RIYADH (NYTIMES, REUTERS) - Saudi authorities detained one of the kingdom’s most prominent businessmen and the head of the National Guard in a sweeping anti-corruption inquiry that gives Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman more authority.
Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns investment firm Kingdom Holding, was among 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers detained, two senior Saudi officials told Reuters on Sunday (Nov 5).
A top security official, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf, consolidating Prince Mohammed’s control of security institutions which had previously been headed by separate branches of the ruling family.
News of the purge came in the early hours of Sunday after King Salman decreed the creation of a new anti-corruption committee chaired by his son Prince Mohammed, who has swiftly amassed power since rising from obscurity less than three years ago.
The new body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions and freeze assets.
“The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable,” the royal decree said.
The announcement of the arrests was made over Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned satellite network. Alwaleed’s arrest has sent shock waves through both the kingdom and the world’s major financial centres.
The 62-year-old is one of the world’s richest men, with major stakes in News Corp, Time Warner, Citigroup, Twitter, Apple, Motorola and many other well-known companies. The prince also controls satellite television networks watched across the Arab world.
The sweeping campaign of arrests appears to be the latest move to consolidate the power of the crown prince, the favourite son and top adviser of King Salman.
At 32, the crown prince is already the dominant voice in Saudi military, foreign, economic and social policies, stirring murmurs of discontent in the royal family that he has amassed too much personal power, and at a remarkably young age.
Who is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal?
The 62-year-old controls the investment firm Kingdom Holding and is one of the world’s richest men.
He has major stakes in News Corp, Time Warner, Citigroup, Twitter, Apple, Motorola and many other well-known companies.
He has recently given interviews to the Western media on subjects such as crypto currencies and Saudi Arabia’s plans for a public offering of shares in its state oil company, Aramco.
The prince has also recently sparred publicly with US President Donald Trump, calling Mr Trump “a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America” in a Twitter message in 2015.
Mr Trump fired back, also on Twitter, that “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed–Talal wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money”.
The billionaire is something of an outsider within the royal family – not a dissident, but an unusually outspoken figure on a variety of issues.
He openly supported women driving long before the kingdom said it would grant them the right to do so, and he has long employed women in his orbit.
Al-Arabiya said that the anti-corruption committee had the right to investigate, arrest, ban from travel or freeze the assets of anyone it deemed corrupt.
Many analysts said the goal of the purge went beyond corruption and aimed to remove any potential for opposition to Prince Mohammed as he pushes an ambitious and controversial reform agenda.
In September he announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted and he is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists. In economic policy, he has slashed state spending in some areas and plans a big sale of state assets.
“The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family whose secretive inner workings are equivalent to those of the Kremlin at the time of the Soviet Union,” wrote James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
“Nonetheless, the dismissals and detentions suggest that Prince Mohammed rather than forging alliances is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war.”
An economist at a big Gulf bank, declining to be named because of political sensitivities, said nobody in Saudi Arabia believed corruption was at the root of the purge.
“It’s about consolidating power and frustration that reforms haven’t been happening fast enough,” the economist said.
Other people detained in the probe include former finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, a board member of national oil giant Saudi Aramco; economy minister Adel Fakieh, who once played a major role in drafting reforms; former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah; and Khalid al-Tuwaijiri, who headed the Royal Court under the late King Abdullah.
In addition to Prince Alwaleed, who is one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known international businessmen as an investor in firms such as Citigroup and Twitter, people detained included Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the big Saudi Binladin construction group, and Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, owner of the MBC television network.
The Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh, the de facto royal hotel, was evacuated Saturday, stirring rumors that it would be used to house detained royals. The airport for private planes was closed, arousing speculation that the crown prince was seeking to block rich businessmen from fleeing before more arrests.
Alwaleed was giving interviews to the Western news media as recently as late last month about subjects like so-called crypto currencies and Saudi Arabia’s plans for a public offering of shares in its state oil company, Aramco.
He has also recently sparred publicly with President Donald Trump. The prince was part of a group of investors who bought control of the Plaza Hotel in New York from Trump, and he also bought an expensive yacht from him as well.
But in a Twitter message in 2015 the prince called Trump “a disgrace not only to the GOP but to all America”.
Trump fired back, also on Twitter, that “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed–Talal wants to control our US politicians with daddy’s money”.
As president, Trump has developed a warm, mutually supportive relationship with the ascendant crown prince, who has rocketed from near obscurity in recent years to taking control of the country’s most important functions.
But his swift rise has also divided Saudis. Many applaud his vision, crediting him with addressing the economic problems facing the kingdom and laying out a plan to move beyond its dependence on oil.
Others see him as brash, power-hungry and inexperienced, and they resent him for bypassing his elder relatives and concentrating so much power in one branch of the family.
At least three senior White House officials, including the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were reportedly in Saudi Arabia last month for meetings that were undisclosed at the time.
Before sparring with Trump, Alwaleed was publicly rebuffed by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who rejected his US$10 million (S$13.6 million) donation for the victims of the Sept 11 terrorist attacks in New York because the prince had also criticised US foreign policy.
As powerful as the billionaire is, he is something of an outsider within the royal family – not a dissident, but an unusually outspoken figure on a variety of issues. He openly supported women driving long before the kingdom said it would grant them the right to do so, and he has long employed women in his orbit.
In 2015 he pledged to donate his fortune of US$32 billion to charity after his death. It was unclear Saturday whether Saudi Arabia’s corruption committee might seek to confiscate any of his assets.
Saudi Arabia is an executive monarchy without a written constitution or independent government institutions like a parliament or courts, so accusations of corruption are difficult to evaluate. The boundaries between the public funds and the royal family’s wealth are murky, and corruption, as other countries would describe it, is believed to be widespread.
The arrests came a few hours after the king replaced the minister in charge of the Saudi national guard, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, who controlled the last of the three Saudi armed forces not yet considered to be under control of the crown prince.
The king named Crown Prince Mohammed the minister of defense in 2015. Earlier this year, the king removed Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as head of the interior ministry, placing him under house arrest and extending the crown prince’s influence over the interior ministry’s troops, which act as a second armed force.
Rumours have swirled since then that King Salman and his favorite son would soon move against Mutaib, commander of the third armed force and himself a former contender for the crown.