World Economy

Saudi Arabia Arrests Over 200 in $100 Billion Corruption Scandal

An estimated 1,700 bank accounts belonging to individuals have been frozen and a report says that assets of the detained princes and officials, worth an estimated $800 billion, may be confiscated by the state
Riyadh’s 5-star Ritz Carlton hotel now serves as a makeshift prison for some of Saudi Arabia’s elite.Riyadh’s 5-star Ritz Carlton hotel now serves as a makeshift prison for some of Saudi Arabia’s elite.

Corrupt practices by Saudi royals and officials have cost the kingdom at least $100 billion over decades. Saudi Arabia's attorney general, Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb, gave the estimate of the losses in a statement Thursday.

He also said that 208 individuals have been questioned as part of an extensive investigation. Seven of them have been released without charge, news outlets reported.

"Based on our investigations over the past three years, we estimate that at least $100 billion has been misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement over several decades," the kingdom's top legal official said.

"The evidence for this wrongdoing is very strong, and confirms the original suspicions which led the Saudi Arabian authorities to begin the investigation in the first place."

Saudi authorities arrested dozens of royals, businessmen and senior government officials on Saturday in a surprise anti-corruption sweep. Those arrested included billionaire businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the former head of the royal court Khaled Al-Tuwaijri and Saudi media mogul Waleed Al-Ibrahim.

The arrested include two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, including Prince Miteb, who until Saturday had headed the powerful National Guard before he was ousted and detained. Prince Miteb was once a contender for the throne and was believed to be opposed to the king’s 32-year-old son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, becoming successor as crown prince.

The Saudi central bank has frozen the personal accounts of people under investigation. And authorities in the United Arab Emirates have reportedly asked banks there for information about assets held by 19 Saudi royals and officials. An estimated 1,700 bank accounts belonging to individuals have been frozen.

The Wall Street Journal reports that assets of the detained princes and officials, worth an estimated $800 billion, may be confiscated by the state.

It looks like the Saudi authorities may be gearing up for a lengthy probe. Some of those arrested are reportedly being held in Riyadh's 5-star Ritz Carlton, which has been out of bounds to other guests since the weekend. Now it appears to be "fully booked" until February 1, 2018, CNNMoney reported.

Strengthening Salam's Position

The arrests followed the establishment of a new anti-corruption committee headed by Salman. It has the power to investigate, arrest, issue travel bans and freeze the assets of those it finds corrupt.

Saudi officials say the arrests are part of an effort to clean house in support of the crown prince's push to overhaul the country's economy and end what he once called its "addiction" to oil.

There are rumors—which Riyadh has denied—that one of the targets of the purge, Prince Abdulaziz bin Fahd, was killed while resisting arrest.

Shares in Kingdom Holding, the firm that Prince Alwaleed, the richest man in the Middle East, built into a global power, have dropped 12% in two days after he was arrested. It's a business that has plowed cash into everything from top American banks to Chinese tech startups. And now it could be in trouble.

Sheikh Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi, a billionaire, and by most estimates, one of the richest African-born people in the world, now finds himself in the midst of an anti-corruption sweep in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested last Saturday and is awaiting the next steps by Saudi authorities.

Assets Sold

Some wealthy Saudi individuals have been liquidating assets within Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Persian Gulf Arab countries this week, apparently in an effort to move money out of the region and escape the crackdown, private bankers and fund managers said.

In Riyadh, rich individual investors have been selling equities heavily, although buying by state-linked funds has helped to support the market. In Dubai, shares in real estate developers have sunk as investors worry about the impact on the property market of a pull-out by Saudis.

The investigation has spread to the neighboring United Arab Emirates, as the UAE central bank has asked commercial banks and finance companies there to provide details of the accounts of 19 Saudis, commercial bankers told Reuters on Thursday.

The risk of the accounts being frozen “jeopardizes Dubai’s pitch as a private banking center”, said a Persian Gulf-based banker, adding: “Banks in the UAE are full of Saudi money.”

One senior banker at an international bank with business in Saudi Arabia said his institution had already frozen some accounts, both inside the kingdom and outside, in response to Saudi government requests.

Power Grab

Saudi Arabia's mass purge of elites accused of graft "raises a few concerns", US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday, adding Washington was closely monitoring the kingdom's unprecedented probe into alleged embezzlement worth $100 billion. "How disruptive it's going to be remains to be seen," Tillerson said.

Fitch ratings agency said in a report on Thursday: "The strengthening of Salman's position should benefit near-term reform momentum given that the crown prince has been the dominant driving force behind Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 reform agenda," but it also warned of an increased risk of a political backlash.

Critics and observers say the purge that has targeted top princes, officials, military officers and businessmen is a power grab by the crown prince to sideline potential rivals and critics.

There is a constant flow of new information coming from Saudi Arabia, such as that one of the Arab world’s leading broadcasters, MBC, has been put under government control. Part of its management was removed and the owner detained. News is also emerging that even the former Saudi Energy Minister Ali al-Naimi, Saudi Arabia’s media face for decades, has been forcibly confined to his quarters.

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