Wealthy Saudi princes were tortured, blackmailed and ordered to hand over money from Swiss bank deposits on the ‘night of the beating’ three years ago when crown prince Mohammed bin Salman purged the Saudi elite, according to a new account.
The November 2017 round-up at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh was officially described as a crackdown on corruption but was widely seen as a power grab by a crown prince determined to modernise the kingdom.
Speaking to the Guardian, one source described how ‘everyone was blindfolded and nearly everyone was subjected to what Egyptian intelligence calls the night of the beating’, which saw princes and tycoons beaten and tied to the walls.
Some of the prisoners were threatened with the revelation of extramarital affairs or suspect business dealings, according to detainees at the five-star prison.
However, some of MBS’s interrogators proved clueless when it came to financial matters, leading to odd requests to Swiss banks which drew suspicion in Europe.
Imprisoned in luxury: Saudi authorities detained hundreds of top businessmen and royals in November 2017 and held some of them for several months at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton
Behind the purge: Saudi Arabia’s ambitious crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, pictured, ordered the so-called ‘sheikhdown’ in what was widely seen as a power grab
Saudi Arabia says it ‘recovered’ as much as $107billion in the purge, also nicknamed the ‘sheikhdown’, but sources claimed the figure was actually as low as $28billion.
One source said the interrogators ‘knew very little and were winging it’, and were ‘hopeless’ when it came to the oligarchs’ offshore assets.
‘Often they had no idea what they were looking for. It became straight up blackmail in some cases, because some of the detainees were refusing to sign anything,’ they said.
While some of the unusual requests raised alarm bells in the Swiss banking world, a number of them nonetheless ‘got through’.
Saudi Arabia’s attorney general later announced that the government had seized a mixture of properties, cash securities and commercial entities from the accused.
Some of the prisoners told confidants that they could not understand why they were being imprisoned, given that personal favours and patronage had long been accepted parts of the Saudi system.
Prince Mohammed’s attempt to upend that system and divert the money back to the state sent shockwaves through Saudi business circles.
Hundreds of Saudi princes and businessmen were held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, pictured, in what the kingdom called an anti-corruption drive
The 381 people questioned included flamboyant billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who was held for more than 80 days at the makeshift prison.
Another high-profile prisoner, former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was released following a ‘settlement’ that reportedly exceeded $1billion.
Sources said the ‘night of the beating’ was intended to ‘soften up’ the detainees before the interrogators arrived to question them about corruption.
Prisoners were ‘tied to the walls, in stress positions’ in acts of torture which ‘went on for hours’ in the luxury surroundings of the Ritz-Carlton.
Only months earlier, the hotel had hosted Donald Trump on a visit to Saudi Arabia which was widely seen as a success for the kingdom and the crown prince.
Later in 2017, the same venue hosted a glittering investment summit dubbed the ‘Davos of the Desert’ after the annual World Economic Forum in the Swiss Alps.
The crown prince, 35, has set out ambitious plans to end the kingdom’s dependence on oil and the purge was widely seen as an effort to consolidate his power.
Just months before the purge, the same Ritz-Carlton hotel had hosted a visit by Donald Trump who met with the crown prince (left)
His reform drive saw Saudi women given permission to drive for the first time in Saudi history, defying the kingdom’s ultra-conservative clerics.
However, his international image took a severe blow a year later amid worldwide suspicion that he was involved in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi, a critic of the prince, was murdered in a grisly hit job at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
UN investigator Agnes Callamard wrote a report setting out ‘credible evidence’ of the prince’s involvement, but Riyadh has always denied that the killing was officially sanctioned.
Still, the murder tarnished Prince Mohammed’s image in the West and led some investors to pull the plug on their relationships with Saudi Arabia.
MBS had previously exchanged WhatsApp messages with Amazon supremo Jeff Bezos about a possible $2billion investment by the firm, but their relationship soured after the killing of Khashoggi, who wrote for the Bezos-owned Washington Post.
In January this year, a report commissioned by Bezos revealed that his the billionaire’s phone was probably hacked by Saudi operatives.