Historian Robert Lacey examines what led to the Duchess of Sussex’s inappropriate choice of jewellery after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in this extract from his book Battle of Brothers featured in The Times.
On October 15, 2018 the journalists of the Royal Rota gathered for what they presumed would be a routine advance briefing on the 16-day tour of Australia, Fiji, Tonga and New Zealand on which Harry and Meghan were embarking next day — to be taken by surprise.
“The duke and duchess are expecting a baby,” announced Jason Knauf, still on the Sussex team as the spokesman they shared with William and Kate, via an iPhone 6 that had been laid across a tea cup to create a makeshift loudspeaker. “We’ll be sending out a statement in about fifteen minutes.”
Meghan was less than 12 weeks pregnant and the announcement would normally have been made at a later stage.
“But she was already ‘showing’,” briefed an aide, “and hiding it would not have been possible. The rumours would have dominated the coverage and taken away from the entire purpose of the tour.”
Pregnancy did not diminish the energy with which Meghan tackled 14 flights and 76 engagements over the next 16 days, starting in Sydney where Harry was hosting the fourth of his Invictus Games. Screaming crowds greeted the couple wherever they went.
Observers noted how positively local teenagers responded to these youthful British visitors. Indigenous Australians in particular were drawn to Meghan as a non-white face who represented them in a way that the formal and “Pommie” royal family had never done before.
“It’s cool to think there are young girls who look at the Duchess of Sussex and think, ‘Hey, she kind of looks like me,’ ” remarked Sherry-Rose Bih, an African-Australian social enterprise founder who had chatted for some time with Meghan in Melbourne at a reception for young community leaders.
But things went wrong a few days later in Fiji when Meghan arrived to visit a marketplace in Suva, the capital of the 300-island archipelago, wearing a pretty pink dress and black-ribboned wedges. Not long into the 20-minute engagement, with scores of smiling, largely female market vendors waiting to greet her, Meghan bristled suddenly and insisted on leaving.
The market vendors were shocked and disappointed by Meghan’s premature departure. “It is such a shame,” said one. “We started preparing for the visit three weeks ago and had been meant to meet her, but she left without even saying hello.”
One member of the royal party later suggested a reason for Meghan’s premature departure. The duchess had taken offence, apparently, when she caught sight of promotional material advertising UN Women, an organisation for which she had once done volunteer work, but with which she had since severed relations. In 2015 Meghan had given a rousing keynote address on gender equality to the group in New York, received with a standing ovation led by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. She had rubbed shoulders with the likes of Hillary Clinton and actor Kiefer Sutherland, and might have hoped to join UN Women’s distinguished roster of Goodwill Ambassadors that included celebrities such as Nicole Kidman and Emma Watson. But in those pre-Harry days UN Women only assigned the cable actress the lesser role of Advocate.
“Meghan does not cope well with what she perceives as ‘rejection’,” says a Los Angeles screenwriter close to those who were close to Meghan at the time of her first marriage. “She’s nice and smiley as can be until you step in her way or don’t give her what she hopes for. Then she can be remorseless — heaven help you!”
Meghan had excised references to the UN Women organisation from her website and social media — and it, in turn, had removed her from its. She was not happy, it seemed, to discover that UN Women was involved in the Suva marketplace engagement, and she snapped when she saw the many posters and T-shirts advertising the organisation — apparently blaming her staff for having landed her in the middle of all this branding. CCTV cameras captured the duchess turning to speak to an aide in a way that made the younger woman’s face blanch.
The duchess’s lawyers and PR staff have denied any suggestion of bullying on the part of Meghan in the Suva marketplace, explaining their client’s abrupt departure in terms of heat, overcrowding and the effects of her pregnancy.
They found it harder to explain another Fiji mishap — her wearing of a pair of “chandelier” diamond earrings valued at £500,000 ($695,000) that had been a wedding gift from Saudi Arabia’s notorious Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as “MBS”. Meghan wore the extravagant earrings to the tour’s state dinner in Suva on October 23, 2018 — exactly three weeks after the murder and dismembering by Saudi agents of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey. This was three days after Saudi Arabia had publicly admitted that its own officials were responsible for the killing.
The earrings are spectacular triangular strings of coloured yellow diamonds set in white diamonds which palace sources erroneously attributed to Chopard, the Geneva watchmaker and jeweller. Meghan’s online fans and followers, however, favoured Butani, the glitzy Hong Kong jeweller whose Dubai outlet has been supplying bling to the oil sheikhs for decades.
“Vulgar either way!” says London antique jeweller Sandra Cronan. “They’re surely too flashy for the royal family. They’re essentially a way of saying, ‘Look at all my money!’ ”
Taste aside, I have personal skin in this painful and tragic game — since I had breakfast with my long-time friend and colleague Jamal Khashoggi in London just a few days before he flew to Istanbul to his death. We discussed an article we had recently written together for The Washington Post about what the Saudi dictator could learn from Queen Elizabeth II, from down-sizing his family to earning respect through humility — not to mention the obvious virtues of encouraging free speech in his country. So, as a friend of 30 years’ standing, I naturally remember every agonising aspect of Jamal’s death as its details became public in the weeks that followed.
Meghan was probably not reading the newspapers in Fiji that October. She could be forgiven for not catching and understanding the sinister significance of her jewellery choice as she concentrated on her high-pressure tour of the Pacific.
But she too had a friendship stake in the game — or at least an acquaintanceship — not with Jamal Khashoggi but with another famous Saudi dissident, Loujain al-Hathloul, 27, with whom Meghan had been pictured in a shoot for Vanity Fair in October 2016. Meghan had posted the image on her Instagram page and there was more than one photograph of the two campaigners smiling together in Ottawa, along with such fellow female activists as Ireland’s Mary Robinson, at the Global Summit for Young Leaders organised by One Young World.
Meghan was described as an “Actor, Activist & Global Ambassador for World Vision”, alongside Loujain al-Hathloul and other delegates, whom Meghan praised for “speaking out against human rights violations, environmental crises, gender equality issues, discrimination and injustice. They are the change.”
So how was it possible for the soon-to-be Duchess of Sussex not to be aware that Loujain had been kidnapped in March 2018 by a Saudi hit squad just a week after the crown prince had had lunch with the Queen at Buckingham Palace? That was when MBS was said to have handed over the earrings ahead of the wedding two months later.
The March 2018 kidnapping of Loujain al-Hathloul was widely reported. Loujain was famous for campaigning for Saudi women’s right to drive, which MBS had granted the previous year. Then he kidnapped the activist and detained her just the same for continuing her criticisms of his absolutism. It was inconceivable that Meghan did not know what had happened to her brave Saudi acquaintance, and in the months that followed disturbing reports emerged of Loujain being tortured in Saudi custody.
“She showed them her thighs,” her sister Alia said of her parents’ visit to Loujain in prison. “And it was not only bruises; it was burns . . . She thought she was going to die.”
Meghan’s royal minders in Fiji were quite adamant they had made her aware of the embarrassing Saudi origin of the jewels. It is part of the job description of royal aides and private secretaries to keep their principals informed about “topical” events and connections, and these earrings were so novel and spectacular that journalists were bound to ask where they came from.
Meghan’s answer that the jewels were “borrowed” was presumably designed to avoid admitting their awkward provenance – well, awkward for a professed human rights campaigner. When the story came out in March 2021 her legal apologists leapt forward to point out that the earrings were actually lodged as property in the name of the Queen, like all wedding gifts to members of the royal family. So the duchess had been technically correct in saying that she had only “borrowed” them.
But Meghan had not borrowed the earrings in the same sense that she had been lent the Queen’s tiara she wore on her wedding day. Despite the technicalities of ultimate royal ownership, it is established practice that royal ladies can treat their jewellery as their own property to do with as they wish in their lifetimes, so long as they do not sell or dispose of the item. When you see a female HRH wearing such a bauble it is quite definitely “hers”, until it eventually reverts to the crown upon her death.
As her spokespeople conceded, Meghan certainly knew the identity of the tyrant who had paid for the earrings when she wore them at the Fiji state dinner. At that time, she might not have known the macabre detail that MBS’s hit squad had brought along a bone-saw and disposal bags to cut up Khashoggi’s body while it was still warm. But that horrible truth soon emerged to widespread publicity, and it had certainly been published with other grisly details well before November 14, 2018 — when Meghan decided to wear the earrings for a second time at the dinner to celebrate Prince Charles’s 70th birthday in London.
A few months later Meghan would tell a gathering for International Women’s Day that she had given up consulting Twitter. “That is my personal preference, but I do read The Economist,” she explained, because she sought out “journalism that’s really covering things that are going to make an impact”.
Well, between November 1 and 14, 2018 The Economist ran at least two major articles examining the role of Mohammed bin Salman in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and how the Saudis had used their diplomatic mission in Turkey “as a torture chamber”.
In February 2021, after nearly three years behind bars, Loujain al-Hathloul was finally allowed to go home in a Saudi government gesture that was widely interpreted as an attempt to curry favour with America’s new President Biden — “We’re not as barbaric as you think we are, Joe!”
Now 31, the campaigner currently remains under supervision, unable to leave the kingdom — and at the time of writing, it is not known what contact, if any, Meghan has been able to establish with her.
“Loujain did not personally know Meghan,” wrote her sister Lina to this author in an email dated March 30, 2021. “They were part of the same conference one day and took a picture — but that is it.”
©Robert Lacey 2021 Extracted from the updated paperback of Battle of Brothers: William, Harry and the Inside Story of a Family in Tumult by Robert Lacey, to be published by William Collins on June 24 at £9.99
Robert Lacey is a historian and royal expert
The Battle of Brothers extracts