Crown prince bows to public pressure over Mozambique villa

The beach at the Machangulo peninsula.

By our news staff

After months of negative publicity, the future Dutch king Willem-Alexander last week announced he will sell his holiday villa in Mozambique. The decision comes at a time of strong debate about what the royal family can and cannot do.

It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Last year, Willem-Alexander and his wife Máxima made public they were having a holiday villa built on the Mozambican peninsula Machangulo. The location brought many great things together: the royal family's love for Africa, their need for privacy and a generous investment in the development of a poor country. It would be good, Willem-Alexander said, for his three daughters "to learn from an early age how lucky they are to have been born here".

But on Friday, in a letter to prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, Willem-Alexander announced the family will sell their share in the Machangulo development as soon as their house is finished next year. The move showed both the prince and the prime minister - who, under the Dutch constitution, is politically responsible for the actions of the royal family - were in over their heads in a real estate project that proved too big and uncontrollable.

Praise turned to criticism

Initial response in the Netherlands was sympathetic after the future Dutch king became a shareholder in the project, which will consist of 120 luxury villas and a hotel, but also health clinics and schools for the local people of the idyllic peninsula. The Dutch royal family has always loved Africa. Willem-Alexander's grandfather Bernard in 1989 helped put a ban on elephant hunting in place in Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Tanzania, and his father Claus grew up on the continent and was actively involved in development aid throughout his life. The project seemed in line with the family's tradition, even if the choice of location seemed based on a need for privacy Willem-Alexander and his wife can't find in Europe or her native Argentina.

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But the praise soon turned to criticism. There were reports of corruption and of locals complaining about the long wait for the schools and clinics. NRC Handelsblad revealed the original investors, mainly from South Africa, had placed their shares in a holding company in tax haven Mauritius - a remarkable choice for a project that was presented as part holiday investment part philanthropy. (The enterprise was converted into a public limited company based in the Mozambique capital Maputo in 2008.)

In the Netherlands a foundation was established last summer to act in the prince's interests. The institution was supposed to put the prince at arm's length from the project, but that backfired when NRC revealed the chairman of the foundation was a college friend of Willem-Alexander and himself a shareholder in the Mozambique development. Balkenende dismissed the suggestion this jeopardised the autonomy of the foundation, but members of parliament said there was a conflict of interest and demanded a debate with the prime minister.

Royal family asked to tighten its belt

Alexander Pechtold of the left-wing liberal party D66 called on the prince to get out of the project. "Morally, you should consider whether building a house in such a country is the right thing to do," he said. And even the chairman of the Orangeverenigingen, an umbrella group of royal family enthusiasts, said the choice for Mozambique was an "unfortunate" one and suggested Willem-Alexander blow the whole thing off.

The disapproval from different sides is in line with other criticism recently voiced towards the royal family in the Netherlands, both targeted at the prince personally and the institution in general. A failed attack on the family on Queen's Day in April this year boosted its popularity, but that dropped as news of the Mozambican villa, a court case against the Associated Press over ski holiday pictures and the tax constructions of a sister of queen Beatrix made headlines. Willem-Alexander alleged entitlement to his privacy especially raised eyebrows. On top of that, members of parliament, during the government's budget debate, asked why the family wasn't tightening its belt in this time of economic crisis.

Prince had sleepless nights

While three spokespersons were hired to boost the image of the project, the crown-prince himself spoke up during a recent visit to Mexico. He confessed to having had sleepless nights over the discussion surrounding his holiday home and said he was hurt by the questions raised about his intentions. He said his work in the Netherlands was the most important in his life and that work was put under strain by the growing controversy. "The ongoing discussion takes time and energy that, especially in this time of crisis, should be spend on other issues," he wrote in his letter on Friday.

He had referred to the crisis in a previous letter, which was read to parliament during the debate about the Mozambique project in October. The prince wrote the financial crisis had erupted after the decision to get involved in February of 2007. He hinted his considerations would have been different in a time of economic distress in the Netherlands.

So now the prince is pulling out of the development project as soon as his villa is finished, planned for May 2010. That means the prime minister will be responsible for what happens there a little while longer, keeping the question where the royals' private lives end and ministerial responsibility begins, very much alive.

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