Saudi Arabia Releases Most Detainees in Corruption Probe After Settlements Totaling Nearly $107 Billion

(The Washington Post) -

Saudi Arabia announced Tuesday that it has released most of the businessmen, officials and princes who were being held in a luxury hotel in Riyadh in connection with a broad crackdown on corruption after reaching financial settlements with them totaling nearly $107 billion.

In a statement, Saudi Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb said 56 individuals remain in custody in the crackdown that began November 4 and netted a total of 381 people. In those cases, the statement said, “the Attorney General has refused to settle with them due to other pending criminal cases, in order to continue the investigations process, and in accordance with the relevant laws and regulations.”

The anti-corruption drive was spearheaded by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, and led to the arrest of at least 11 other princes, including billionaire tycoon Alwaleed bin Talal, a cousin 30 years his senior. Critics charged that the crown prince was using the campaign to consolidate power by punishing potential rivals and wresting control over key businesses.

Alwaleed was among the detainees who were released over the weekend after agreeing to unspecified financial settlements. The prince, chairman of global investor Kingdom Holding, was held for more than two months with other prominent officials and businessmen at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

The fate of the 56 who remain in custody was not immediately clear. There are no more detainees at the Ritz-Carlton, Reuters news agency reported, adding that some of those arrested are believed to have been moved to prison cells after refusing to admit wrongdoing and agree to financial settlements.

Hours before he was released Saturday, Alwaleed told Reuters in his opulent hotel suite that he was treated well in custody and that his case resulted from a misunderstanding. He praised the royal family and showed off the suite’s gold-accented office, dining room and fully stocked kitchen, the news agency reported.

“I can only say I’m supporting the king and crown prince in all the efforts they’re doing to really have a new Saudi Arabia,” he told Reuters.

Alwaleed ranked as one of the world’s most prominent investors, with holdings in companies including Apple, Twitter, Lyft and Citigroup.

In his statement, Mojeb, the attorney general, said authorities have finished reviewing the cases of those accused of corruption and that negotiations and settlements have been concluded. Accordingly, he said, the Public Prosecution Office decided to release those against whom there was insufficient evidence and those who reached settlements after they “admitted to the corruption allegations against them.” The statement did not say how many people were in each category.

It said the settlements were estimated to total more than 400 billion Saudi riyals ($106.6 billion) and consisted of “various types of assets,” including real estate, commercial entities, securities and cash. No other details were immediately provided.

The arrests of prominent Saudis, including princes, tycoons and former cabinet members, reflected the power struggles, societal shifts and systemic changes taking place in the kingdom under the leadership of Mohammed, the young crown prince. The campaign was billed as part of a modernization effort aimed at rooting out deeply entrenched graft, sending a message that no one was immune from prosecution and assuring foreign investors that corruption would no longer be tolerated.

But mystery shrouded the precise nature of the accusations and even the identities of many of the detainees. And the government’s move to reach financial settlements rather than bring criminal charges fed suspicions that the campaign amounted to more of a shakedown than an attempt to reform Saudi society.

The crown prince’s defenders argue that far-reaching changes are needed to ensure that the kingdom remains a viable state in the face of overwhelming reliance on declining oil revenues, a bloated bureaucracy that employs the vast majority of working Saudis and a vast network of royal relatives and sycophants who misbehave with impunity and undermine the economy.