Former Detainees Allege Torture and Coercion in 2017 Saudi Purge

A view of the Ritz Carlton hotel in the Saudi capital Riyadh on October 24, 2018, where the Investment Initiative FII summit is taking place. - The summit, nicknamed "Davos in the desert", has been overshadowed by growing global outrage over the murder of a Saudi journalist inside the kingdom's …
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

The Guardian on Thursday published interviews with several of the almost 400 people imprisoned at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in Saudi Arabia in late 2017.

The hotel was converted into an ostensibly luxurious prison for Saudi officials and businessmen, including powerful members of the royal family, accused of corruption by the nascent government of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The detainees who spoke to the Guardian said they were tortured and forced to make confessions or sign away their fortunes.

The Guardian conceded it was difficult for MBS’s advisers to make sense of Saudi Arabia’s complex finances, and it was no secret that royals often indulged themselves by putting public money to questionable uses, so there was doubtless plenty of corruption to be found. 

Former detainees accused the authorities of subjecting them to physical and psychological abuse at the Ritz-Carlton:

The Ritz-Carlton detentions often started with a phone call, summoning targets for meetings with Prince Mohammed, or King Salman himself. In another case, two prominent businessmen said they were told to meet in a home and wait for a royal court adviser to join them. Instead, state security officials showed up, ushering them to a five-star prison, where guards and senior aides were waiting.

“On the first night, everyone was blindfolded and nearly everyone was subjected to what Egyptian intelligence calls the ‘night of the beating’”, said a source with intimate knowledge of what took place. “People were asked if they knew why they were there. No one did. Most were beaten, some of them badly. There were people tied to the walls, in stress positions. It went on for hours, and all of those doing the torturing were Saudis.

“It was designed to soften them up. And then the next day, the interrogators arrived.”

According to the Guardian’s sources, the interrogators “knew very little and were winging it,” so they tried everything from threats of blackmail to physical torment in order to make the prisoners crack or confess. The Saudi government apparently spent a good deal of time in 2017 researching personal and financial misdeeds that could be used as leverage against the detainees.

The primary goal of the investigators was to recapture money and assets they believed were stolen or misappropriated from the Saudi government, rebuilding its finances so it could transition away from dependence on the oil industry. This was no secret, as Saudi officials made frequent public statements about the need to recover funding that could be used for the Saudi Vision 2030 reform agenda crafted by MBS.

The surprising thing about the interrogations was that the anti-corruption squad apparently knew very little about how the Kingdom’s finances, or even high finance in general, actually worked. They had only vague guesses about the net worth of the richest detainees. They forced the prisoners to call their brokers and make unrealistic demands for transferring assets into accounts controlled by the Saudi government; the brokers refused to make some of these transactions because they could tell their clients were under duress. 

Some of the businessmen held at the Ritz-Carlton said they were not accused of criminal behavior, they were given no due process, and they thought they had good relationships with the monarchy right up until the “night of the beatings” began.

While MBS claims everyone punished after the Ritz-Carlton incarcerations was guilty of corruption and his efforts reclaimed $107 billion of stolen public money, the Guardian’s sources said the real figure was more like $28 billion and the anti-corruption drive was more like a political purge.

One of the Guardian’s sources said the Ritz-Carlton interrogations set the stage for the killing of writer Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by Saudi agents in October 2018.

“This was about consolidating [MBS’] rule, plain and simple. It came before the Khashoggi atrocity, and the fact that he got away with it allowed him to do the latter. The same guards involved in the Ritz were involved in the killing. History won’t be kind to MBS on either,” the source said.

Several former U.S. officials gave a substantially similar account of abuse and coercion at the Ritz-Carlton to NBC News in November 2018. One of them called the interrogations “a shakedown operation and a power consolidation operation,” a harsh object lesson to remind upper-crust Saudis that “their wealth and their well-being would depend on the crown prince and not anything else.”

Al-Monitor reported in September 2020 that some rich Saudis were able to avoid the opulent dungeon of the Ritz-Carlton by securing second citizenships. The practice has grown more common since then, with Cyprus becoming an especially popular choice. The article mentioned that one of the Ritz-Carlton detainees obtained Cypriot citizenship in 2019.

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