Facing a level of criticism unprecedented since its restoration in 1975, the Spanish monarchy is in full damage control mode. “I am sorry, I made a mistake. It won’t happen again,” said King Juan Carlos in a seemingly improvised, but actually well-rehearsed, television address in April 2012. Prompting the extraordinary mea culpa by the 76-year-old Spanish monarch—a direct descendent of Europe’s most iconic rulers, including King Louis XIV of France, on both sides of his family, and Queen Victoria of England, on his mother’s side—was the controversy created by a photograph showing Juan Carlos holding a rifle next to a dead elephant while on safari in Botswana. The royal image appears to have been seared into the minds of the Spanish people. “To this day, the mere mention of an elephant sends people into an uproar over the king,” wrote Spanish author and journalist Miguel Anxo Murado in an op-ed for The New York Times.
The furor over the Botswana safari was not really about the killing of elephants—although conservationists outraged to learn of the king’s fondness for shooting pachyderms forced the World Wildlife Fund to drop Juan Carlos as its honorary president. A more important reason for the furor was the fact that the king seemed to be turning a blind eye to his country’s economic woes. As Juan Carlos was trophy-hunting in Africa—a jaunt whose price tag, according to El Pais, Spain’s paper of record, came to $60,000, or about twice the annual salary of the average Spaniard—the Spanish government was pleading for mercy from international creditors to deal with the country’s worst economic downturn in decades. By 2012, Spain had the highest unemployment rate in the industrialized world, with about a quarter of the active population out of work, and youth unemployment was approaching 50 percent.
More important, perhaps, is that the safari invited a host of uncomfortable questions about the private life of a monarch who, since his ascent to the throne, has been accorded an extraordinary degree of deference by the media, the government and the general public. Indeed, the public only learned of the Botswana trip because the king was forced to cut his stay short and return to Spain for surgery to repair a broken hip. Aside from wanting to know how the monarch had been injured (according to his doctor, Juan Carlos tripped in the dark), people wanted to know about the state of the royal marriage. The king was not accompanied on the safari by his wife, Queen Sofia, but by Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, a German aristocrat 28 years his junior, long rumored to be the king’s paramour. People were also curious about Mohamed Eyad Kayali, the Syrian-born Saudi tycoon who hosted the king and paid his expenses, and what Kayali’s largesse said about Juan Carlos’ choice of business and personal associates, especially given that the king often represents Spain in official foreign trade negotiations. All of this prompted the social democratic PSOE party—the leading opposition party in the Cortes, the Spanish parliament—to propose a parliamentary commission to look into the finances of the royal family.