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Middle East

Riyadh Ritz-Carlton has become ‘luxury prison’, home to Saudi elites swept up in crown prince’s purge

Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive power grab represents a huge gamble on the stability of his kingdom and its neighbours

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 November, 2017, 10:52am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:33am

The gates are shut, the phone line is perpetually busy and you can’t book a room until February 1.

The Riyadh Ritz-Carlton has suddenly become very exclusive – and by popular account, a luxury prison. Earlier this week, just as Saudi Arabia declared an anti-corruption purge that targeted some of the kingdom’s wealthiest and most powerful men, guests were booted out and reservations were cancelled.

Travel agents were told the palatial compound had been taken over for government use.

Saudis gleefully shared screenshots showing the hotel as fully booked, because word was that the VIP detainees – including billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, 10 other princes, four ministers and dozens of former officials and businessmen – were being held there. People have been quipping about who’s going to be added to the “Ritz guest list”.

The government’s Centre for International Communication did not respond to a request for comment on where the detainees are being held.

Just weeks ago, the hotel hosted some of the world’s top officials and businessmen for an investment conference dubbed “Davos in the desert”. On a typical day, the lobby is an informal salon of government officials, consultants and prominent businessmen who hobnob over high tea in halls decorated with leaping bronze horses and pastel trimmings in the style of Louis XIV gone wild. Guests who float in the extravagant indoor pool – male-only – look up at a painted blue sky dotted with clouds.

But on Sunday, the property was shut tight, its massive gates uncharacteristically closed, without a security guard in sight. The hotel’s main phone line has played a busy tone all week. A duty manager reached on a mobile number said the hotel was closed and he had no further information. Marriott, which operates the hotel, declined to comment, citing guest privacy.

Whoever has booked the entire hotel must have decided they need more time. On Sunday, an online search on the hotel’s website showed the next availability on December 1. By Tuesday, it was December 15. On Wednesday, it was February.

That will give guests time to save up. When the hotel reopens, the royal suite will be available for 20,000 riyals (US$5,332) a night.

Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s aggressive power grab represents a huge gamble on the stability of his kingdom and its neighbours.

No one is quite sure whether MBS’ bold move will leave him as the uncontested leader of a more modern, open Saudi Arabia – or open the door to chaos, rebellion or a regional war. But US President Donald Trump is along for the ride.

“I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump tweeted on Monday, after a round of high-profile arrests.

The arrests were the first order by an anti-graft commission headed by Prince Mohammed himself, and many outside observers saw it as a politicised move against rivals within the elite.

Trump, who has tangled publicly with Al-Waleed in the past, had no such doubts, declaring: “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”

The scale and scope of the arrests … is unprecedented in recent Saudi history, especially of this type of elite elements
Lori Plotkin Boghardt, The Washington Institute

MBS’ made his move as he aims to accelerate his Vision 2030 project to modernise the conservative kingdom, but also as Riyadh takes a more aggressive stance in its wider region.

Saudi-led forces are waging a fierce war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and Riyadh has led its allies in a boycott of Gulf emirate Qatar, to growing US frustration.

In the wake of an alleged Houthi missile attack against Riyadh airport, the kingdom has accused Iran of “direct aggression” and threatened an equally direct though unspecified response. And Riyadh was deeply involved in Lebanese premier Saad Hariri’s decision to resign his post and flee to the kingdom, precipitating a new political crisis in Beirut.

Some might see this string of crises as headaches the already tumultuous Middle East could do without, but Washington is still standing four square behind its ally.

“We continue to encourage Saudi authorities to pursue the prosecution of people they believe to have been corrupt officials,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said. “We expect them to do it in a fair and transparent manner.”

Lori Plotkin Boghardt, an expert in Gulf Arab politics and US-Saudi relations at The Washington Institute, said the need for an anti-corruption drive “should not be dismissed.”

Nevertheless, she addED: “The scale and scope of the arrests … is unprecedented in recent Saudi history, especially of this type of elite elements. So this is a politically risky move.”

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse