Spain’s scandal-hit former king returns for visit after two years

Juan Carlos I, who fled the country amid allegations of financial irregularities, arrived on a private jet from Abu Dhabi, where he has been living since 2020

Juan Carlos I Spain
Juan Carlos arriving at a friend's house in Sanxenxo, Spain on Thursday evening.Álvaro Ballesteros / Europa Pre (Europa Press)

Juan Carlos I has returned to Spain. A private jet carrying the emeritus king landed this Thursday evening at Peinador airport in Vigo, in northwestern Spain, for a five-day stay that has sparked criticism. The trip to Spain is his first after 654 days as an expatriate in Abu Dhabi, where he fled in August 2020 as Spanish and Swiss prosecutors investigated his involvement in alleged financial wrongdoings.

The aircraft was a Gulfstream G450, registered in Aruba and owned by the Angolan company Bestfly. It is not known who paid for the flight, which landed at 7.14 pm local time. Seven minutes later, the 84-year-old emeritus king descended from the plane cautiously, then took a cane and leaned on the arm of a companion to cross the runway.

Juan Carlos I at Vigo airport on Thursday evening.
Juan Carlos I at Vigo airport on Thursday evening. Samuel Sánchez (EL PAÍS)

The first thing he did at the foot of the stairs was to embrace his eldest daughter, the Infanta Elena, who had been waiting for him at the airport, and to greet supporters that included his host for the next few days, Pedro Campos, president of the Sanxenxo Yacht Club. The former head of state is expected to participate in a sailing regatta and stay at Campos’ home until Monday, when he will travel to Madrid to meet with his son, reigning monarch Felipe VI, and with his wife Queen Sofia.

He will then travel back to Abu Dhabi without staying overnight at Zarzuela Palace. The Spanish government had objected to Juan Carlos I spending the night there, arguing that it is not only the residence of the royal family, but also the seat of the head of state.

The return of the king emeritus has not been without controversy. The organization of the trip was hampered by the government’s refusal to allow Juan Carlos I to spend the night at La Zarzuela. The executive also stressed that even though the former monarch is exonerated from any criminal liability because of his royal immunity, as well as the statute of limitations of the financial crimes he was investigated for, he has yet to give any explanation or apologize to Spanish society for his behavior. The governing Socialist Party (PSOE) has sought to distance itself from the trip, while its coalition partner Unidas Podemos said the ex-king should give Spaniards explanations. The conservative Popular Party (PP) offered a welcoming message to Juan Carlos, wishing him “a pleasant stay here, in his home,” in the words of party secretary general Cuca Gamarra.

The private jet carrying Spain's former King Juan Carlos I landing at the Peinador airport.
The private jet carrying Spain's former King Juan Carlos I landing at the Peinador airport.BRAIS LORENZO (AFP)

In a conversation with reporters before the plane landed, Campos said Juan Carlos was “very excited” to be returning to Spain after almost two years in the Persian Gulf. “He is in high spirits, very enthusiastic about returning to Spain. That is the main message he has conveyed to me,” he said. Campos added that the former king is “perfectly aware” that his return to Spain has generated “a lot of expectation.”

Juan Carlos I abdicated in 2014 after a series of scandals that were damaging the reputation of the royal family, including a hunting trip in Botswana. In 2021 he made million-euro payments to the tax agency to regularize his fiscal situation after it emerged that he had received undeclared income over a number of years. He is still involved in a harassment case brought against him in Britain by his former lover, Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein.

Juan Carlos I played a key role in the Transition, when Spanish society moved from the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco to a full democracy in the late 1970s.

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