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Saudi purge sees 159 business leaders held in Riyadh hotel

Saudi officials have disclosed that 159 business leaders, including members of the royal family, have been detained at a five-star hotel in Riyadh during a corruption purge, with most having agreed to surrender assets in return for their freedom.

The number, which is close to double that of initial estimates, was revealed a month after the announcement of a purge that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said was aimed at overturning decades of unchecked corruption in Saudi Arabia and placing the country on an investor-friendly footing.

The attorney general, Saud al-Mujib, said on Tuesday that 320 people had been subpoenaed and the bank accounts of 376 people had been frozen. Those who have agreed to terms with prosecutors – by signing over assets alleged to have been the product of corrupt practices – have been gradually freed.

Among those released were Miteb bin Abdullah al-Saud, the first cousin of Prince Mohammed and the former head of the National Guard, who walked free last week from the Ritz Carlton hotel where the detainees have been held.

The hotel has been the most elite and high profile prison in the world throughout the saga, which left the kingdom abuzz with rumours over who was inside and what they were alleged to have siphoned away from public funds.

Saudi officials are believed to be aiming to recoup up to $100bn that has been looted from the public purse over decades. The money is intended to be transferred to public accounts that have been stretched by lower oil prices and increased public expenditure – partly caused by the ongoing war in Yemen.

High-level corruption has been rampant in the kingdom and has taken several forms. In some cases public works projects have been commissioned and paid for, but not delivered, with nearly the whole contract being diverted to powerful figures. In other cases, business leaders, including royals, have taken large cuts of contracts, both public and private sector, or charged much more than the cost of a project and pocketed the difference.

The saga marks a direct challenge by the 32-year-old prince to an establishment that has been accused over generations of being an unaccountable patronage network that has profited at the expense of citizens.

Prince Mohammed has insisted that the purge is also aimed at convincing global business leaders that investing in Saudi Arabia need not mean paying a cut to royals, or losing transparency. “He wants them to understand that things are now on a proper commercial footing,” said a senior Saudi official. “That they can have faith in a process.”

The prince has been accused of using the purge to consolidate his power base, which six months onto his role as heir to the throne has already seen him entrenched as the kingdom’s most powerful ever prince, with carte blanche from his ageing father to overhaul most aspects of Saudi society, including cultural and economic issues and governance. Prince Miteb had been seen in some quarters as one of few remaining rivals to the throne.

While the corruption purge has been welcomed in many aspects of society, the prince has been accused of setting standards for other members of the royal family that he may not expect immediate relatives to uphold.

“The Dubai model is the template here,” said the senior official. “The absolute monarchy is not going away, but people don’t want it to. Things will be very different in Saudi Arabia for nearly everyone on the country. They won’t change much at the top.”

Additional reporting: Nadia al-Faour

Posted by: TimesofSaudia.com Courtesy Google News

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