Who Is Morocco's Missing Ghost Princess?

The term "ghost princess" could pretty easily conjure up images befitting some kind of paranormal fairytale. But for as morbidly enchanting as that concept might be, there's a much more grounded meaning for the term when it comes to the country of Morocco, referring to Princess Lalla Salma and the strange circumstances surrounding her.

Just to be entirely clear, this isn't a ghost story in the typical sense of the term — no hauntings or spirits can be found here. Rather, it's the story of the strange and abrupt disappearance of a beloved public figure. Princess Lalla Salma was born Salma Bennan on May 10, 1978, to a middle-class family in Rabat, and was well educated, earning a degree in computer science before marrying into the royal family of Morocco in 2002. She and her husband broke boundaries and set new precedents with their marriage, and Salma herself became much more involved in public works and charity than anyone at the time could have expected. All seemed to be going well.

But something changed in 2017, and suddenly, the people of Morocco weren't seeing their princess. The complete disappearance of such a public figure has, of course, been met with speculation, but even to this day, there's little official information to go around. The Moroccan people — and the world at large — aren't entirely sure what's happened, but here are the details that are available for people to puzzle over.

The traditions of Moroccan royalty

When it comes to discussing just what made Princess Lalla Salma stand out so much to both the Moroccan people and the world at large, it helps to have a bit of context about the status quo of female royals.

Generally speaking, in Moroccan society, progress has been a bit on the slow side. Though considerable steps have been taken toward gender equality, the focus on those issues is heavily attributed to the 2011 Constitution — a relatively recent change. Women still have to deal with social pressure to focus on childrearing and home life as misogyny continues to perpetuate itself, and even the law itself makes it difficult for women to actually assert their independence.

Moroccan royalty has acted in general accordance with those ideas, especially until the turn of the 21st century. An article published in Yaponshunoslar Xalqaro Forumi explains that Moroccan kings of the current lineage would typically marry multiple times, though that comes with the caveat that many people don't actually know the full details of those marriages. The royal family would typically keep the king's spouse far from the public eye, with information on her kept close to the family's chest. Details would only be released specifically if said spouse gave birth to the crown prince, and even then, it's been a crime in the past to publish photos of the king's wife. Unlike in other countries with an active monarchy — England, for example — being the wife of the Moroccan king just wasn't a very public position.

Princess Lalla Salma broke with tradition

With the turn of the 21st century came an apparent change to the traditions of the Moroccan royal family, and where prior spouses of Moroccan kings were kept largely hidden from the public, Princess Lalla Salma was anything but. With the announcement of her marriage to King Mohammed VI in 2002, Salma took part in the public celebrations and appeared in the massive parade put on in the couple's honor. Photos of her alongside her new husband were also published in the news, a far cry from a past when the public might never know the face or name of their king's spouse. On top of that, she was the first to receive another honor: the official title of Princess.

Salma ultimately went on to break tradition even further than people might have expected of her at first, doing more than simply making public appearances at government events and instead using her platform for activism and charity. She's spoken out about the HIV crisis in Africa and also became an official Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization, working to promote awareness around the cure and prevention of cancer — efforts that earned her a gold medal from the same group in 2017. And all of that aside from founding her own organization in 2005: the Lalla Salma Foundation — Prevention and Treatment of Cancer.

Overall, it sure seemed like a step toward the future for Morocco: a publicly active princess from a working-class background and a king who acknowledged the need for social reform.

She disappeared suddenly

Given that Princess Lalla Salma was the first spouse of a Moroccan king to actively engage with her people and take part in charity work of her own, the term "ghost princess" might not seem like the most fitting moniker. So what exactly earned her that particular name?

Well, things apparently changed in 2017, although no one can exactly explain the particulars. In December of that year, she was spotted at the Mohammed VI Museum in Rabat, Morocco, and then after that, there was nothing. The princess had seemingly vanished, a disappearing act that became obvious a few months later in March 2018. King Mohammed VI was on the mend from heart surgery when a photo was released of him in recovery, his family surrounding him. Or, most of his family, rather; Salma was nowhere to be seen. And that was a trend that would continue as time passed. Meetings with diplomats were attended by only the king and the crown prince, his son Moulay Hassan, but not the princess. The king's own Facebook page — apparently kept rather up to date — is chock full of candid photos of the family, although, again, Salma is notably absent.

It's certainly odd, with both the Moroccan people and international communities taking notice, and yet the Moroccan government still hasn't released any official word as to what's happening.

Sightings have been few and far between

The strange and unexplained situation surrounding Princess Lalla Salma, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to conspiracy theories and speculation. The most drastic of those theories might be the possibility that Salma had died, but you can take comfort in the fact that death wasn't the cause behind Salma's disappearance.

After two years, Salma was actually seen out and about for the first time in April 2019 — twice, actually, within that same month. The first sighting was a fairly casual one: Salma was photographed while eating at a restaurant in Marrakesh, Morocco, with her daughter Lalla Khadija. The second was a two-hour-long visit to the Beni Mellal Oncology Center, during which she spoke with patients and staff. Fast forward a few years, and in 2022, the world was once again given a small hint as to the princess's whereabouts, as she was reportedly celebrating her birthday at the royal estate in Rabat, Morocco.

Outside of those precious few glimpses, there isn't a whole lot more to go off of. That said, it might be worth considering that those two glimpses in 2019 happened shortly after the eyes of the world fell on Morocco and began questioning Salma's absence. Whether the timing is coincidental or not is anyone's guess, though.

Exile and divorce?

With so little information to work off of, many people have taken to speculation, and that speculation tends to go one of two ways. One of the more prominent theories was that Princess Lalla Salma had actually been exiled — the idea that she fled for some reason isn't unheard of, either. The general thought was that she could've been either living in the U.S. or Greece (coincidentally, she was reported to be spending a lot of time on the Greek island of Kea during early 2018, when the rumors started). Or, if she hasn't been forced to leave the country (which appears to be the case, given later sightings), then there's also the possibility that she's still living away from the royal family in the city of Rabat.

But what could be the reason for her exile, or for her disappearance from the public eye in general? Well, most sources wager that the root of the problem is divorce, based on a Spanish publication that made the claim back in 2018. There's been no official word to confirm or deny the rumor, but it's made people wonder what the future holds.

It's all pretty hazy and unsure, but there are actually reasons beyond rumors to think divorce is the truth. While there's been no official announcement, a 2019 report from the family's lawyer did make specific reference to Salma as Mohammed VI's ex-wife. Not quite a full confirmation, but close enough.

There isn't much information

The more you dig into the story of Princess Lalla Salma, the more you start to come upon a specific trend: No one can say for sure what's happened to her, and the royal family hasn't exactly been keen on releasing information. It's not exactly a great set of circumstances if you want to know the truth, but the lack of information is something of an interesting insight into Moroccan society on its own.

In general, discussing the royal family openly isn't looked upon kindly in Morocco, and more specifically, the government exerts considerable control over the press. They keep a close eye on publications and drown out contradictory views with their own articles, all while silencing journalists who would dare speak out. In short, nothing gets said on the internet without the government's — and, by extension, the royal family's — approval.

Coming back to Salma, while rumors swirl about a divorce, the reasons for that divorce are rarely mentioned. But there was one particular story published on a Moroccan website (via the NZ Herald) that might offer some kind of insight. The article effectively blamed Salma for the deterioration of the marriage, citing narcissistic traits as the root cause of the problems. Given that the story was allowed to run at all, it must have had some level of implicit approval by the royal family. Whether the accusations are true is another question entirely, but the general view is one that the government apparently doesn't mind spreading.