Prisoners in the Ritz

Summary: Riyadh Ritz reopening soon, remaining prisoners moving to Al Ha’ir prison. Most capitulated, holdouts including Prince Walid bin Talal continue to face torture by mercenary for their confessions and foreign assets. Sex party leaks destroy ex-Telecoms chief Saud Al Daweesh.

Tomorrow Tuesday 23 January at 9pm is the concluding episode of the BBC 2 documentary series “House of Saud: Family at War”. Arab Digest editor Hugh Miles is one of the producers. Episode 3 looks at how the royal family stays in power and asks what the future holds for Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world. It features interviews with people who have worked for Saudi princes, as well as information security experts who describe the methods the Saudi government uses to monitor social media and to suppress dissent and internal criticism of the regime.

Saudi authorities say they are winding up a major part of the purge and the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh will reopen as a normal hotel again soon. Besides one severely limited BBC report in the early days of the crackdown information about what has been going on inside the hotel for the last two and a half months has been sparse. Journalists have been denied access and Saudi security officers – who cannot be trusted not to be bribed or intimidated by the inmates – have been kept outside, leaving mercenaries reportedly sourced via the UAE to conduct the interrogations and torture.

So far only one person is thought to have died, Ali bin Abdullah Al Qahtani, former private secretary to Prince Turki bin Abdullah, on 23 December reportedly a result of electrocution. Prince Turki is the previous Governor of Riyadh and a leading protagonist in the 1MDB scandal. He is the only remaining son of Abdullah not to have been released.

Some 60 prisoners who have not agreed to MBS’s demands – foreign asset transfers and videotaped confessions begging forgiveness and swearing allegiance – have been relocated to Al Ha’ir high security prison. Among those is Prince Walid bin Talal, the highest value inmate, still holding out despite being tortured to the point where he is said to have needed emergency medical treatment on three separate occasions.

To crack him the Saudis have flown in some of Walid’s old business adversaries to confront him in detention, among them Canadian businessman Alan Bender who has had protracted negotiations with Walid concerning a divorce settlement for one of Walid’s wives, Kuwaiti heiress Ms. Naela Al Rasheed. Mr Bender alleges Walid physically and emotionally abused Naela over a period of years, charges the prince denies. Mr Bender was flown to Riyadh by private jet to give evidence against him in December.

Walid’s daughter Princess Reem has also been used to try and break him: he was reportedly shown pictures of her in handcuffs in detention during the three weeks she spent in the Ritz. Princess Reem was reportedly released after agreeing to sign an affidavit and swearing allegiance to MBS.

When he was first detained Walid is said to have warned MBS that he would face a tsunami of international outrage from his friends and supporters. Besides two former French presidents speaking up earlier this month this has manifestly failed to happen. Even Bill Gates, who worked with Walid and called him an ‘important partner’ after he was detained, has since met MBS to discuss new investment opportunities in “NEOM”, “Red Sea” and “Ula”. Walid has reportedly been shown media reports in detention to prove to him he has been deserted and should forget about outside help.

The outlook for all the remaining inmates is bleak. After this they can never be allowed even a fraction of their old wealth and power back as they pose a major risk to the regime. If and when they are released, they will be stripped of everything. Walid will likely never set foot inside an aeroplane or travel outside the Kingdom again.

The next step for MBS now is to find a legal fig leaf under which the moguls’ foreign assets can be appropriated. All the assets inside the Kingdom are already his. Kingdom Holdings is under new management answerable directly to MBS. The CFO is being replaced and it is selling its assets across the Middle East and Africa. Walid’s private aircraft now belong to the military and are being enjoyed by MBS’s closest aides. MBS has also taken managerial control of Saudi Binladin Group while chairman Bakr Bin Laden and several family members remain in detention.

Turki Al Sheikh and Saud Al Qahtani enjoying a ride on Prince Walid bin Talal’s confiscated Dassault Falcon 2000

MBS has reportedly boasted that he has President Trump’s backing for all this, the torture and the asset seizure. When Princess Reem sent an emissary to the US Embassy in Riyadh asking for help he was reportedly told that White House instructions were not to intervene. He was taken to Al Ha’ir prison along with Walid’s personal doctor Jihad Saad Eddin Awkal. But even with Donald Trump’s personal backing the task of taking ownership of the foreign assets is likely to encounter significant legal hurdles. Leila Al Solh, Walid’s aunt and a former Lebanese minister of industry, is said to be in talks with US law firms about filing a suit against the Saudi government on Walid’s behalf demanding his release and $100 billion compensation.

More leaked kompromat is to be expected. As with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef who was exposed as a drug addict immediately after being removed as Crown Prince, permanently destroying his adversaries’ reputation is one of MBS’s signature moves even when they have been effectively removed from power.

Given Walid’s international stature, the fallout from this could be considerable. His close associates include Ty Cobb, currently Donald Trump’s main lawyer in the Russia investigation. According to a 2012 Business Insider story when Cobb was Walid’s lawyer he once threatened to sue an American who had attempted a lawsuit against Walid for allegedly threatening him with beheading and having him detained at gunpoint while he worked for the prince’s son.

Eng. Sheikh Saud Al Daweesh, former Saudi Telecoms CEO and undisputed heavyweight of the Saudi telecoms sector for nearly 25 years, is the most recent ex-official to have his reputation traduced by leaks. Al Daweesh was released from the Ritz Carlton on 23 December reportedly after agreeing to all demands and handing over $800 million. Despite that a few days later pictures of him at a sex party in Canada were leaked to the Egyptian media and his son Majed Al Daweesh was shown enjoying the company of Bassem Feghali, the famous Lebanese drag queen and comedian.

The article, since taken down, alleges that Majed Al Daweesh came to the attention of the Canadian security services while he was a student at the University of York in Toronto after logging on to the Al Sahab website, which at that time was Al Qaeda’s main media outlet. The affair was allegedly settled quietly after Majed signed a confession and his father offered $500 000 in bribes to unnamed Canadian officials. While in Canada resolving his son’s legal problems the article alleges Saud Al Daweesh nearly got into even bigger trouble himself after he raped a Bulgarian prostitute in a hotel. Only by bribing her with $50,000 could she be dissuaded from reporting the matter to the Canadian authorities.

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