Anyone who knows the actor Johnny Depp well has always known that there were a few reasons why the 60-year-old has been to many countries around the world and made films, but never showed much interest in the Arab world. His films, like many others from the West, were not shown there. But most importantly: there were no drinks. No vodka, no wine and certainly no “mega pints,” as the large glass he filled himself with red wine one morning was called in the trial of his ex-wife Amber Heard. Depp, who admitted in the trial that he had had problems with overdosing on alcohol and other substances for at least some time, would have literally been left high and dry in Arab countries such as the Gulf states. Alcohol is strictly forbidden there, at least officially, but we’ll get to that later.

It is all the more astonishing that the US magazine “Vanity Fair” recently revealed a new and probably intense preference of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” star for the Gulf states and especially for Saudi Arabia. Depp, according to the paper, became friends with the ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, visited him several times, flew to a Jeff Beck memorial concert in London in the crown prince’s private 747 and spent a total of seven weeks in 2023 desert state. There he traveled through the country and met artists and filmmakers and, according to Depp, developed a completely new opinion about the culture and the people. “I admit that I was initially a bit naive about what was happening in the region, but I have now experienced first-hand the cultural revolution that is taking place there,” said Depp.

Now a pirate like Johnny Depp doesn’t go from Saul to Paul overnight; the change of heart apparently had other reasons too. And as is often the case: it was financial. The Saudis’ first contact with the Hollywood star was already a purchase. During the filming of “Jeanne du Barry”, a French costume film in which Depp starred immediately after his trial against Heard, the Saudi Arabian Culture Minister Prince Badr Farhan asked if he could meet and speak to Depp, which the actor initially refused, then declined but had to agree because the Saudis had filled the meager budget of the “Barry” film with millions of dollars and now politely but firmly insisted on voicing the main actor.

After the first meeting, there was a visit to the sheikdom and intensive discussions with ruler Mohammed bin Salman, known as “MBS” for short. The sheikh’s strategy seems to have been obvious and not new. In order to polish up the repeatedly questionable reputation of the desert state, which does not take human rights very seriously and has refugees shot at its borders, world celebrities are to be lured to the country for a lot of money. This is how footballers like Ronaldo and Neymar are now playing in the national league, although they are insignificant but heavily paid, and so Hollywood is now supposed to bring international shine to the sand. Allegedly, according to “Vanity Fair”, Depp was offered a multi-million dollar contract as a “global cultural ambassador”, and it was also hoped that Depp, as a director, would shoot his upcoming films in the country and thus be able to get the country’s own film industry going. A “Cinecitta”, i.e. a studio and production area, is also planned. They are always quick to build in the desert.

How and whether Johnny Depp gets involved in such deals and could soon be a “film ambassador for Saudi Arabia” is not yet known; he himself only said “I had the opportunity to meet people from different parts of the region who told me about their culture, their traditions and stories with great openness”, but these are brave things to say as a guest. Something else is much more interesting, something in which the Johnny Depp as we actually know him shines through. According to Vanity Fair research, the following story happened: During one of the long nights that Depp spent on one of the sheikh’s huge yachts, and, one assumes, he also had a drink on hand, because alcohol is only available on land forbidden, so on one of these nights he looked the ruler MBS in the eyes, gathered all his courage and asked what really happened in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018, when the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered there.

Anyone who still remembers Depp’s deep, humming voice in the courtroom in 2022 can imagine what that sounded like. MBS is said to have initially remained silent and then declared that Khashoggi was not a journalist but an “agent” who worked with the country’s enemies to torpedo the sheikh’s reform program. Every day in Istanbul, the secret service was only tasked with arresting Khashoggi, which the agents apparently misunderstood and instead murdered him and dismembered the body. According to MBS to Depp, he did not order the murder, but he was responsible for it. And the perpetrators were later arrested and convicted. A desert ruler and an actor with mega pint preferences on a yacht in the Red Sea discussing a murder that rocked the region’s politics in 2018 – things always get reliably bizarre when Johnny Depp takes the stage.

The fact that the desert trip was worth it for Johnny Depp was already evident in 2023, when the Saudi “Red Sea Film Foundation” announced that it would be involved in Depp’s next directorial project “Modi”. It is a film about the wild days of the painter Amedeo Modigliani, who almost collapsed from alcohol and drugs in Paris around 1914. Depp, himself a painter, seems to know well what he wants to stage with Al Pacino and the Italian Riccardo Scamarcio. It remains to be seen whether the sheikhs will understand this and show such a film in their cinemas.