By Pat Lancaster
The latest reports of the high profile prisoners incarcerated by royal decree in Riyadh give real cause for concern.
Most worrying are rumours of torture involving some of the captives under “house arrest”. Other reports claim the prisoners, who include wealthy and influential members of Saudi society, among them members of the ruling Al Saud family, are being offered their freedom in return for staggeringly high ransoms.
That the prisoners are being held in Riyadh’s luxury Ritz Carlton hotel does not minimise the fact they are there against their will and without official charges of any kind.
Meanwhile, a bemused international audience watches with a mixture of disbelief and incredulity as this latest sad episode of so-called Saudi diplomacy is played out on the world stage, like some exaggerated version of a story taken from a 21st century Arabian Nights.
Even the Arab press, traditionally somewhat cautious and guarded in their comments about the ruling house of Saud, have been uncharacteristically outspoken in their criticism.
“There is no doubt that the ambitious and arrogant Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, has entertained the world with an action series, similar to a Mexican soap opera, the first episode of which began with Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Nayef stepping down from his position,”noted the influential Middle East Monitor (MEMO).
This was followed by the episode where moderate intellectuals and clerics were arrested; then the princes and cousins had to go, including Mutaib Bin Abdullah, head of the national guard and his brother, sons of the late King Abdullah, as well as the Chief of the Royal Court under King Abdullah, Khaled Al-Tuwaijry, an important figure in the royal palace, who ruled on behalf of the late king on numerous occasions.
Among the incarcerated princes is the billionaire businessman and philanthropist, Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Bin Saud, one of the wealthiest men in the world, and Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador to the US for 25 years and a personal friend of President George W Bush, among other influential Americans.
Prince Alwaleed is arguably the world’s best known Saudi Arabian. He is proudly, undeniably part of the Saudi establishment, a member of the royal family and rich beyond the dreams of avarice. However, his billionaire status has been earned not inherited. Admittedly beginning life as a member of the Al Saud family is no disadvantage to success but Alwaleed has displayed a unique ability to “back a winner” in business terms, to see corporate opportunity when it is not obvious and to recognise commercial potential where others do not.
He has also used vast amounts of his personal wealth to benefit those less fortunate, and continues to fund programmes and associations in cities across the globe to help carry out his philanthropic work.
Both Alwaleed and Bandar are believed to have been detained inside the Ritz Carlton hotel after accepting an invitation to dine there with the Crown Prince.
Since then there has been no communication between the prisoners and the outside world. Their money and property has been confiscated under the pretext of corruption and money laundering. However, in reality, the committee formed to investigate them, the formation of which was carried out based on a decree issued by King Salman, and headed by his son, the Crown Prince, looked into very little detail before arbitrarily confiscating their money. In a further tragic twist, a helicopter carrying Prince Mansour Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz, son of the Crown Prince under the late King Abdullah, along with a number of other Saudi officials, allegedly attempting to flee the kingdom to pre-empt a similar fate to those in the Ritz Carlton, was shot down, killing everyone onboard.
Added to these events, was the kidnap of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri after he was suddenly summoned to meet King Salman. Once Hariri’s plane landed in Riyadh, the Saudi security services transported him to an unknown location where he was allegedly forced to make a televised statement prepared in advance by the Saudi state, announcing his resignation as prime minister.
The Machiavellian plot thickens.
Whatever is taking place in the kingdom, those in power should proceed with great caution. The tactics employed to date have been, at best thuggish, at worst murderous, and without a shred of sophistication or diplomacy.
Just as the international community saw a glimmer of hope for modernisation and reform in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom seems to have closed the shutters and taken several giant steps back through the centuries into medieval times. The powers that be in Riyadh may well seek to establish a new order, an entirely fresh system restructured and eventually transformed. Their ultimate goals may be worthy ones but – if that is indeed the case – they are going about achieving them in entirely the wrong way.
Kidnapping people off the streets and holding them prisoner; shooting down civilian aircraft; extorting money with menaces, these are not the actions of civilised thinkers and reformists. The whole sorry debacle is horribly reminiscent of the heavy handed actions of the Middle East’s most despotic tyrants; men whose abominable acts were in no way admirable or condonable; men who –without exception – came to a bad end.