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Putting on the Ritz in Riyadh – with a frisson of fear

The hotel still gets an instant reaction from visitors who don’t know the city very well

The Riyadh Ritz plays host to VIPs and dignitaries – but visitors may be suprised at its comparative accessibility Reuters
The Riyadh Ritz plays host to VIPs and dignitaries – but visitors may be suprised at its comparative accessibility

On a visit to Riyadh last year with a group of western businessmen, we were looking for somewhere to arrange a coffee meeting, so I suggested the Ritz Carlton hotel.

There were some sharp intakes of breath and nervous looks were exchanged, as though I’d suggested afternoon tea on the Yemeni border.

I assured them that the hotel was perfectly safe, in fact more than just safe – downright opulent in fact.

We had our meeting there in a very convivial atmosphere under enormous chandeliers amid prancing marble horses and more gold leaf than Donald Trump’s boudoir.

But the hotel still gets that instant reaction from visitors who don’t know the city very well.

For a while in 2017, it was perhaps the most (in)famous hotel in the world when it served temporarily as the detention centre for dozens of wealthy suspects during the kingdom’s anti-corruption drive.

For those unfamiliar with it, the mere name still sparks a little frisson of fear.

Saudis, on the other hand, regard it as a fun palace, with a massive indoor swimming pool, bowling alley, multiple spas, fine dining in a variety of restaurants and luxury accommodation to match its five star status.

When I stayed there last weekend, there were lots of family groups having a great time, mixing with the sprinkling of business people in suits and ties, like me.

The hotel tariff card gives you some indication of the footfall pattern in the hotel.  Weekenders – like the ones I mingled with last week – can sample Ritz luxury for as little as SAR1,100 ($293) per standard room per night.

Big business

During the working week, when the clientele is government people, multinational executives, bankers and consultants, that same room would cost you at least SAR5,700 ($1,518) – if you can get one. The hotel is sold out for most of October.

That’s because from October 24 onwards the Ritz, and the adjacent King Abdulaziz International Conference Centre, are the venues for the Future Investment Initiative forum, the “Davos in the desert” (though neither FII nor the World Economic Forum officially like that moniker).

No doubt the 49 royal suites will be occupied by visiting heads of state and other movers and shakers, but if not you could, in theory, rub shoulders with the world’s elite for a mere SAR45,000 ($12,000) per night.

During FII, the monumental lobby of the Ritz Carlton is the place to be seen.

Though all the big set-piece events like the all-star plenaries and panels take place in the Conference Centre, an enterprising journalist can grab one of the tables in the Chorisia Lounge in the morning, watch the official agenda on a laptop, and be poised to door-step some of the biggest players in world finance and the Saudi government over the course of the day.

Or try the buffet lunch at the Al Orjouan all-day restaurant, which seats 450 at capacity.

You might find yourself in the dessert line with royalty or any number of masters of the universe: “Could I just get to the cheesecake, your royal highness?”

Set in 52 acres of landscaped gardens, the Ritz Carlton is around 20 minutes (Riyadh traffic allowing) from the central business district around Faisaliah, and roughly the same from the new King Abdullah Financial District.

It is much closer, however, to two of the big power hubs of the Saudi capital: the Al Yamama Palace, the official royal residence and workplace; and the Diplomatic Quarter, with its intrigues and entertainments.

The posh Al Hada area, where the Ritz is located, recently enhanced its status as a leisure destination in the busy Saudi capital with the opening of Via Riyadh – a glittering mall with all the designer brands you could want and another clutch of fine dining establishments – just a short hop away.

It is also close to the Ad Diriya development, a Unesco World Heritage site that has been superbly renovated and revitalised as a cultural and leisure zone, and is surely one of the most impressive of the Vision 2030 mega-projects.

Saudi Arabia is going through a hotel boom at the moment. International operators are falling over each other to build a new luxury development or chain of mid-level hotels – not least by Marriott, which manages the Ritz.

Mohammed Marghalani, who I got to know quite well when he was general manager of the Riyadh Ritz between 2020 and earlier this year (he has moved on to greater things in the hospitality sector), told me once: “There is nothing quite like the Ritz Carlton anywhere else in Saudi Arabia.”

Or indeed the world, I would venture.

Frank Kane is Editor-at-Large of AGBI and an award-winning business journalist. He also acts as a consultant to the Ministry of Energy of Saudi Arabia

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