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Imprisoned in style: How Saudi princes coughed up billions in 'luxury jail'

As the Ritz-Carlton reopens after Riyadh used it to detain and probe elite Saudis in an antigraft campaign, questions linger over the rule of law

Benoit Faucon Summer Said & Asa Fitch | WSJ 

The Ritz Carlton has been taken over the by the government and turned into a luxury prison.
The Ritz Carlton was taken over the by the Saudi government and turned into a luxury prison

After being summoned by an aide to King Salman on Nov. 4, a prominent Saudi showed up at the 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 anticorruption 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. ALSO READ: Saudi purge: Prince Miteb freed after $1 bn settlement, says official 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 in the country,” 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. ALSO READ: What Saudi purge and Prince Salman's game of thrones means for West Asia politics 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. Their 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 Inc., which runs Ritz-Carlton hotels, said on Friday that the hotel would resume normal business operations beginning Sunday. The spokesman didn’t immediately return a request for further comment on Sunday about its staff. Some detained Saudis said they were treated well. Prince al-Waleed, in a video interview with Reuters, shows off a kitchen with dallahs, the pot used to make traditional Arab coffee, and says authorities allowed him to eat vegan meals. Tulips sat in a vase of water near his room’s entrance, a large-screen television on the wall. Important detainees stayed in so-called royal suites, according to a hotel staffer.

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 televised interview. A representative for Prince al-Waleed didn’t respond to requests for further comment. Ms. Baeshen of the Saudi embassy 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 and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to the U. S., said people familiar with the matter. Mr. Al Amoudi was detained at the Ritz for several weeks in November but his current status is unclear, said a spokesman for him, adding that he had denied wrongdoing. A representative of Prince Bandar—who wasn’t detained—didn’t respond to a request for comment. Saudi Arabia’s attorney general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, said in late January that most of the 381 detained were released after the authorities either determined that there wasn’t sufficient evidence of corruption or they reached financial settlements after admitting corruption. Mr. Mojeb said 65 people had refused to settle and remained in custody in a location he didn’t disclose. The detained Saudis had access to lawyers, the government says, though it is unclear what protection that afforded. Ms. Baeshen said detainees who provided satisfactory evidence of their innocence were released without charge. The biggest problem, people familiar with the process said, was the government made financial demands in excess of what some detainees could pay. Prince al-Waleed was detained for nearly three months as authorities pressed for a settlement of over $6 billion, The Wall Street Journal has reported. The figure was far more than even the billionaire prince could manage, and he was released last month after making an undisclosed financial settlement, people familiar with the matter said. By the end of January, most detainees were either released or moved out of the Ritz. On its first day as a regular hotel again, one staffer said the Ritz had 125 bookings. Mikel Torres, a Dubai-based consultant at Delta Partners who was a guest there Sunday, said he and many of his colleagues had moved to other hotels when the Ritz became unavailable, and would now be moving back. “So far it’s quite quiet,” Mr. Torres said in the Ritz’s lobby. “I was expecting more people.”

First Published: Mon, February 12 2018. 11:32 IST