Hotel's reopening shrouded in secrecy

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: Leaping bronze stallions adorn the lobby, Western consultants hobnob over tea and scones and a sumptuous buffet is laid out-Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton appears exactly as it was before it became a gilded prison. Guests trickled in after the palatial 500-room hotel reopened on Sunday to find few signs of the three-month incarceration of princes, ministers and business moguls in an unprecedented anti-corruption purge. "The only difference is that the front gates are open," a smiling hotel employee told guests checking in.

"The guest list is also quite different I imagine," quipped a Western diplomat, sipping a cardamom latte in the ornate lobby as a traditional oud musician performed in the background. Many of the 381 suspects, including flamboyant billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal-dubbed the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia-have been released in recent weeks in exchange for what officials call financial settlements.

Other high-profile detainees included former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, construction magnate Bakr bin Laden and media mogul Waleed bin Ibrahim. Each detainee was given his own room-with room service and television, but no internet or telephone access to prevent contact with the outside world, according to multiple business associates interviewed by AFP. Sharp objects such as glass items and curtain chords were also removed to prevent suicide attempts, they said.

All those services and items were available in an eighth-floor deluxe room that an AFP reporter checked into on Sunday. It was impossible to know whether a detainee had stayed there or the room had been refurbished. Many of the high-profile detainees are believed to have been kept in apartment-like royal suites, which comprise bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room and a living room, according to the hotel website. As service resumed at the hotel, staff appeared to have been instructed not to talk to journalists about the purge, launched by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

'Too sensitive'

One staff member said he was away on holiday for the last three months. Another said he was present throughout the Kafkaesque ordeal, but declined to say anymore under the watchful gaze of his superiors. When asked how the crackdown had affected the brand of the hotel-widely labeled a "luxury prison"-a public relations manager declined to comment, calling the matter "too sensitive". Hotel authorities did not permit AFP to film inside the hotel.

But the public relations manager gave AFP a tour of the hotel's bowling alley and extravagant indoor pool with a sky-blue ceiling painted with clouds. He also showed off the hotel's Italian, Chinese and Oriental restaurant, boasting a lavish seafood bar with poached mussels, shrimp and calamari. All the sites were largely empty. But the cafe in the lobby saw a handful of Saudi families, enjoying the novelty of taking selfies at the famous hotel.

The hotel staff were also tight-lipped about occupancy. There were only a trickle of guests but the front manager apologized profusely for being unable to offer some guests a front-facing "fountain view" room. They included foreign businessmen who had been forced to decamp to other hotels on the night of November 4 when the detentions started. "We were suddenly told 'we have an event, you have to move,'" said a Western consultant, who like many people interviewed at the hotel were unwilling to be named. "It's good to be back."

'Fear bigger than resentment'

The hotel's reopening appeared to be as shrouded in secrecy as the crackdown itself. The government has not revealed all the names of the 381 suspects or the charges and nature of settlements, prompting alarm among international investors at the apparent lack of due process, observers say."As the Ritz re-opens with a lavish food buffet and an upgrade of services, it will take more than a fresh coat of paint to convince investors that Prince Mohammed's kingdom is completely safe to check-in to," Andrew Bowen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute said. "Ironically, by quickly re-opening the rather ostentatious hotel, the new glitz of the old Ritz illustrates how the sins of the past are still very present in the kingdom."

But proponents of the crackdown say it reached its objective of prompting "behavioral change" among the once-untouchable elite-seen widely as a living embodiment of corruption."The crackdown has also succeeded in telling people to fall in line" with Prince Mohammed's so-called Vision 2030 program of reforms for a post-oil era, said the Western diplomat. "Fear is bigger than resentment I imagine." As the night wore on, the hotel lobby was empty of guests. Around midnight, the only people around were liveried staff vacuuming and swabbing the intricately patterned marble floor._ AFP