Five-star prison

More than 30 Saudi princes and business leaders were recently charged with corruption and detained in a luxe hotel.

In early November, an unexpected spectacle unfolded at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, reports The Guardian. Hotel guests were rudely awakened in the evening and shepherded into the lobby with their bags, where they were picked up and taken to other hotels in the Saudi capital.


Then the prisoners arrived: Saudi princes and other royals, and business leaders. In all, more than 30 high-profile detainees were being charged with corruption.

The arrests had been ordered by King Salman, but were being orchestrated and carried out by his son and heir, Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince, since his appointment as crown prince, has launched a number of initiatives under the name Vision 2030 that are intended to revitalize the stalled economy and “return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam.” Prince Muhammad has been the force behind the drive to privatize the state oil company, Aramco; he has also taken command of the war with Yemen.


All these developments require Saudi Arabia’s power structure to be reshuffled. Hence the imprisonment of the 30 kingpins. But why detain them at a five-star establishment? That’s because, as The Guardian explains, “in a historically deeply tribal Saudi Arabia, insulting a family patriarch, or senior figure, has consequences.” In Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by an alliance between many branches of the royal family, all descended from the founding ruler Abdulaziz al-Saud, and sometimes competing among themselves, egos must still be treated with care. Simply throwing a patriarch into a common prison cell could have far-reaching effects on the tribal lines.


As the Guardian puts it, “even for the ambitious crown prince, taking on the establishment to this extent was a risky step – and he needed to take precautions.” So while acting as a public display of the arrival of a new order, the Ritz Carlton episode was also an exercise in damage control.