Across three months, 381 Saudis were hauled in and locked up at the Ritz-Carlton, which boasts 492 rooms, 52 acres of land, and 62,000 feet of conference space. Many left quickly.
Prince Alwaleed bin Talal's stay was among the longest. The prince says he was kept in Room 628, a 4,575-square-foot royal suite, and now in his first interview since being released, one of the world's richest men opens up to Bloomberg TV's Erik Schatzker about his confinement by the Saudi government, and the 'secret deal' that enabled his freedom...
I saw Alwaleed in late October, the week before he became a prisoner of the state. We spent an evening at his desert camp chatting about the financial markets and U.S. politics, watching a soccer match on TV, taking a walk through the sands, and eating a late dinner in the cool midnight air. Seven weeks after his release, in mid-March, I returned to the kingdom. Alwaleed had decided to break his silence and grant me an interview on Bloomberg Television.
We recorded the interview on a makeshift set in Alwaleed’s apartment on the 67th floor of Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower. Walking in, I wondered how candid he could be. Would he be forthcoming about life inside the Ritz-Carlton? If he’d been harmed, would he admit it? Had he been forced to accept a devil’s bargain to win his release? Would he be credible? What if the government had threatened him? Would I be able to tell?
The following is an excerpted version of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity...
Alwaleed’s detention was more mysterious than most. Of all the princes who were brought in, he alone hadn’t served in the Saudi government, where kickbacks are considered common. And unlike other businessmen, he wasn’t a government contractor and so couldn’t have overbilled the state. He made most of his wealth transparently, in real estate and as an investor in public markets.
Erik Schatzker: Why were you arrested in the first place?
Prince Alwaleed: Well, I would not use the word “arrested,” because we were invited to the king’s house and then asked to go to the Ritz-Carlton. So it was done with honor and dignity, and our prestige was maintained. Not only me; everybody else.
So the word “arrest” is fair to use for those who did commit a crime, admit their guilt?
Exactly. And reached a settlement with the government. But in my case, you know, it’s very much different.
So were there never any charges? Were you ever accused of anything?
There were no charges. Because I have a fiduciary responsibility to my shareholders in Kingdom Holding, to my friends in Saudi Arabia, and to the world community, because we have international investments all over the place, it’s very important to say that there was zero accusation and zero guilt.
You’ve described the whole ordeal as a misunderstanding. A misunderstanding over what?
When I say misunderstanding, it’s because I believe I shouldn’t have been there. Now that I’ve left, I would say that I’ve been vindicated. Yet I have to acknowledge to you, for the first time, that yes, we do have with the government a confirmed understanding, going forward.
What does that mean?
It is very confidential. I cannot get into that. But there is a confirmed understanding between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and me personally.
Does that require you to do certain things?
Not necessarily. I cannot get into that, because it is confidential and secret between me and the government. But rest assured that this does not really handcuff me.
What did the government want from you?
I will not get into the discussions that took place between me and representatives of the government.
They must have wanted something.
I read what was written, that they wanted a chunk of A or B or C of what I have. This was all rumors.
According to one report, it was $6 billion.
I read $6 billion, I read more than that and less than that.
Did it cost you anything to leave? Did you have to pay the government any money, did you have to hand over any land, did you have to surrender any shares?
When I say it’s a confidential and secret agreement, an arrangement based on a confirmed understanding between me and the government of Saudi Arabia, you have to respect that.
I’m a Saudi citizen. But I’m also a member of the royal family. The king is my uncle. Mohammed bin Salman is my cousin. So my interest is in maintaining the relationship between us and keeping it unscratched.
You maintain your innocence. You say you didn’t sign a settlement acknowledging guilt and that you’re different.
We signed something, yes, a confirmed understanding. Some others may call it a settlement. I don’t call it a settlement, because settlement to me is an acknowledgment you’ve done something wrong.
You realize, of course, how important it is to be candid and honest with me about this, because the circle of knowledge is too wide. If a different story emerges, your credibility will suffer.
So everything you’ve told me is 100 percent true?
I have a confirmed understanding with the government, and it’s ongoing. I’ll elaborate on that: It’s an ongoing process with the government.
I need to clear my name, No. 1, and to clear up a lot of the lies. For example, when they said that I was tortured, I was sent to a prison, you know, during my 83 days in the Ritz-Carlton hotel. All these were lies. I stayed there the whole time. I was never tortured.
So you were not harmed or mistreated in any way?
Not one iota.
You’re certain that nobody else who was at the Ritz-Carlton suffered anything akin to abuse, torture, wasn’t even roughed up?
Maybe someone tried to run away or do something crazy. Maybe he was put down and controlled. Maybe. But for sure there was nothing you could call systematic torturing.
Were you allowed to talk to other detainees?
No. No two people in the Ritz-Carlton could talk to each other. Even in my case. I did not see anyone. I did not talk to anyone.
I’m a nationalist. I’m patriotic. I believe in my country. So I’m not going to have this, this irritation that happened to me create a vendetta and turn me against my uncle, my cousin, my nation, and my people.
Prince Mohammed has a grand plan for the transformation of the Saudi economy and Saudi society. Do you remain supportive?
His vision took a lot of my ideas, but he multiplied them. I had the sovereign wealth fund idea, I talked about Aramco going public. Women’s rights, women competing in society, women driving, all of these things I called for.
He’s establishing a new era in Saudi Arabia. Any person who does not support what Mohammed bin Salman is doing right now, I say, is a traitor.
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