Nation & World

A year after the Ritz-Carlton roundup, Saudi elites remain jailed by the crown prince

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Luke MacGregor
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Luke MacGregor

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Somewhere in this kingdom, Prince Turki bin Abdullah is locked away.

Turki, 47, was once a golden scion of Saudi Arabia’s gilded royal family, a prominent son of former King Abdullah and a fighter pilot with advanced degrees who trained in the United States and Britain. He was the powerful governor of Riyadh province, then chief executive of the multibillion-dollar King Abdullah Foundation, which funds charitable work around the world.

He is now among an unknown number of superwealthy Saudis who remain detained a full year after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman startled his country by turning Riyadh’s posh Ritz-Carlton hotel into a 5-star jail for some of the nation’s most prominent citizens in what he called an anti-corruption sweep.

Prince Turki, who officials have reportedly accused of graft related to construction of the Riyadh subway, remains detained without any formal charges. His chief of staff, Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, was also arrested and died in detention under circumstances that have never been fully explained.

Early this year, the Saudi attorney general said 56 men remained locked up, some the subject of criminal investigations, with more than $106 billion in cash, real estate, businesses, securities and other assets recovered in the Ritz operation.

Mohammed said in interview last month with Bloomberg only eight men were still detained. He offered no other details, except to say, “They’re with their lawyers and facing the system that we have in Saudi Arabia.”

But other people familiar with the detentions said the number is much higher, with 45 Ritz detainees still locked up.

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One of those may have won his freedom Friday when Saudi authorities released Prince Khaled bin Talal, 56, a cousin of Mohammed and Prince Turki. Khaled is a businessman and noted religious conservative who reportedly opposed the crown prince’s decision to strip power from the country’s notorious religious police.

Human rights activists and other analysts said Mohammed may be preparing to release more of the some detainees to help cool the international furor over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Oct. 2. Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul at the hands of Saudi agents has strained relations with Washington and Europe and drawn attention to the crown prince’s human rights practices, including his record of locking up scores of his critics.

“They don’t want to do it, but they are under pressure, and they will do it to release some pressure,” said Yahya Assiri, a Saudi human rights activist living in self-exile in London.

But he cautioned against overstating the importance of the release of Prince Khaled, suggesting it was mainly done to shore up support for Mohammed within the royal family at a time when the crown prince and his father, the current monarch, King Salman, are under stress.

“I think this is trying to show family unity in the face of scrutiny,” said Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch who closely monitors the kingdom.

Mohammed’s roundup of wealthy Saudis a year ago helped cement his control over many of the country’s most powerful individuals and neutralized potential political rivals within royal family.

“It’s about money and power,” said a person close to the Saudi royal family. “Mohammed bin Salman understands that if you take away their money, you take away their power.”

Faced with long detentions or other punishment, some of the Ritz detainees agreed to hand over the demanded cash, which often amounted to most of their net worth, according to accounts from family, friends and human rights groups.

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Many Saudis and foreign observers have applauded Mohammed for what they view as a long-overdue reckoning for the clubby culture of royals and well-connected families, who have long treated Saudi Arabia’s land, oil and riches as their own.

But others see the detentions — and reports of torture and at the Ritz — as a brutal move by Mohammed to settle scores and solidify his personal power. Critics say that explanation fits with his record of arresting scores of human rights and women’s right activists and even clerics who disagree with his policies.

Saudi officials strongly deny anyone has been tortured: “That is not who we are,” one official said. “We do not torture. That word has never been in our vocabulary in Saudi Arabia.”

The crown prince appears to have targeted the family of former King Abdullah in particular. Several observers said this was the product of tensions between the Salman and Abdullah wings of the family that go back many years but became especially pronounced because of Mohammed’s rapid rise to power.

Prince Turki in recent years had grown increasingly concerned at the signs of Mohammed’s accumulation of power, especially his control of an investigative unit in the Ministry of Interior “that could be used to make all sorts of accusations,” said one of the people close to the royal family.

In addition to jailing Prince Turki, Mohammed also arrested three of Abdullah’s other sons, including Prince Muteib bin Abdullah, 65, head of the National Guard, who was fired from his job. Two other sons, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, 40, a former head of the Saudi Arabia Red Crescent Society, and Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, a former governor of Mecca province, were briefly detained after they complained about the death of Qahtani, 55, who had been “in the peak of health,” when he was arrested, according to the person close to the royal family.

Also detained two months after the initial Ritz roundup was Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz bin Salman, 36, who is married to a daughter of King Abdullah. His father was also arrested, and the two remain in detention with no formal charges filed, according to his lawyer.

Several people with ties to the royal family said Mohammed’s focus on Abdullah’s family seemed designed to sideline potential rivals for power and to seize control of the King Abdullah Foundation fund, overseen by Prince Turki, which is estimated to be worth $20 billion to $30 billion.

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Salman, while still governor of Riyadh province, began grooming his son for leadership roles, naming him as a top adviser while Mohammed was still in his early twenties. When Salman became crown prince in 2011, also serving as defense minister, Mohammed was again installed as a top adviser.

At the time, King Abdullah was worried about Mohammed’s rapid ascent, according to a former Western diplomat with decades of experience in Riyadh. “King Abdullah was concerned about what kind of authority being given to the young fella, who was not even 30 yet,” the diplomat said.

About a decade ago, Mohammed drew King Abdullah’s ire when a top economic adviser complained to the monarch about Mohammed’s stock market investments, prompting the royal court to “censure” Mohammed, according to a person close to the royal family.

Later, Mohammed again angered King Abdullah by firing a series of deputies in the defense ministry, that person said. Abdullah moved to ban Mohammed from the ministry.

The resentments ran both ways. Salman became upset when King Abdullah named another of their brothers to succeed Salman as Riyadh governor, the diplomat said. Salman had held the governor’s post since 1963 and wanted to keep it in his family line, the diplomat said.

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According to numerous media reports, some of the detainees are being held in al-Hair high-security prison south of Riyadh. Others are reportedly locked in private homes and are tracked with ankle-monitors.

Those being detained, according to media reports and accounts from family members, friends and others close to the royal family, include:

— Adel Fakeih, 59, the former mayor of Jiddah and former minister of economy and planning.

— Walid Fitaihi, 54, a prominent physician who hosted a popular television show dealing with health and wellness, founded a hospital in Jiddah and holds American citizenship.

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— Amr al-Dabbagh, 52, chairman of the Jiddah-based Al-Dabbagh Group and former head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, one of the top economic positions in the country

— Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi, 72, a Saudi-Ethiopian businessman who had a net worth of $8.1 billion last year from his diversified interests in a Swedish oil refinery, Saudi gas stations and an Ethiopian conglomerate involved in gold mining, farming and construction, according to Forbes.

— Bakr bin Laden, Jiddah-based chairman of the powerful Saudi Binladin Group, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate, has been one of country’s most successful and influential companies.

Beyond any bad blood between the Salman and Abdullah wings of the royal family or effort to bring wealthy Saudis to heel, some observers also see historic regional rivalries at play in the detentions, noting those locked up have been disproportionately from the Hijaz region on the Red Sea, including Jiddah and the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

“These are the families that helped Abdul Aziz unify and build the country in the 1920s and ‘30s,” said Robert Lacey, a British historian who has written extensively about Saudi Arabia and the royal family. “Now they are treated as criminals.”

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Fahim reported from Istanbul.

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