May 22, 2018, 7:43 pm IST
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When Ritz hotel turned prison

When Ritz hotel turned prison

 Feb 12, 2018

After being summoned by an aide to King Salman on November 4, a prominent Saudi showed up at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh expecting a royal audience. Instead, armed men took his mobile phone and escorted him to a hotel room. 'I was told I would be staying here for some time,' the man recalled recently.

Over the next 99 days, the Saudi government would close the Ritz-Carlton as a hotel and detain 381 people there in an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign against its most elite citizens.

The Ritz-Carlton reopened on Sunday as a hotel, marking the end of a phase of the crackdown and the beginning of an uncertain new era for the world’s largest oil exporter. The first guests arrived to find little had changed, with the lobby still featuring the same intricately patterned marble-inlay floors and four giant statues of rearing stallions.

The hotel now symbolises the ways in which Saudi Arabia still stands apart from the outside world, as its leadership attempts a historic reordering of society with new freedoms for women, a more moderate brand of Islam and a market-oriented economy less tethered to oil. By targeting Saudi businessmen with deep ties to the West and seizing their assets without publicly detailing any charges beyond unspecified corruption, the purge has raised concerns about the rule of law.

'My guess is that the name of the Ritz will forever be associated with being a Saudi luxury prison,' said Simon Henderson, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The prominent Saudi said investigators were well-briefed and presented him with large stacks of documents about his financial assets. They went through it all methodically, asking questions in 'long, tiring' sessions.

He said he was given few details beyond that he was part of a corruption investigation and that he could get out if he settled, which he eventually did. He said some Saudis in the Ritz wanted to fight the charges. They began acquiescing as business partners were brought in to testify against them.'They really did not see it coming,' he said.

Saudi officials say the Ritz was ground zero in a war against corruption, a domestically popular effort that the government says netted $106 billion in settlements and is now moving forward with dozens of prosecutions.

'The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s leadership is committed to eradicating corruption to ensure transparency, prosperity and an overall healthier business environment,' said  Fatimah Baeshen, a spokeswoman for the Saudi embassy in Washington.

Some Western analysts have called it a power grab by King Salman’s 32-year-old son, Mohammed bin Salman, whose appointment as crown prince in June had ruptured the kingdom’s power structure.

'This doesn’t augur well if you are a potential investor,' said Bruce Riedel, a fellow at the Brookings Institution specialising in the Middle East. Interviews with detainees and people close to them shed light on a months-long ordeal. Some were served meals by the royal court’s own chefs but allowed only one phone call a day. Some were interrogated for hours but were told all of the corruption charges could disappear—for the right settlement price.

The Ritz-Carlton’s rich, famous and powerful denizens soon included Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, the country’s richest businessman; Bakr bin Laden, the construction magnate; Waleed bin Ibrahim, owner of the country’s largest media company; and the country’s economy and state ministers.

The accommodations were opulent. Built in 2011, the sprawling hotel has over 500 rooms, including 48 presidential suites, a medical care unit with doctors on call and 600-year-old olive trees. The hotel isn’t far from al-Yamamah Palace, the headquarters of the Saudi government, putting it close to the everyday work quarters of King Salman and Prince Mohammed.

Some of the Ritz staff were shuffled out during the hotel’s closure. One staff member said about 20% were sent on vacation with reduced pay, while another staff member said some employees were reassigned within the hotel complex.

A spokesman for Marriott International Inc., which runs Ritz-Carlton hotels, said the hotel would resume normal business operations beginning Sunday. Some detained Saudis said they were treated well. Tulips sat in a vase near his room’s entrance, a large-screen television on the wall. Important detainees stayed in so-called royal suites.

Those suites include two bedrooms, a dining room, two living rooms and an office, as well as a kitchen area, according to the Ritz-Carlton’s website. '“I exercise, I swim, I stretch, I walk. I have my all diet food. Everything’s fine. It’s like home,' Prince al-Waleed said in the interview.

Baeshen said the anticorruption investigations began two years ago. 'Substantial evidence was collected,' she said. The Saudi finance ministry commissioned consultancies in Europe and the Middle East to track the assets of wealthy Saudis like billionaire Mohammed Al Amoudi and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the U. S., said people familiar with the matter.

Al Amoudi was detained at the Ritz for several weeks in November but his current status is unclear, said a spokesman, adding that he had denied wrongdoing. 

Prince al-Waleed was detained for nearly three months as authorities pressed for a settlement of over $6 billion, The figure was far more than even the billionaire prince could manage, and he was released last month after making an undisclosed financial settlement. By the end of January, most detainees were either released or moved out of the Ritz.

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