Saudi Arabia winds down 15-month long anti-corruption campaign
Sources say crackdown involved torture followed by coercion to hand over funds
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman: the kingdom has announced that 87 individuals detained in what critics have described as a power grab have been released after signing confessions and agreeing to settlements. File photograph: AFP/Getty
Saudi Arabia said on Thursday that it had concluded a crackdown on high-level corruption that began 15 months ago with the detention of hundreds of prominent businessmen and former officials at the Ritz-Carlton in the capital.
The purge helped confirm the unrivalled authority of Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom, and critics have described it as a power grab.
Saudi Arabia has disclosed little about the proceedings, and associates of several people caught up in the crackdown have said the detentions were arbitrary, lacking in any judicial process and frequently targeted opponents of the prince.
Associates of many of those detained have also said they were subjected to torture and physical abuse, then coerced into turning over large sums of money or other assets in exchange for their release. Supporters of the crown prince defend the crackdown as a necessary push to shock the Saudi elite out of longstanding habits of graft and self-dealing. The kingdom has denied any physical abuse.
Announcing the conclusion of the process may be part of an effort to repair the image of the crown prince, whose reputation in the West suffered severely after Saudi agents killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul. US intelligence agencies and many other western government officials have concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist.
The statement said that the crackdown had ‘retrieved to state treasury’ a sum equal to $106 billion
This week, Saudi Arabia hosted a conference in the capital, Riyadh, seeking to solicit hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment in its mining, manufacturing and logistics industries. Officials of several western countries, including the United States, withdrew from a larger Saudi investment conference in the weeks after the Khashoggi killing.
Saudi Arabia has never officially disclosed the names of those accused in its corruption crackdown, the allegations or evidence against them, or any assets recovered in the process. But in recent weeks, the kingdom quietly released several prominent detainees.
Among those reportedly released were Mohammed al-Amoudi, a businessman who owns much of Ethiopia; Bakr Bin Laden, chief executive of the Saudi construction company Binladen Group; and Amr Dabbagh, a former government minister who once led the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority, which aims to attract foreign investment.
Those still detained include Prince Turki bin Abdullah, the former governor of Riyadh; and Walid Fitaihi, a prominent physician, businessman and motivational speaker. Fitaihi, who has not been charged with any crime, is also a US citizen. The US state department has declined to comment on his case.
The crackdown was carried out by an “anti-corruption committee” created for the purpose and led by the crown prince. Saudi Arabia announced last summer that the committee had “summoned” 381 people, some only as witnesses. In a statement on Thursday, the kingdom said that 87 of those detained had been released after signing confessions and agreeing to settlements.
The government previously said that it had refused settlements with 56 people “due to existing criminal charges against them”. It added on Thursday that eight others had “refused to settle despite the existence of evidence against them”. That brought to 64 the number of people referred to the public prosecutor. It is not clear where they are being held.
The statement on Thursday said that the crackdown had “retrieved to state treasury” a sum equal to $106 billion (€92.5 billion) in “real estate, companies, cash and other assets”. The figure is consistent with previous estimates by Saudi officials. But investors familiar with the kingdom cautioned that the true market value in foreign currencies of Saudi property or companies may be hard to determine because of the opaque nature of the local market and restrictions on international sales.
“The committee has completed its objective,” the statement said, adding that King Salman had approved Prince Mohammed’s request “to conclude its tasks”. – New York Times