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Ritz reopens after stint as gilded prison

A picture taken on February 11, 2018 shows the main entrance of the Ritz Carlton hotel in the Saudi capital Riyadh following its reopening for business, three months after it became a holding place for princes and ministers detained in the biggest anti-graft purge of the kingdom’s elite in its modern history.- AFP

RIYADH: Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton welcomed back guests with Arabic coffee and dates yesterday, as it reopened for business more than three months after becoming a gilded prison for Saudi elites in an unprecedented anti-graft purge. Liveried staff milled around under the ornate chandeliers of the hotel lobby, greeting a trickle of arrivals as they checked into rooms ranging from 2,489 riyals ($664) a night.

The polite welcome was a far cry from the scene on Nov 4 when police cars surrounded the five-star hotel and its imposing gates clamped shut as 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.

As service resumed at the hotel yesterday staff appeared to have been instructed not to talk to journalists about the purge. “Everything is normal,” said a smiling hotel employee. “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.

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 as “ludicrous” reports equating the crackdown to a power grab, 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 Ritz Riyadh certainly is symbolic with Prince Mohammed’s new Saudi Arabia,” Andrew Bowen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, told AFP. “From lavishly hosting President Trump and then the ‘Davos in the desert’ to becoming a prison for ‘corruption’, it became the place to be ironically.”

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.

A handful of smart-suited businessmen, forced to decamp to other hotels since November, returned to the Ritz yesterday. “It’s an honor (to be back),” said one foreign consultant as he waited for a luxury car to take him to work. He said the purge had not left any trace on the 492-room hotel. “You forget about it as soon as you’re in your room and you get lost in your own bubble.” Ahmed Al-Safer, a Yemeni-American businessman who regularly stays at the Ritz, stopped in yesterday to have tea with friends. Asked if the purge had affected the hotel’s reputation, he said: “Right now it’s famous. Everyone will visit just to take a picture.” – Agencies

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