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Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton 'luxury jail' reopens after corruption purge

The former luxury hotel had morphed into a makeshift prison. [Getty]

Date of publication: 11 February, 2018

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Critics have labelled Prince Mohammed's campaign a shakedown and power grab, but authorities insist the purge targeted endemic corruption as the country prepares for a post-oil era.
Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton hotel opened for business on Sunday three months after becoming a gilded prison for Saudi Arabia's elite in an unprecedented anti-corruption purge.

Staff welcome back guests with coffee and dates under the ornate chandeliers of the hotel lobby, greeting a trickle of arrivals as they checked into hotel rooms ranging from 2,489 riyals ($664) a night.

In November last year police cars surrounded the five-star hotel as its gates clamped shut after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the detention of princes, ministers and tycoons, in a campaign that sent shock waves through business circles. 

Many of the high-profile suspects, including flamboyant billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal - dubbed the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia - were released in recent weeks in exchange for what officials called financial settlements. 

Hotel staff appeared to have been instructed not to talk to journalists about the purge. 

"Everything is normal," a smiling hotel employee said. "We served guests then, we are serving guests now. The only difference is the front gates are open."

The opulent hotel, originally built for guests of the royal family, is a far cry from a gritty prison cell - boasting instead majestic suites and pastel-hued hallways awash with bronze statues and glittering chandeliers.

A source inside the hotel, which hosted US President Donald Trump during a visit last year, earlier told AFP that all detainees had been removed from the property. 

The hotel's executive chef has created a new menu this week for its restaurants, with a "grand buffet" planned next weekend around its large indoor swimming pool, the local Arab News daily reported.

Power grab

Attorney General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said in late January that after completing inquiries into 381 high-profile corruption suspects, he would keep 56 in custody and free the rest.

It was unclear if the remaining suspects had been moved to a prison facility.

Total settlements with the suspects had topped $107 billion in various forms of assets handed over that included property, securities and cash, he said.

Another high-profile detainee, former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was released following a "settlement" with the authorities that reportedly exceeded $1 billion.

Prince Mohammed, the 32-year-old son of the king, has spearheaded the crackdown on corruption among members of the government and royal family over the past three months. 

Some critics have labelled Prince Mohammed's campaign a shakedown and power grab, but authorities insist the purge targeted endemic corruption as the country prepares for a post-oil era.

In an interview with The New York Times in November, Prince Mohammed described reports equating the crackdown to a power grab as "ludicrous", saying that many of those detained at the opulent Ritz-Carlton had already pledged allegiance to him.

Just weeks before the campaign, the hotel hosted a glittering investment summit - dubbed "Davos in the desert" - which Prince Mohammed used as a platform to pledge a "moderate" Saudi Arabia and to showcase his ambitious reform drive.

The purge exposed the kingdom's once-untouchable elite to rare public scrutiny, but Saudis on social media have quipped that the Ritz-Carlton was not the worst place to be trapped.

It prompted light-hearted banter on social media, with jocular speculation on who would be added to the "Ritz guest list", and some quipping "take us with you" to be incarcerated in the lavish hotel.

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