27 Nov 2017
Saudi Arabia detentions: Living inside ‘five-star prison’
By Lyse Doucet, Chief international correspondent, BBC
Riyadh’s palatial Ritz-Carlton hotel, branded as “a retreat for those who simply desire the royal treatment”, now finds itself transformed into a nerve centre for an audacious manoeuvre by an ambitious crown prince.
It’s not the treatment more than 200 of Saudi Arabia’s richest and most powerful ever expected, and certainly never desired, when 32-year old Mohammed Bin Salman launched what was billed as an unprecedented drive against corruption and abuse of power and privilege in the kingdom.
Three weeks on, Riyadh’s most prestigious hotel is still the talk of the town. But since the midnight raids which snared at least 11 princes and some of the biggest Saudi billionaires, only snippets have surfaced.
Rumours swirl around Riyadh and many capitals beyond about what’s really happening inside this gilded prison.
No one goes in or out of its swirling black metal gates now without official permission.
Just past midnight last week, we were allowed to drive in under police escort, down a sweeping avenue towards the sprawling complex washed in golden light.
As we alighted, we were greeted by some of the impeccable hotel staff still offering round the clock five star service.
But there was a sterner reception from Saudi officials now involved in this crackdown: no faces to be filmed by our crew; no conversations recorded during a first visit by journalists.
A stay lasting a few hours, surrounded by officials, could never yield a full account. But it provides glimpses of life inside.
Even in the dead of night there are huddles of men, dressed in traditional white robes and red and white chequered headdress, speaking in hushed tones in dark corners of the cavernous lobby. Hardly anyone raises their eyes.
Only an occasional tinkle of silver spoons on porcelain tea cups or glasses of foaming café lattes breaks an eerie silence.
Who are the ‘special guests’?
The mood, around the same hour on 4 November, must have been starkly different when some of Saudi Arabia’s most privileged elite were forcibly checked in.
“They didn’t believe what was happening,” says an official who identifies himself as belonging to the “Special Committee” pursuing this anti-corruption operation. “They thought it was just a show which wouldn’t last long.”
“Sure they were angry,” he admits, with barely concealed satisfaction. “If you tell someone ‘you are a thief’, they get angry. Imagine if they are a VIP.”
We’re sitting in one of the lobby’s elegant clusters of sofas and plush chairs along with an official from the public prosecutor’s office, and what’s described as an independent human rights society. We’re provided with a briefing, on the condition that no-one is quoted by name.
Why bring them here? “We were afraid some people would have escaped so we had to keep them inside”, is the explanation for this strange, if not shocking, fate for people they refer to as “special guests”.
There’s been no official announcement of this Saudi ‘who’s who’ list. But high profile names had surfaced quickly, including the well-known and wealthy Prince Alwaleed bin Talal who owns shares in everything from Twitter and Apple to the Four Seasons Hotel and London’s Savoy.
The crown prince’s cousin Miteb bin Abdullah, who headed the elite National Guard, is now said to spend his nights in the Ritz too.
And why these people, not others, which led to assertions that this was more of a ruthless move against royal rivals and critics?
“Everyone here has a file,” replies the sombre-faced official from the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
“Everything is documented.”
Over the past two years, under the crown prince’s direction, a team has been compiling alleged evidence in great secrecy with some documents dating back decades.
Then, once a new anti-corruption committee was announced by royal decree, the money hunters made their move.
This full article may be accessed on the BBC website.
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