Riyadh Ritz-Carlton to reopen after being used as prison in corruption purge

The Ritz-Carlton hotel in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH (NYTIMES) - The Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, the 492-room hotel converted into a posh prison for privileged Saudis swept up in what the government calls an anti-corruption campaign, appears set for a public reopening next month (Feb).

The hotel's website showed on Monday (Jan 15) that it was accepting reservations beginning Feb 14, with double-occupancy rooms starting at 2,439 riyals (S$858). Previous dates showed "Not Available for Check-In." Bookings had been blocked for more than two months.

The resumption appeared to signal that the mass arrests of Saudi princes, officials and business executives begun in November are winding down - at least to the level where the hotel can be restored to its original purpose.

Although the Saudi authorities have said the crackdown is tied to corruption, rights groups have suggested that the detentions are a thinly disguised extortion attempt by the government to reclaim assets.

It was not clear whether the resumption date falls on Valentine's Day intentionally or by coincidence. The Saudi authorities historically have considered the romantic holiday a sacrilegious Western concept.

Officials at Marriott International, which operates the Ritz-Carlton, declined to comment on the resumption of bookings.

"The hotel is operating under the directive of local authorities and not as a traditional hotel for the time being," Shahd Bargouthy, Marriott International's senior public relations manager for the Middle East and Africa, said in an e-mailed statement.

There was no immediate comment from the Saudi Arabian government.

The Ritz has been used to house many of the more than 200 people - including at least 11 princes, current and former ministers, military officers and some of the Saudi kingdom's best-known investors - who have been detained. The government contends that they took hundreds of billions of dollars in assets illicitly.

The entire process has been shrouded in mystery, with no information on the details of the accusations and what legal protections, if any, have been afforded to the suspects.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old leader who has effectively taken over the running of the government from his father, King Salman, 81, is considered the driving force behind the campaign. The crown prince heads a special anti-corruption committee that was created by his father hours before the arrests were announced on Nov 4.

The government's conversion of the Ritz-Carlton to a makeshift prison attracted enormous attention because of the facility's five-star rating and many swank attributes. US President Donald Trump stayed there on his first overseas trip last year.

According to its website, the hotel offers a gentlemen-only spa, a cigar lounge and an indoor pool with floor-to-ceiling windows, as well as "52 acres (21ha) of lavishly landscaped gardens, spacious and sumptuous accommodations, fine-dining restaurants and 62,000 square feet (5,700 sqm) of elegant event space."

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