Former Spanish King Made A Controversial Trip Home After Two Years of Self-imposed Exile

King Juan Carlos of Spain visits home

Spain's former monarch, Juan Carlos I, made a surprise visit to his homeland on May 19, 2022, after two years of living in a self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates.  He was in Spain for three days to attend the sailing regatta on the northwestern coast of Galicia, where his yacht, Bribon, was participating in the event. 

King Juan Carlos of spain visit homeland
Former Spanish king, Juan Carlos, participated in the Sailing Regatta in Galicia. Getty Images

Sailing is closest to his heart. The 84-year-old King emeritus of Spain was a former Olympian having represented Spain in the Sailing event during the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Despite protests of his return, he visited Zarzuela Palace in Madrid after the sailing regatta, to see his wife, Queen Sofia, and only son, King Felipe VI. No updates were given by the Spanish royal court on what transpired during the short visit. 

King Juan Carlos of Spain

He was once the most popular monarch in Europe

King Emeritus Juan Carlos ascended the Spanish throne on November 22, 1975, two days after the death of Francisco Franco, who ruled Spain's Third Republic as a dictator since 1939. 
King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain. Getty Images

It was Franco who wanted him to use the name Juan Carlos, but within his family, the former king is simply known as Juan or Juanito. Franco, a monarchist who rose to power during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), named Juan Carlos as the next monarch, bypassing Infante Juan, the Count of Barcelona because Franco was uncomfortable with the Count of Barcelona's too liberal political views. 

But when he ascended the Spanish throne in 1975, King Juan Carlos introduced reforms to dismantle Franco's authoritarian regime. 

He played a central role in reshaping Spain's modern political history, and was instrumental in the restoration of the country's democracy after four decades of Franco's dictatorship, leading to the re-establishment of the Constitutional Monarchy. 

Due to his pivotal role in Spain's democracy, he was greatly admired by his subjects and had enjoyed more popularity and high approval ratings than any other monarchs in modern Europe, surpassing the popularity of his cousins, Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, and King Harald V of Norway.

However, it took a controversial hunting trip in Botswana in 2012 to blow it off.

Three generations: King Juan Carlos, King Felipe VI, and Leonor, the Princess of Asturias

King Juan Carlos's luxurious elephant hunting trip in April 2012, where he broke his hip, came at a time Spain was reeling from the economic crisis. It also came around the time his second daughter, Infanta Cristina, and her husband, Inaki Urdangarin, were involved in a corruption scandal. The king's popularity rating plummeted

On June 19, 2014, after suffering from a series of health problems, he voluntarily abdicated in favor of his only son, now King Felipe VI. But the former king continued performing royal duties until 2019 when he decided to retire from public life.

King Juan Carlos (right) on his abdication day, June 19, 2014, and King Felipe VI 

The Spanish royal family on the day of the abdication of the king. From left: Queen Letizia, King Felipe VI, King emeritus Juan Carlos, Queen Sofia, Infanta Elena and her son. Front: Infanta Sofia and her sister, Leonor, Princess of Asturias

Following his retirement, an allegation of corruption emerged after the secret conversation between his former mistress and adviser, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein-Sayn, and a police chief, was leaked in public. 

Corinna alleged that King Juan Carlos received billions of kickbacks from the commercial contracts (in which some Spanish companies had also benefited) on the construction of a high-speed rail line in Saudi Arabia, and kept the money in a bank account in Switzerland. 

She also alleged that the king gifted her with a large sum of money from the alleged kickback fees from Saudi Arabia. The allegations led to the demands for the former king to be investigated for corruption in June 2019. 

It was also reported that King Felipe VI appeared to be the second beneficiary of the Lucum Foundation which had received millions of donations from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. This allegation prompted King Felipe VI to renounce his inheritance from his father. The Royal Household also cut the lifetime allowances for the former king.

By June 2020, Spain's Supreme Court agreed to investigate the former monarch to determine the criminal relevance of the events that took place after his abdication in 2014, because as a reigning monarch between 1975 to 2014, the king was immune from prosecution.

There was also an investigation by Swiss authorities with regards to €3.5 million paid from the Lucum Foundation to the Bahamas-based bank Pictet & Ciein for a society called Dolphin, which was controlled by a lawyer who controlled Lucum Foundation.

In August 2020, King emeritus Juan Carlos announced he would leave Spain to spare his son and the monarchy from further controversies. His destination was not announced, but it was later revealed, he went into a self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates.

King Felipe VI and Queen Sofia did not contact, nor visited the former king in UAE, to prevent attracting issues. but their daughters who are not working royals, Infanta Elena and Infanta Cristina, and their children, paid the former king a visit in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

King emeritus Juan Carlos (center) in UAE welcomed his daughters, Infanta Cristina (far left) and Infanta Elena (far right), and his grandchildren

In December 2021, the Swiss prosecutors dropped all cases filed against the former king due to the impossibility of proving any illegal activities of the monarch, because it happened during his reign when he was immune to prosecution. The same investigation was also dropped in Spain in March 2022 after investigators failed to find sufficient evidence of criminal activity.

Following the withdrawal of the charges against him, the king emeritus wrote his son a letter, published by the palace. "For reasons that remain private and that only affect me, I prefer in this moment to continue living in a permanent and stable way in Abu Dhabi, where I have found tranquility"

Despite all these developments favoring the former king, the news of his visit was met with criticism, and when he returned home in May, his arrival attracted protests.

"I think King Juan Carlos wasted the opportunity during this visit to give an explanation and apologize," Isabel Rodriguez, spokeswoman for the Socialist government told Spanish public radio RNE.

The former monarch had not responded to the inquiries of the media while he was in Galicia. After visiting Zarzuela Palace, the king emeritus returned to UAE.

The current Spanish royal family. The King and Queen with their daughters, Infanta Sofia and Princess Leonor

Measures after the controversies

To avoid the same scandal, King Felipe VI and the government took steps to increase the transparency of the monarchy, requiring the palace to publish its budget, royal accounts will be audited, and senior palace officials must declare their personal wealth while active in the service. Gifts given to royals will also be accounted.

Due to these reforms, Isabel Rodriguez commented, "Felipe VI is doing a great job to restore transparency, which is essential for any state institution," Rodriguez said.

The profiles of Infanta Cristina and her husband were removed from the Spanish royal family's official website.

Their Majesties, The King and Queen of Spain

Family roots of King Juan Carlos

King Juan Carlos was born on January 5, 1938, in Rome, Italy, during his family's exile. One of his godparents was his grandmother, Queen Eugenie, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. 

He married Princess Sophia of Greece and Denmark, his third cousin through Queen Victoria, in 1962 in Athens, Greece, She is the eldest child of King Paul of Greece and Princess Frederica of Hanover.

Royal House of Bourbon - Spain:

The former king's parents were Infante Juan, Count of Barcelona, and Princess Maria de las Mercedes of Bourbon-Two Sicilies, daughter of Prince Carlos of Bourbon-Two Sicilies and Princess Louise of Orleans (the daughter of Prince Philippe, Count of Paris and Infanta Maria Isabel of Spain).

He has three siblings: Infanta Pilar, Infanta Margareta, and Infante Alfonso who died of gunshot wounds. Speculation of the incident claimed Prince Juan Carlos accidentally pulled the trigger of the pistol that he was cleaning, hitting his younger brother.

Royal House of Windsor - United Kingdom

The grandmother of the king emeritus was Queen Eugenie, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, through Victoria's youngest child - Princess Beatrice. The father of Queen Eugenie was Prince Henry of Battenberg, the younger brother of Prince Louis of Battenberg (the maternal grandfather of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh).

Left photo: Prince William seated on King Juan Carlos of Spain's lap during a family vacation in Spain in 1987, Prince Harry can be seen in front. Right photo: King Juan Carlos met Prince William in adulthood

Vacation in Spain (1990) From Left: Queen Anne-Marie of Greece, Prince Philippos, ex-King Constantine II of Greece holding his daughter Princess Theodora, Princess Diana (in sunglasses), Prince Charles, King Juan Carlos, Prince William, Queen Sofia with Prince Harry, Infanta Cristina and Infanta Elena. Credit: Princess Diana Archive/Getty Images 

Grand Ducal House of Hesse (Germany) - King emeritus Juan Carlos also descended from the Grand Ducal House of Hesse through Grand Duke Louis II. The Grand Duke's son, Prince Alexander of Hesse, married Countess Julia Hauke, the lady-in-waiting of his younger sister, Empress Marie of Russia, wife of Emperor Alexander II of Russia.

It was an unequal marriage, thus Countess Julia was not granted the title of Princess of Hesse, instead he was created Princess of Battenberg, and their children belonged to this house and no longer to Hesse.   

Two of their sons would marry into the British royal family. Prince Louis of Battenberg married Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine (granddaughter of Queen Victoria), and Prince Henry of Battenberg wed Queen Victoria's youngest child, Princess Beatrice.

Prince Henry and Princess Beatrice had one daughter, Princess Victoria Eugenie who married King Alfonso XIII of Spain in 1906. Prince Louis of Battenberg and Princess Victoria of Hesse and by Rhine were the grandparents of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

In 1917, the Battenberg was anglicized into Mountbatten.

Family vacation in 1987. Back row from left: Prince Felipe, Prince Charles, Princess Diana, King Juan Carlos. Front row from left: Queen Sofia, the young Prince Harry and Prince William. 

A family vacation in 1987. Back row: Infanta Cristina, King Juan Carlos, Prince Charles, Infanta Elena, Queen Sofia. Front row: Princess Diana with Princes William and Harry, and Prince Felipe in green polo shirt
Princess Diana vacation in Spain
King Juan Carlos with Prince William on his lap, Princess Diana with Prince Harry, Prince Charles

Background on the restoration of the Spanish monarchy

In 1931, after the Republicans won majority of votes in several Spanish municipalities, King Alfonso XIII voluntarily abdicated and left Spain to avoid a bloody civil war between the monarchists and the republicans. He went to live in exile in Rome, Italy, with his wife and children. The Second Spanish Republic was then declared.

He later separated from Queen Eugenie, but did not divorce. And the Queen relocated to Lausanne, Switzerland, where most exiled royals in Europe had taken up residence. 

In 1933, his eldest son and heir, Alfonso, Prince of Asturias, renounced his claim to the Spanish throne to marry a commoner. Prince Alfonso died in 1938 in a car accident. Weeks later, his second son, Infante Jaime, also renounced his rights to the Spanish throne due to his deafness. King Alfonso created him Duke of Segovia.

In 1934, his youngest son, Infante Gonzalo, and daughter, Infanta Beatriz, were involved in a car accident in Austria. Beatriz survived but Infante Gonzalo, who was hemophiliac, suffered from abdominal bleeding and died days later.

The incident left Infante Juan, King Alfonso XIII's third son, the only legitimate heir to the Spanish throne. 

The Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936 and the Second Spanish Republic was overthrown by the Nationalist Forces led by General Francisco Franco, a monarchist. When the war ended in 1939, the Third Spanish Republic was declared. Francisco Franco ruled Spain as a dictator.

In 1941, King Alfonso XIII renounced his rights to the defunct Spanish throne in favor of his third son, Infante Juan. That same year he died in Italy. Infante Juan began using the title, Count of Barcelona, although legally he was Prince of Asturias. 

But in 1947, Francisco Franco officially recognized Spain as a monarchy. However, Infante Juan had a tense relationship with Franco who viewed the Count of Barcelona's political views as too liberal. 

Franco planned of skipping a generation, and in 1969, he named Juan's son, Juan Carlos, as his successor. Infante Juan did not renounce his rights to the throne which resulted in his estrangement from his son. 

On November 20, 1975, Francisco Franco died and Juan Carlos was declared King of Spain two days later. He also reconciled with his father. But only in 1977 that Infante Juan formally renounced his rights to the Spanish throne.

King Juan Carlos officially made his father Count of Barcelona in 1977. When Infante Juan died in 1993, he gave his father the burial honors of a Spanish king, putting the name, King Juan III, in his father's grave.

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