Arrests 'phase one' of anti-graft drive, says official

Football fans hold up portraits of King Salman and Prince Mohammed during a Fifa World Cup 2018 qualification match.
Football fans hold up portraits of King Salman and Prince Mohammed during a Fifa World Cup 2018 qualification match.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia's attorney-general has said the weekend arrests of princes, businessmen and officials were only "phase one" of an anti-corruption drive, adding that the suspects would have access to legal counsel and pledged to hold trials "in a timely and open manner".

The arrests were "merely the start of a vital process to root out corruption wherever it exists", Sheikh Saud Al Mojeb said in a statement.

The crackdown on some of Saudi Arabia's richest and most powerful men has put US$33 billion (S$45 billion) of personal wealth at risk.

The stunning series of arrests has implicated three of the kingdom's richest people, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is No. 50 on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index ranking of the world's 500 richest people, with US$19 billion. Also being held are the kingdom's second-and fifth-wealthiest people, as well as a travel-agency mogul and Bakr Binladin, a scion of one of the country's biggest construction empires.

The arrests reportedly have led the government to freeze the accounts of the more than three dozen men detained and believed to be held at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.

In a shaky video that appears from its metadata to have been shot early Monday morning in the hotel's Ballroom B, people can be seen lying on mats covered with brightly coloured blankets in floral motifs while guards in dark uniforms are visible in the background.

The detentions ordered by King Salman has reinforced speculation that he was clearing any remaining obstacles to his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's accession to the throne. But they were also lauded by many Saudis bearing the brunt of low oil prices who have long complained that the kingdom's elite were above the law.

"It's almost the equivalent of arresting Bill Gates to have Prince Alwaleed bin Talal under arrest," Mr Robert Jordan, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Bloomberg TV.

The king also relieved Prince Miteb bin Abdullah from his post as head of the powerful National Guard, taking out one of the last senior royals who had survived a series of Cabinet reshuffles that promoted allies of his son.

Prince Mohammed became heir to the throne in June when his cousin was removed in a palace shake-up.

A senior Saudi official has denied the crackdown had any other purpose than to fight corruption.

According to the official, the charges against Prince Alwaleed include money laundering, bribery and extortion of some officials. Prince Miteb is charged with embezzlement, fraudulent employment and the awarding of projects to his own companies. Another royal family member, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, is accused of corruption related to the Riyadh train project, using his influence to win projects for companies affiliated to himself, the official said.

US President Donald Trump, in the meantime, has vouched for King Salman and his heir.

In a tweet yesterday morning from Japan, the US leader said: "I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline 'Arrests 'phase one' of anti-graft drive, says official'. Subscribe