Saudi Ritz reopens after stint as gilded prison of princes

RIYADH (Reuters) - Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton Hotel reopened on Sunday, more than three months after it was converted into a gilded prison for members of Saudi Arabia's business and political elite detained in an anti-corruption purge.

The gates of the luxury hotel, where U.S. President Donald Trump stayed during his state visit last year, had been shuttered and patrolled by black-uniformed royal guard units while dozens of princes, former ministers and business tycoons were interrogated inside.

The detainees were removed from the hotel two weeks ago, most released after cutting a deal with the authorities or being exonerated, an apparent sign that the corruption investigation, which sent shockwaves through the business community, was winding down.

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Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where Saudi dignitaries were being detained
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Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia where Saudi dignitaries were being detained
Saudi men walk out of the entrance to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is staying in Riyadh on March 4, 2013. From Saudi Arabia, Kerry heads into the homestretch of his lengthy first official trip abroad, traveling next to the United Arab Emirates and then Qatar before returning to Washington. AFP PHOTO/JACQUELYN MARTIN/POOL (Photo credit should read JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A view shows the Ritz-Carlton hotel's entrance gate in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
Pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud are projected on the front of the Ritz-Carlton, where Trump is staying in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US and Saudi officials walk in the hallway of the Ritz Carlton hotel in the capital Riyadh on May 21, 2017, during a visit of the US president. / AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)
A view shows the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser
The motorcade carrying US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel early in the morning in Riyadh on January 23, 2016, after a previous stop in Switzerland. The top US diplomat arrived from Switzerland in Saudi Arabia and next heads to Laos, Cambodia and China. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Jacquelyn Martin / AFP / POOL / JACQUELYN MARTIN (Photo credit should read JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP/Getty Images)
A worker cleans a fountain at the entrance of the Ritz Carlton hotel as Arab officials attend the 30th Conference of the Arab Interior Minister's Council in Riyadh on March 13, 2013. AFP PHOTO/FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Visitors stand next to a Ferrari luxury car displayed during the 2016 World Luxury Expo Riyadh 2016 held at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital Riyadh, on March 30, 2016. / AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Pictures of U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud are projected on the front of the Ritz-Carlton, where Trump is staying in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
US and Saudi officials walk in the hallway of the Ritz Carlton hotel in the capital Riyadh on May 21, 2017, during a visit of the US president. / AFP PHOTO / GIUSEPPE CACACE (Photo credit should read GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secret Service agents monitor the area from the roof of the Ritz Carlton hotel in the Saudi capital Riyadh on May 21, 2017, during a visit of the US president. / AFP PHOTO / Fayez Nureldine (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
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A handful of smart-suited businessmen, forced to decamp to other hotels since November, returned to the Ritz on Sunday.

"It's an honor (to be back)," said one foreign consultant as he waited for a luxury car to take him to work.

He said the purge had not left any trace on the 492-room hotel where the lowest rate is 2,439 riyals ($650) a night.

"You forget about it as soon as you're in your room and you get lost in your own bubble."

The hotel's opulent lobby appeared normal. Uniformed waiters milled below crystal chandeliers as acoustic Arabic music filtered through speakers and incense wafted from a gilt burner.

Managers declined an interview request, but the company confirmed in a statement that the hotel had "resumed normal business operations as of today".

Among the most high-profile occupants during the anti-corruption campaign were global investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, once seen as a leading contender for the throne.

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Senior Saudi Prince Miteb bin Abdullah
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Senior Saudi Prince Miteb bin Abdullah
FILE PHOTO - Saudi Arabian Prince Miteb bin Abdullah at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo
Saudi prince Miteb bin Abdullah is greeted by French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris, June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS)
Saudi prince Miteb bin Abdullah is greeted by French President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris, June 18, 2014. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS ROYALS)
Prince Miteb bin Abdul Aziz, son of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, gestures as he leaves the equestrian club following a horse racing competition in Janadriyah in the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh on February 15, 2008. AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR (Photo credit should read HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Prince Miteb bin Abdullah whose father, the late king Abdullah, founded the Equestrian Club of Riyadh, sits at the clubhouse during a horse racing event at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in the capital Riyadh on November 11, 2016. The modern facility surrounded by greenery on the edge of Riyadh offers respite from the highways and urban sprawl of a city carved out of the desert. Horse racing is one of the few diversions in Saudi Arabia, where alcohol, public cinemas and theatres are banned. / AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice President Dick Cheney (L) meets with Prince Miteb bin Abdulla March 21, 2008, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Cheney met Saudi King Abdullah on Friday, hoping to win more Arab support for Afghanistan and Iraq and find ways to stabilize global energy markets amid sky-high prices. AFP PHOTO/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice-President Dick Cheney (C) looks at one of Saudi Arabia King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz's, famous Arabian horses with Prince Miteb bin Abdulla(R), the King's son, on March 21, 2008, as Irish trainer Ryan Jones directs the horse inside the Al-Janadriyah Farm (The King's Horse Farm) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Cheney arrived in Saudi Arabia today, looking to press King Abdullah to do more to help Iraq and Afghanistan and seek ways to stabilize the world energy market, top aides said. AFP PHOTO/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
The son of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Prince Miteb bin Abdul Aziz (C), holds the trophy with his sons Prince Saed bin Miteb bin Abdul Aziz (R) and Prince Khaled bin Miteb bin Abdul Aziz (L) during the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Cup at the equestrian club in Janadriyah in the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh on February 15, 2008. Kent Desormeaux won the race with his horse Adil. AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR (Photo credit should read HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Riyadh, SAUDI ARABIA: Prince Miteb bin Abdul Aziz, Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz's son, gestures as he leaves the horse racing competition at the equastrian club in Janadriyah on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh. AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR (Photo credit should read HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
Riyadh, SAUDI ARABIA: Prince Miteb bin Abdul Aziz (C), Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz's son, takes part in the traditional Arda dance or War dance during the Janadriyah Festival of Heritage and Culture on the outskirts of the Saudi capital Riyadh, late 20 February 2007. AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR (Photo credit should read HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)
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Prince Miteb was freed after agreeing to pay over $1 billion, a Saudi official told Reuters.

Prince Alwaleed maintained his innocence of any corruption in a Reuters interview hours before his release. A senior Saudi official later said he was freed after reaching a financial settlement, without detailing the terms.

The attorney general has said the government had arranged to seize more than $106 billion through such agreements, an assertion Reuters has been unable to verify.

Critics decried the campaign as a shakedown and power play by 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is aiming to overhaul the way the deeply conservative kingdom is run and wean it off dependence on oil revenues.

Ten days before the purge began, the Ritz hosted an international business conference where Prince Mohammed spoke onstage and snapped selfies with admirers. Some participants later ended up as detainees.

In the absence of more information, speculation ran wild about what was happening inside the Ritz. The authorities denied rumors of torture and attempted suicides.

The attorney general has said 56 people remain in custody. They are believed to have been moved to prison after refusing to admit wrongdoing and may end up in court.

Ahmed al-Safer, a Yemeni-American businessman who regularly stays at the Ritz, stopped in on Sunday to have tea with friends.

Asked if the purge had affected the hotel's reputation, he said: "Right now it's famous. Everyone will visit just to take a picture."

($1 = 3.7498 riyals)

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

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