Reports of Saudi princes detained at Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton are a reminder of how such venues have played a key role in the region's history

The management of Riyadh's Ritz-Carlton would probably like the hotel to be known for its "lavishly landscaped gardens, spacious and sumptuous accommodations, fine-dining restaurants," and, of course, its gentlemen-only spa.

Yet today, and almost certainly for some time to come, these luxury trimmings are unlikely to be the first thing to come to mind for any passers-by on the Mecca Road near the establishment.

The Holiday Inn in Beirut, only open for one year, is now a shattered shell
The Holiday Inn in Beirut, only open for one year, is now a shattered shell © Wikimedia Commons

The Ritz-Carlton secured itself a place in Middle East legend when the Saudi government detained some 200 members of the country's elite there in early November, turning the building into a sprawling gilded prison in what appears to be the greatest shakedown in history.

A spokesperson for Marriott International, which runs the hotel, told Middle East Eye that the hotel was not operating as a traditional hotel for the time being. "We continue to work with the local authorities on this matter."

Certain luxury establishments have become synonymous with dynamic eras in the region's history

The hotel finds itself in good company. Across the Middle East, certain luxury establishments have become synonymous with dynamic eras in the region's history, as well as being identified with famous, infamous and influential figures.

Often - as with the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton, where reports of torture have emerged - these hotels are swept up in moments of crisis, brutality and bitter violence.

And although apparent images of the Ritz-Carlton's dining room transformed into a dormitory for Saudi security guards are fascinating, such scenes are not as uncommon as one might think.

apparently the Saudi security guards have turned the Ritz Carlton restaurant into a sleeping area

— Within Syria (@WithinSyriaBlog) November 6, 2017

From Jerusalem to Istanbul, Beirut to Aleppo, suites, ballrooms and bars have always served as the theatres in which Middle Eastern history is played out.


Mosul: When Islamic State came

In Iraq's Mosul, a wreck of a city recently wrested from Islamic State (IS) control, can be found a more recent example of a luxury hotel caught up in seismic events.

The Nineveh Oberoi Hotel, a 262-room, five-star resort overlooking the Tigris River, had been the number-one destination for visiting dignitaries since the 1980s. 

Boasting a pool, bar and Ferris wheel, the Nineveh was a favourite of top government officials and businessmen during Saddam Hussein's reign.

Pleasantries ground to a sudden halt in 2014, however, when Islamic State (IS) swept into Iraq's second city, appropriating much of Mosul's civic apparatus as part of the group’s attempt at building a new Islamic caliphate.

Photos: #ISIS re-open the Nineveh Oberoi Hotel. Rename to Inheritors hotel in #Mosul #Iraq -

— Conflict News (@Conflicts) May 2, 2015

For the victorious jihadists, the capture of the Nineveh represented a special kind of a coup. Fanar Haddad, a Middle East analyst, told MEE: "The Oberoi is, of course, an international brand, one of the best in the world, and it was considered to be the best hotel in town. The ISIS propaganda machine made quite a bit of the capture."

After its appropriation, IS got to work. Decorative stonework was dismantled, IS's black flag was raised on every flagpole, and IS-linked Twitter accounts publicised the hotel's "grand reopening".

While the event did go ahead, normal service was not resumed. As the Iraqi military closed in, so the Nineveh became a snipers' nest and battlefront.

"In terms of PR, it certainly was a big scoop to be able to claim that they had taken this over, and now there's this fancy hotel with ISIS flags fluttering outside of it, regardless of what happens afterwards," Haddad said. 

"I think it was more [about] the visuals. For quite a bit of the caliphate there was a virtual side to it that was perhaps more important than the actual physical side, and was certainly glitzier."

The Nineveh Oberoi's future is unclear. The Oberoi Hotels and Resorts group did not respond to questions from MEE about what it plans for the hotel now that the Iraqi army has retaken Mosul.