RIYADH • An anti-corruption probe that has purged Saudi Arabian royals, ministers and businessmen appeared to be widening yesterday after the founder of one of the kingdom's biggest travel companies was reportedly detained.
The Saudi stock index was down 1.1 per cent in early trade, and Al Tayyar Travel plunged 10 per cent in the opening minutes after the company quoted media reports as saying board member Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar had been held by the authorities.
The company gave no details but online economic news service SABQ, which is close to the government, reported that Tayyar had been detained in an investigation by a new anti-corruption body headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Dozens of people have been detained in the crackdown, which has consolidated Prince Mohammed's power while alarming much of the traditional business establishment. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia's best-known international investor, is also being held, officials said at the weekend.
The front page of leading Saudi newspaper Okaz challenged businessmen yesterday to reveal the sources of their assets, asking: "Where did you get this?" in bright red text. Another headline from Saudi-owned al-Hayat warned: "After the launch (of the anti-corruption drive), the noose tightens, whomever you are!"
A no-fly list has been drawn up and security forces in some Saudi airports were barring owners of private jets from taking off without a permit, pan-Arab daily Al-Asharq Al-Awsat reported.
Among those detained are 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers, according to Saudi officials. The allegations against the men include money laundering, bribery, extorting officials and taking advantage of public office for personal gain, a Saudi official told Reuters. Those accusations could not be independently verified and family members of those detained could not be reached.
A royal decree on Saturday said the crackdown came in response to "exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money".
The new anti-corruption committee has the power to seize assets at home and abroad before the results of its investigations are known.
Investors worry that the crackdown could ultimately result in forced sales of equities, but the extent of the authorities' intentions was not immediately clear.
Analysts said the arrests were also a pre-emptive measure by the 32-year-old Crown Prince to remove powerful figures as he seeks to reshape the economy and society of the world's leading oil exporter.
Prince Miteb bin Abdullah was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard, a pivotal power base rooted in the kingdom's tribes. That recalled a palace coup in June which ousted his elder cousin, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister. The moves consolidate the Crown Prince's control of internal security and military institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family.
Yet many analysts were puzzled by the targeting of technocrats like ousted economy minister Adel Fakieh and prominent businessmen on whom the kingdom is counting to boost the private sector and wean the economy off oil. "It seems to run so counter to the long-term goal of foreign investment and more domestic investment and a strengthened private sector," said Mr Greg Gause, a Gulf expert at Texas A&M University.
Over the past year, Prince Mohammed has become the ultimate decision-maker for the kingdom's military, foreign, economic and social policies, championing his "Vision 2030" plan, which includes subsidy cuts, tax increases, sales of state assets, a government efficiency drive and efforts to spur foreign investment.
The reforms have been well received by much of Saudi Arabia's overwhelmingly young population, but have caused resentment among some of the more conservative old guard. "It's overkill - and overkill in a way that makes it harder to achieve his long-term objectives," said Mr Gause.