopes of receiving payment, before filing a civil claim. In spite of those mountainous debts, her departure from the George V appears to have been unimpeded. The hotel is owned by her cousin Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (net worth: $30 billion), and, according to some reports, her debts were settled by officials from the Saudi Embassy. But her brother-in-law at the time, King Abdullah (who died on January 23), was said to be unamused by Maha’s scandalous behavior, and, on her return to Saudi Arabia, reportedly had her confined to her palace.

Maha, in her early 50s, was the third of Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud’s three wives. The couple—who were also cousins—were together some three decades before parting ways. They had five children, now ranging in age from 22 to 30. In 2009, Nayef (a half-brother of King Abdullah’s) had been second in line for the throne—and at times Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler as a result of the poor health of both the king and the then crown prince, Nayef’s brother Sultan. Nayef was named crown prince in October 2011 following Sultan’s death; by early 2012 he and Maha had divorced. Ailing from diabetes, he died on June 16, 2012, at age 78.

In December 2011, Maha defied the royal edict and “escaped” back to Paris, according to The Telegraph. Her troublesome 2012 checkout from the Shangri-La coincided closely with the death of her ex-husband and, according to some, the total loss of Abdullah’s favor. “The king was really over her at this point—he wanted nothing to do with her,” said a Middle Eastern woman who lives in Europe and knows the princess.

Related: Baby Gifts Fit for Royalty

It was even more arduous for vendors to collect this time around. In March 2013, a judge in Nanterre, west of Paris, ordered the seizure of the contents of two storage units packed with Maha’s 2012 purchases, which were to be auctioned off to repay creditors. The stash reportedly included clothes, hats, handbags, jewelry, artworks, bathing suits, designer eyeglasses, cartons of cigarettes, gold-plated serving dishes, about a thousand pairs of women’s shoes, and some framed photographs of the princess posing in a tiara and a carnival mask.

One of the creditors was the luxury-services company that had provided her with chauffeurs and cars—almost 30 of them every day, including two Rolls-Royce Phantoms. It was left with almost $400,000 of unpaid bills, a company official told a reporter from the Paris daily Le Parisien. “We took the risk of dealing with her, because this was an attractive contract for us, but the whole thing has turned out to be disastrous,” he said. “The procedure for getting reimbursed is obviously going to be long, very long.”

So, the results of a recent fact-finding trip to Paris are somewhat curious. “The bill was paid within 48 hours” of the covert exodus, a press representative of the Shangri-La told me. “The chapter is closed. It’s not something the hotel really wants to discuss.” “All is fine,” said a manager at Key Largo, the sportswear shop that had to go to court to collect $125,000 in 2009. “The bill was paid.”

Related: Scientology’s Vanished Queen

Problematic as this Saudi customer was, nobody wants to lose that market, clearly. Paris has long been a favored destination of wealthy Saudis. They congregate mostly in the Eighth Arrondissement—where the good shopping is (i.e., Avenue Montaigne). Perhaps to stay in close proximity to the merchandise, their favored hotels in Paris are also here—the George V or the Plaza Athénée (owned by the Sultan of Brunei). “The Ritz was never their thing,” says one Parisian grande dame, who is a friend of the royal family and characterizes Saudi fashion taste as flashy and accessories-oriented: “They tend to like gimmicky things—Vuitton or Chanel. They are not very Hermès. The quantities of shoes they buy you cannot imagine. But if you ever see their soles, when they cross their legs, they are always like new. Because they never walk on the street.”

Shoes, as well as bags, are top female purchases, because in Saudi Arabia, under women’s abayas, these are the only articles visible to others.

According to Maha’s well-connected Middle Eastern acquaintance, the princess’s debts were likely settled—out of a wish, again, to avoid family scandal—by one of her late ex-husband’sfull brothers, possibly Salman, who succeeded Abdullah as king in January 2015.

Maha herself, meanwhile, has been grounded in her palace again—firmly, this time, said the grande dame. “She had no permission to leave the country,” she adds. (Efforts to reach Princess Maha for comment for this story were unsuccessful.)

Saudi Arabia’s ruling al-Saud dynasty, where King Abdulaziz (who founded the state, in 1932) fathered some 45 sons with at least 22 wives, there is a crucial distinction between half- and full brothers.

Salman and Nayef were two of seven sons born to Abdulaziz with his favorite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi, of the powerful Sudairi family from Saudi Arabia’s central plateau region of Nejd, where the fundamentalist Wahhabi ideology emerged some 300 years ago. According to some accounts, Hassa al-Sudairi may have been as young as 13 when she was chosen to marry the future king. After a few years, Abdulaziz divorced her to take other wives—Muslim men are permitted to have only four wives at a time—but he soon married her again. They had 12 children together and remained married until his death, in 1953. Their sons—known as the Sudairi Seven—formed the largest bloc of full brothers in the royal family and thus have wielded enormous power. The late King Abdullah (who had no full brothers) is said to have disliked them and attempted to limit their power.

But with Salman now on the throne, the Sudairis are back on top. One of Nayef’s 10 children, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55—son of Nayef’s second wife, Al Jawhara—has recently been named deputy crown prince.

Money still clearly gushes through the family. In May 2013, Maha’s youngest child, Prince Fahd, then 21, organized a three-day graduation party at Disneyland Paris for 60 friends that reportedly cost about $20 million. (Eighty dancers were hired to create spectacular shows, and Main Street was transformed into a Parisian boulevard, while the park was opened early in the morning and after hours, until two A.M., for his party. He reportedly invited Mickey and Minnie to come for a ride on his jet.) Excess is clearly a family tradition.

Originally built as a palace for Prince Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon’s grandnephew, the Shangri-La is among Paris’s most expensive hotels. (Rooms start at $750, and suites can cost as much as $23,000 a night.) A fusion of French Empire and contemporary luxe-minimalist décor, it prides itself on its impeccable service. Little of which, it seems, Princess Maha availed herself of, in spite of her $7 million bill. “She brought all her own people,” her Middle Eastern acquaintance said. “Drivers, maids, cooks … ”

“We almost never saw her,” a doorman at the Shangri-La whispered to me. “She lived in the night. She maybe came out in the daytime a couple of times in six months…. She’d be surrounded by 10 people rushing her into one of her cars.” According to other sources, the princess’s staff also included waiters, hairdressers, secretaries, bodyguards—and numerous people to carry her packages.

Such a nocturnal lifestyle is fairly common among rich and poor alike in Saudi Arabia, where daytime temperatures can be blistering. Therefore, some of Paris’s most exclusive emporiums kept late hours. The huge Louis Vuitton flagship on the Champs-Élysées, for example, reportedly reopened at two A.M. just for her. At one point during her shopping there she required sustenance and had bags of takeout hamburgers brought in. (Dior, Dolce & Gabbana, Chaumet, and Victoria Casal are some of the other shops she was known to patronize.)

While there is no doubt that Princess Maha is a world-class shopaholic, she displayed little discrimination. “She shopped everywhere, from Hermès to Zara and anywhere in between,” the acquaintance told me.

Indeed, Key Largo, where she dropped that $125,000, is a small discount boutique located in a tacky mall near Trocadéro that sells downscale sneakers, underwear, and jeans.

She hoovered up virtually everything in her path, wherever she went. According to the acquaintance, after Princess Maha took an excursion to Geneva she needed four trucks to haul back her purchases—and she bought a Lamborghini and a Ferrari, despite the fact that she doesn’t drive. (Women are not permitted to do so in Saudi Arabia.)

According to that acquaintance, who visited her hotel suite, many of Princess Maha’s packages were apparently never even opened: “There were rooms and rooms full of bags and boxes. Everywhere you looked there were boxes and bags, almost all unopened.”

“When I saw her in her suite she was wearing pajamas” rather than the carloads of couture she was amassing. “There was candy everywhere in her suites,” this person added. “And she brought with her five or six people to work in the kitchen, because it had to be staffed 24 hours a day.”

In spite of her history of utter excess, Princess Maha emerges as a strangely sympathetic figure as you learn more about her.

“There is a charm and a sweetness to her,” said the Middle Eastern acquaintance I spoke with. “But she’s a lost soul. She’s uneducated; you know, they want to marry these girls off as early as they can. Then they have nothing to do but shop. It makes for stupid women, and it’s a real problem for the country—it means men are making all the decisions.”

A lively woman, Maha is said to be passionate about music, singing, and love poetry, which she used to like to write—big no-nos for females in Saudi Arabia’s ultra-conservative Wahhabi culture. And one of the staunchest enforcers of its adherence to that code was her husband.

As interior minister since 1975, he was in charge of the kingdom’s intrusive intelligence and security agencies, even wielding a large measure of control over its fanatical religious police. An uncompromising conservative, he disapproved of King Abdullah’s relatively modest social reforms and was known to imprison and execute Saudis who opposed the regime, according to author Karen Elliott House in On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future.

Yet, at least in the earlier years of his marriage to Maha, he doted on her. “He adored her, indulged her, gave her everything she wanted,” said the Middle Eastern acquaintance, who described him as “the Antichrist.”

“Anybody would go crazy being married to him,” this person added.

Related: How Much Does Italy Owe Amanda Knox? A Lot

Somewhere along the way, the marriage faltered. In the early 2000s, according to the French newsmagazine Le Nouvel Observateur, rumors circulated that she had become friendly with a Saudi crooner, Khalid Abdul Rahman. Known as “the lover of the night,” he supposedly set some of the poems she wrote to music—to the extreme chagrin of the Saudi religious establishment.

Saudi Arabia’s women continue to be one of the most repressed female populations in the world. They are almost never allowed out of their houses without a male guardian. Even the main activity that wealthy women are supposedly allowed to enjoy—shopping—is highly circumscribed. As sales attendants in Saudi Arabia are all men, women cannot try clothes on in the shops, so they must take all garments to the shopping-mall restrooms, which are attended by women. “I presume this is what makes international shopping appealing to Saudi women—the ability to be normal at some level,” said House—though “normal” is not exactly the word anybody would use to describe the Parisian shopping expeditions of Princess Maha al-Sudairi. With Salman running the kingdom now, there is even speculation that Maha might emerge from disfavor and find herself more mobile again. Watch out, Avenue Montaigne!

More from Vanity Fair:
Matthew Weiner Loses Control
Photographer Who Took Iconic Vietnam Photo Looks Back, 40 Years After the War Ended