Of all the famed, lavish, five-star hotels scattered across the Arab world, the last one you’d expect to win praise for its service at the 2018 Hotelier Middle East Awards is the one which last year served as a prison, whose “guests” were allegedly tortured.
But there you have it. The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, a palatial establishment in Saudi Arabia’s capital, has been named “Hotel Team of the Year” and its general manager “Highly Commended”, at last month’s awards ceremony, held in Dubai.
It’s the same hotel in which Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia rounded up and imprisoned hundreds of high-profile princes, politicians and billionaires in November last year in what he declared an “anti-corruption crackdown” but what was otherwise widely considered to be a mass “sheikh-down” of his closest rivals.
An estimated 400 of those incarcerated occupied half the hotel’s 492 rooms, while the rest of The Ritz was closed entirely to guests, heavily guarded, and stripped of its phone and internet service. Some detainees were released having paid vast sums of money, some were allegedly tortured, some were said to have died in captivity and others were simply never seen again.
On its website, The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, states “takes guests on a captivating journey throughout its 52 acres of lavishly landscaped gardens, spacious and sumptuous accommodations, fine-dining restaurants and 62.000 square feet of elegant event space”.
The hotel – which has previously welcomed guests including Donald Trump and Barack Obama – reopened for business in February of this year, and last month hosted Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative (FII), unofficially known as Davos of the Desert, an event intended to showcase the Kingdom’s modernisation plans and attract foreign investment.
We don’t know how many staff members were operating during its period of lockdown, nor the scenes they witnessed, but all were celebrated at the recent Hotelier Middle East Awards ceremony.
The hotel’s director of human resources, Abdulrahim Al-Hazmi, said: “We take care of our employees and they take care of our customers, that’s our company philosophy that we truly enliven. We also have a strong team support and diligent service professionals that stayed through the challenges. This helps us achieve our goals.”
Also honoured in the “General Manager of the Year” category was Gerrit Graef, who joined the hotel in 2017.
“I’m very humbled and honored to be recognized by the Hotelier Middle East Awards. This wouldn’t be possible without our ladies and gentlemen who have shown the strongest support, persistent hard work and indisputable perseverance all throughout our journey as a team.”
The awards, now in its 14th year, hails itself as a “celebration of excellence” with a particular focus on the staff rather than material aspects such as architecture and interiors.
“The winners truly are the heroes that make the difference,” its website states. The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, has only ever won an award in the contest once prior to this year: when Wael Maatouk was named “Hotel Manager of the Year” in 2013.
Since taking power in 2017, the Crown Prince has spent a good deal of time under the media spotlight, most recently in relation to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi which many suspect him to have played a part in.
But earlier this year, the talk was all on tourism. The prince has made no secret of the fact that he’s keen to wean the Kingdom off its reliance on oil, and build a lucrative tourism industry in the same way its neighbours Dubai and Bahrain have.
As part of his Vision 2030 Plan, the prince seeks to encourage 30 million holidaymakers a year – building vast holiday resorts, and introducing new tourist visas which make Saudi Arabia easier than ever to visit. But would you want to go? A recent poll conducted by Telegraph Travel revealed that 78 per cent of the 4,000 questioned would not.
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