Saudi frees billionaire prince as Ritz hotel jail empties

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The Ritz-Carlton hotel served as a jail for the kingdom's elite during a controversial crackdown on corruption. PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - Saudi Arabian authorities freed Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and several of the kingdom's most prominent men from detention this weekend as they cleared out the Ritz-Carlton hotel that served as a jail for the country's elite during a controversial crackdown on corruption.

Billionaire Prince Alwaleed was allowed to return home, family sources said on Saturday (Jan 27), more than two months after he was taken into custody in the crackdown.

His release came hours after he told Reuters in an interview at the hotel in Riyadh that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing and be released from custody within days, without giving up control of his Riyadh-based conglomerate Kingdom Holding.

A senior Saudi official said Prince Alwaleed's release had come about after a financial settlement was reached with the attorney general.

"The attorney general has approved this morning the settlement that was reached with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and the prince returned home at 11 am," the official told Reuters, without giving details on the terms.

Waleed al-Ibrahim, head of the Dubai-based Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), and Fawaz Al Hokair, the billionaire founder of one of the country's largest retailers, were among those sent home, a government official said on condition of anonymity.

Khaled al-Tuwaijri, head of the royal court under the late King Abdullah, and Prince Turki bin Nasser - who was involved in a massive arms deal that led to corruption probes in the United Kingdom and the United States - were also released.

A senior Saudi official said a week ago the kingdom expects to reap more than US$100 billion (S$130.8 billion) from the deals. Other detainees have been transferred to prison to face trial, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The releases mark the end of the first phase of the declared anti-corruption campaign, which sent shock-waves across the kingdom's business community and government when it was launched in November. Hundreds of suspects were arrested in the purge, including some of the country's richest men, several children of the late King Abdullah, and the kingdom's top economic policy maker.

With the suspects' names and the allegations against them never officially released, the detentions raised concerns about transparency among foreign investors - a key part of the plan to diversify the economy away from oil.

The names of detainees were leaked to media along with a string of allegations including embezzlement to money laundering. Few details have been provided on their cases or on the settlements many of them have reached since then.

Critics also said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman initiated the drive to intimidate potential opponents and consolidate his grip on the country. Government officials have repeatedly denied that accusation.

During his detention, MBC's al-Ibrahim was pressured by the government to give up a controlling stake in his company, according to two people familiar with the matter. It's unclear under what terms he was released. Al-Ibrahim will return to running the company as usual, one of the people said, and an official told Reuters that his ownership has not changed.

Al-Ibrahim is the brother-in-law of Saudi Arabia's late King Fahd and chairman of MBC, which has more than a dozen television channels including the news network Al Arabiya.

Several of those detained appear to be returning to their lives as usual. Among them is former finance minister and minister of state, Ibrahim al-Assaf, who led Saudi Arabia's delegation to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in the past week, and former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, recently photographed attending a horse race with Prince Mohammed.

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