Mystery of Morocco’s ‘missing’ princess
She is a princess and mother who has challenged the regal status quo ever since she fell in love with a wealthy member of a royal family. With her signature style and independent spirit, the avowed humanitarian set about modernising the role of women in the royal court.
Think I'm talking about Meghan, Duchess of Sussex? Think again. Meet Princess Lalla Salma, the King of Morocco's wife and mother of the Crown Prince who is beloved in her country.
However, mystery surrounds her, having been dubbed the "Ghost Princess" after she vanished from public view nearly two years ago.
There are blurry Instagram photos, swirling rumours and competing theories. The lingering question is, where is Morocco's "missing" Princess?
It's a story as old as time: Boy meets girl, boy turns out to be future king, couple fall in love and marry with the requisite massive wedding. The then-Salma Bennani met her future husband King Mohammed in 1999 at a party. She was a computer engineering student who had been raised by her grandmother. He had been crowned after taking over from his autocratic father after a 38-year despotic rule.
After tying the knot in 2002, the newly styled Princess Lalla Salma and her husband broke with longstanding Moroccan tradition that shuttered royal wives from public view. (Their photographs and even names were previously never publicly revealed.)
Instead, Lalla Salma took on a far more modern approach to life, working to prevent HIV/AIDS in Africa, founding her own cancer charity and becoming a goodwill ambassador for the World Health Organisation. In 2016 when Michelle Obama visited Africa, she met with Lalla Salma to discuss women's education.
Along the way, she also fulfilled the requisite royal bride duty of providing an heir and a spare, namely son Crown Prince Moulay and daughter Princess Lalla.
According to reports, Mohammed's family were less-than-impressed by her far more liberal approach to royal life, including wearing pants in public and eschewing a headscarf in the Muslim country.
PALACES AND $2 MILLION IN PET FOOD
While the Moroccan royal family might not get the same level of attention in the West as, say, their British counterparts, they enjoy a far more luxurious life. Estimates put the net worth of King Mohammed at anywhere between $5 billion and $29 billion, so suffice to say they enjoy a decadent existence.
In 2005, it was revealed that the King and his family cost the Moroccan people an astonishing $263 million annually, which included $1.8 million spent on pet food. He has 12 palaces around the world, all perpetually kept at 17 degrees and fully staffed, and he rarely visits many of them. His favourite property is believed to be a massive French castle, and his love of expensive cars is well known. (It has been reported he once flew his Aston Martin from Rabat to London, and some mornings he has a dozen of his priciest vehicles driven past him so he can choose which one he wants for the day.)
THE LADY VANISHES
Princess Lalla Salma was a frequent presence on the international royal scene, including attending the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's 2011 wedding. Despite being a highly popular figure in her home country and regularly travelling abroad, the last time she was seen in public was in late 2017.
And then … nothing.
For nearly two years, the Princess' whereabouts and status have been hotly debated. Had she upset the King and was being kept hidden behind palace gates? Had the couple divorced? Was she living in exile in the United States?
Even foreign diplomats are said to have been left in the dark about the situation.
When Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, visited the North African nation in February this year, they met with King Mohammed, now 56, and Crown Prince Moulay. There was no sign of Lalla Salma, now 41.
If Mohammed had been displeased with his wife and had acted by shutting her away, there was precedent. According to a report in the Times, it is believed that the King kept his mother in a palace, though later he is said to have relented and he gave her permission to live in exile in France.
Adding to the mystery surrounding the vanishing of Lalla Salma is the press blackout. Unlike the UK where coverage of the Windsor clan dominates tabloids, the Moroccan press is ruthlessly regulated. (It currently ranks 135th in the world for press freedom.) While there have been murmurings about Lalla Salma's notable disappearance from public life, the palace has refused to comment.
When a Moroccan website ran a story that chided Lalla Salma, accusing her of having a "deceitful attitude" and "outsized ego", it was widely believed to have done so with the King's approval.
In the intervening months and years, the Princess has been spotted outside of her home country, including reports she had travelled to Portofino with her daughter in 2018 and cruised around the Greek islands with her son in July this year in a yacht that costs $1 million-per-week.
One theory that has been rumoured is that the couple have split and are fighting over custody and that she was not allowed to travel with both of her children, though this was disproved when she was spotted with the young Prince and Princess in New York.
In April, a blurry image purporting to be of Lalla Salma and her daughter having dinner in Marrakech surfaced, though it has, again, never been confirmed it is her.
“Waar is Lalla Salma?” In Marokko! De ‘verdwenen’ echtgenote van de Marokkaanse koning is na zo’n 15 maanden weer gezien. Samen met haar dochter is ze op het Djemaa el Fna-plein gespot, temidden van tal van beveiligers. pic.twitter.com/ynyjEaIjbu— Rick Evers (@RickEversRoyal) April 3, 2019
Earlier this year, Spanish magazine Hola! claimed that the Lalla Salma and the King had divorced quietly, however the whole situation remains shrouded in mystery. Despite similar reports, her Wikipedia page still lists her as the "Princess Consort of Morocco" and as King Mohammed's wife.
The King is a devoted Facebook user. Despite his feed being peppered with candid shots of him eating, working and of his children, Lalla Salma is nowhere to be seen. For a woman who bucked tradition and charted her own path, her dramatic disappearance from public life is startling, and this mystery is far from solved.
Daniela Elser is a royal expert and freelance writer with 15 years' experience working for some of Australia's biggest media titles.