A number of the Saudi royals and top officials arrested for corruption over the weekend have reportedly been detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, leading to an uncomfortable statement from the hotel’s owner and fueling outside interest in exactly what is going on in the kingdom.
The owner of the hotel, Marriott International, told the Associated Press on Monday it is “currently evaluating the situation at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh” but had no further comment. Reuters reported that “at least some of the detainees” are being held at the five-star hotel.
Among the many reasons to believe this is true is the complete lack of available bookings for the rest of the month at the 492-room hotel, the sealed security gates, the shutdown of Internet and telephone access, the evacuation of hotel guests by the busload on Saturday night, and cell phone videos and images allegedly leaked out of the hotel of detainees moping around the opulent premises:
— SaadAbedine (@SaadAbedine) November 6, 2017
Contrary to appearances, Saudi Attorney General Sheikh Saud bin Abdullah bin Mubarak al-Mujeb declared the royals and high officials arrested in the corruption probe would receive no special treatment. Granted that most detainees in Saudi Arabia would greatly prefer to be incarcerated at the Ritz, the attorney general’s statement will probably resonate with Saudi audiences, who are accustomed to royals walking away scot-free.
“The suspects are being granted the same rights and treatment as any other Saudi citizen. A suspect’s position or status does not influence the firm and fair application of justice,” declared al-Mujeb, who sits on King Salman’s anti-corruption committee.
He added assurances that “everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, and everyone’s legal rights will be preserved.”
The New York Times goes for the “birds in a gilded cage” allusion and describes the Ritz-Carlton as “almost certainly the world’s most luxurious prison.” The Times notes that at least eleven of those arrested in the corruption probe are princes. Many more jet-setting members of the royal family have been told not to leave the country while the investigation (or, depending on whom you ask, political crackdown) continues. Perhaps the large number of empty rooms blocked out at the Ritz-Carlton until December is meant to send a message to the rest of the royals.
The Times also points out the significance of the hotel as host of such events as the trillionaire Future Investment Initiative conference two weeks ago and President Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia in May. Both the Future Investment Initiative and the current detention initiative were sponsored by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
The UK Guardian, which believes over thirty of Saudi Arabia’s most senior officials and royals are detained in the five-star grey bar hotel, explains that, in “historically deeply tribal Saudi Arabia, insulting a family patriarch, or senior figure, has consequences.” Insults to various tribes and the powerful families of high-ranking officials must be avoided, and since all of the royals are descended from founding monarch Ibn Saud, “demeaning” them by detaining them in an ordinary prison would put excessive strain on Saudi society.
Retired political science professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla of Emirates University further observed that Saudi Arabia is undergoing an extreme social transformation at the moment, so while King Salman and his heir apparent Prince Mohammed bin Salman must exercise a little delicacy right now, the long-term result could be an agreeable weakening of the old tribal loyalties and royal privileges. That might even have been one of the objectives for MBS’s anti-corruption initiative all along.
“There is a cultural readiness in Saudi Arabia to treat everyone equally. If these princes are found guilty then their place will be in jail and rightly so. The Saudis will be more than happy to see them imprisoned,” said Abdulla.
“There are over 300 million Arabs, I don’t think we’re so tribal anymore. There is a large middle class in Saudi Arabia who is behaving like middle-class people anywhere else in the world. They are the ones looking into this more than anyone; they’re yearning for the 21st-century Saudi Arabia,” he added, perfectly capturing one of the major forces behind the transformation of the kingdom.