A BBC reporter and film crew has gained rare access inside Riyadh's "gilded cage" - the Ritz-Carlton which became a luxury prison after a dozen or more princes were detained during the shocking events which began with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's (MbS) internal purge on November 4th.
BBC's tour was "facilitated" under highly controlled and coordinated conditions, as initial photographs and short cell phone videos produced during the first few days of the crackdown revealed harsher and more restricted conditions as princes and/or their staff were forced to sleep on the floor camp-style in the middle of the luxury hotel's lobby.
According to the new BBC broadcast from inside the Ritz-Carlton, the princes are desperately scrambling to cut deals through their lawyers in order to secure release, this as new unconfirmed reports of torture have emerged:
When people were brought here around midnight on November 4th they were understandably angry. Some of them thought it would just be a show and it wouldn't last. And then when they realized they were here to stay they were furious. Almost everyone here - 95% I was told - are willing to make a deal, to give back what are said to be substantial sums of money in order to get out of here.
The torture allegations began with an explosive Daily Mail report, which said mercenaries purportedly employed by Academi, a successor to infamous US security contractor Blackwater, have been stringing up some of MBS’s “guests” at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton by their feet and savagely beating them during interrogations. The claims have spread rapidly on Arabic-language social media, and even Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun has accused MbS of using mercenaries. Still, the Daily Mail isn't the most reputable news organization, so these early torture reports should be taken with a grain of salt.
But what is certain is that the list of detained princes and businessmen, which has reportedly grown to multiple dozes, and which includes billionaires such as Alwaleed bin Talal and Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi - the first and second wealthiest men in the country, respectively - constitutes the kingdom's elite and internationally well-connected. As we've consistently reported this is not a "corruption purge" as its being sold to international media, but in reality a massive cash grab and shakedown.
As multiple reports confirm, the princes are frantic to swap assets for freedom, and royal accountants and lawyers are no doubt busy pouring through records while "separating cash from assets like property and shares, and looking at bank accounts to assess cash values."
Reuters further detailed specific arrangements based on victims' testimonies:
One businessman had tens of millions of Saudi riyals withdrawn from his account after he signed. In another case, a former senior official consented to hand over ownership of four billion riyals worth of shares, the source said.
The Saudi government earlier this week moved from freezing accounts to issuing instructions for “expropriation of unencumbered assets” or seizure of assets, said a second source familiar with the situation.
Though Western governments and media by and large continue towing the line of a healthy and necessary anti-graft crackdown underway, recent geopolitical tensions involving Lebanese PM Saad Hariri's release and return to Lebanon, as well as the Saudi war on Yemen and threatening rhetoric directed at Iran clearly demonstrate the glaring falsehood of the official narrative which is limited to fairy tale notions of "the visionary reformer prince".
And no less than the US Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, is aggressively promoting this line, who when asked last week about agreements to hand over wealth for detainees’ freedom, told CNBC: “I think that the Crown Prince (Mohammed bin Salman) is doing a great job at transforming the country.”
Meanwhile the Saudi internal arrests have caused economic turmoil in some unlikely places. Middle East Eye this week reported that the largely under-reported arrest of billionaire businessman "Sheikh" Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi threatens to "disrupt the economy of an entire country" - Ethiopia, which lies over 1000 km away. Amoudi is an Ethiopian-Saudi dual citizen with an estimated net worth of about $11 billion according to a 2016 Forbes profile.
According to Middle East Eye which bases its analysis on WikiLeaks diplomatic cables and other internal economic data:
"The Sheikh's influence in the Ethiopian economy cannot be underestimated," according to a diplomatic cable from 2008 released by Wikileaks.
Nearly 10 years later, it's hard to put a dollar figure on Amoudi's total investments in Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest countries, yet one of the fastest growing in Africa.
His PR team does not comment on external figures and cautions against third party figures. One analyst put a $3.4bn value on his investments – or 4.7 percent of Ethiopia's current GDP.
The report characterizes the general atmosphere among Ethiopia's media and political punditry as hysterical and in "freak out" mode over Amoudi's detention and the potential seizure of the bulk of his assets:
Another said his companies employ about 100,000 people which would account for 14 percent of Ethiopia's small private sector, according to country's latest Labor Force Survey conducted in 2013. However, World Bank analysts cautioned that these figures will have increased significantly over the past four years as the sector has grown...
"They are just freaking out left and right," said Henok Gabisa, a visiting academic fellow at Washington and Lee University in Virginia who researches Ethiopia.
It will be interesting to see if any level of similar negative economic fallout resulting from the seizure of royal investments and assets could have lasting impact on American and other Western companies or allies. Perhaps only at that point would officials like Mnuchin change their tunes.