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Saudis use coercion to seize billions

The Saudi government locked up hundreds of powerful businessmen and royals in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, in what it said was a crackdown on corruption

Riyadh: Businessmen once considered giants of the Saudi economy now wear ankle bracelets that track their movements. Princes who led military forces and appeared in glossy magazines are monitored by guards they do not command. Families who flew on private jets cannot gain access to their bank accounts. Even wives and children have been forbidden to travel.

In November, the Saudi government locked up hundreds of influential businessmen - many of them members of the royal family - in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton in what it called an anti-corruption campaign.

Most have since been released but they are hardly free. Instead, this large sector of Saudi Arabia's movers and shakers are living in fear and uncertainty.

During months of captivity, many were subject to coercion and physical abuse, witnesses said. In the early days of the crackdown, at least 17 detainees were hospitalised for physical abuse and one later died in custody with a neck that appeared twisted, a badly swollen body and other signs of abuse, according to a person who saw the body.

In an email to The New York Times on Sunday, the government denied accusations of physical abuse as "absolutely untrue".

To leave the Ritz, many of the detainees not only surrendered huge sums of money, but also signed over to the government control of precious real estate and shares of their companies - all outside any clear legal process.

The government has yet to actually seize many of the assets, leaving the former detainees and their families in limbo.

One former detainee, forced to wear a tracking device, has sunk into depression as his business collapses. "We signed away everything," a relative of his said. "Even the house I am in, I am not sure if it is still mine."

As the architect of the crackdown, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, prepares to travel to the US this month to court American investment, Saudi officials are spotlighting his reforms: his promise to let women drive, his plans to expand entertainment opportunities and his moves to encourage foreign investment.

They have denied any allegations of abuse and have portrayed the Ritz episode as an orderly legal process that has wound down.

But extensive interviews with Saudi officials, members of the royal family, and relatives, advisers and associates of the detainees revealed a murkier, coercive operation, marked by cases of physical abuse, which transferred billions of dollars in private wealth to the crown prince's control.

Part of the campaign appears to be driven by a family feud, as Crown Prince Mohammed presses the children of King Abdullah, the monarch who died in 2015, to give back billions of dollars that they consider their inheritance, according to three associates of the Abdullah family.

In the early days of the Ritz detentions, as many as 17 detainees required medical treatment for abuse by their captors, according to a doctor and an American official.

Relatives of some of the detainees said they were deprived of sleep, roughed up and interrogated with their heads covered while the government pressured them to sign over large assets.

Evidence of such abuse has been slow to emerge, but officials from two western governments said they deemed the reports credible.

As Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman heads to the United States to court investors, his government has portrayed the crackdown as an orderly legal processThe Saudi government locked up hundreds of powerful businessmen and royals in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh, in what it said was a crackdown on corruption

One case involved a Saudi military officer who died in custody. One person who saw the corpse of the officer, Maj. Gen. Ali al-Qahtani, said that his neck was twisted unnaturally as though it had been broken, and that his body was badly bruised and distended. His skin showed other signs of physical abuse, the person said.

A doctor and two other people briefed on the condition of the body said that it had burn marks that appeared to be from electric shocks.

In the emailed response to questions about Gen. Qahtani, an official of the Saudi Embassy in Washington said, "All allegations of abuse and torture of those investigated during the anti-corruption proceedings are absolutely untrue." The official added that the detainees had "full access" to legal counsel and medical care.

Gen. Qahtani, an officer in the Saudi National Guard who was believed to be about 60, was not wealthy himself, so his value as a major anti-corruption target is questionable.

But he was a top aide to Prince Turki bin Abdullah, a son of the late King Abdullah and a former governor of Riyadh, and the interrogators may have been pressing the general for information about his boss, Prince Turki. The members of King Abdullah's family are seen as rivals of Crown Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman.

In November, Gen. Qahtani was taken to an elite hospital near the hotel for radiological scans and other treatment, where he showed signs of having been beaten, according to a doctor briefed on his condition.

He was returned to the hotel for further interrogation, and later pronounced dead at a military hospital.

The kingdom has never publicly provided an explanation of the general's death.

Members of the Qahtani and Abdullah families have been afraid to discuss the general's death publicly for fear of further retribution, several people who have spoken to them said. Another of the late king's sons, Prince Mishaal bin Abdullah, complained about Gen. Qahtani's treatment to a circle of friends, and immediately afterward Prince Mishaal, too, was arrested and locked in the Ritz.

New York Times News Service

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