The Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, located in Saudi Arabia, advertises “spacious suites,” “majestic surroundings,” and “unforgettable memories.” However, if you try to order a room online, the website will tell you none are available. 201 Saudi princes and moguls, charged with corruption and abusing power, currently occupy those spacious suites. They’re free to wander through those majestic surroundings, but not free to check out. They will keep unforgettable memories of being robbed of their power, riches, and freedom. It’s all a dramatic part of Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s campaign to end corruption in Saudi Arabia – with force.
Prince Mohammed, sometimes called MBS, launched this mass arrest at midnight on November 4. Earlier that day, Al Arabiya (a news station that the royal family owns) announced the existence of an anti-corruption committee. With MBS in charge, this team pursued a mission to combat the rampant corruption in the country. They had the power to place anyone under arrest and even freeze their assets. In an interview with The New York Times (warning: it’s one of their op-eds), MBS said the team worked for two years to gather information on who was corrupt and how much they owed. Hours after Al Arabiya’s announcement, they arrested at least eleven princes, as well as dozens of former and current ministers. The government then evacuated the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh and froze 1,900 SA bank accounts, whose combined cash totals $800 billion.
What the BBC Found
On November 23, BBC released a video of reporter Lyse Doucet and camera operator Philip Goodwin. They were the first journalists allowed into the hotel after it became a detention center. Even then, officials escorted them everywhere and gave strict demands: no showing faces or names, no recording conversations with detainees.
The prisoners have access to world-class dining, swimming pools, and even a bowling alley. However, it’s hard to say that they can enjoy these amenities. According to BBC, they spend most of their time in their rooms, working with lawyers and experts on their cases. Doucet said, “The world’s most pampered prisoners have every comfort except freedom.”
MBS’s goal is for these officials and billionaires to give back that $800 billion. BBC reported that officials are offering to let people leave if they cut a deal. Doucet quotes officials as saying that 95% of the detainees have expressed an interest in paying substantial fees for their release. The rest are claiming innocence, and at least some are apparently telling the truth. Seven suspects recently cleared up discrepancies in their accounts, and the committee let them leave. Everyone else is still there, almost a month after their arrest.
The Saudi people have mixed responses to all this. Many – “99%,” according to an unnamed official whom the BBC quoted – appreciate that MBS is making progress with a longtime problem. However, now that he managed to forcibly detain some of the country’s most powerful people, an atmosphere of fear pervades. Many worry that besides fighting crime, the prince – heir to the throne of an influential nation – is using these tough measures to consolidate power. It does not help that the crackdown on corrupt officials also follows months of arrests of political dissidents.
BBC reports claims from officials that they will release the prisoners in December or January. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates.
Donald Trump, naturally, is a fan of the rather autocratic prince. Here’s an article about how his proposed travel ban affected American perceptions of the Middle East.