Sat, Feb 10, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Saudi Arabian corruption purge slows, but questions emerge

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has created a culture of fear to keep the royal family under check, but, as tensions still simmer, has failed to make himself accountable

By Aya Batrawy  /  AP, DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Illustration: Tania Chou

Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal headed outdoors to Saudi Arabia’s terracotta-colored sand dunes over the weekend, after being interrogated, investigated and detained for nearly three months in the kingdom’s extraordinary anti-corruption campaign.

The wealthy Saudi Arabian investor and royal shared photos of himself riding horses with his grandchildren and relaxing on Persian-style rugs, two hawks perched obediently before him on wooden stilts. More than a dozen men, some there to greet him and others to serve him, are seen seated or standing around the prince as he looks out onto the desert.

The photos on Twitter portray the image of a man who still reigns supreme over his own fiefdom, a man who can still hold a majlis — a reception in which people line up to request favors and assistance.

However, the prince’s more than 80-day detention exposes a new hierarchy in the kingdom and brings into sharp focus just how little power even the wealthiest royals wield in the face of Saudi Arabia’s young potentate-in-waiting.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son and heir, oversaw the unprecedented shakedown of at least 11 princes and dozens of business moguls and officials, who together symbolized the elite structure encircling the ruling Al Saud family and its vast patronage networks, but now there are questions whether the prince succeeded in his effort to centralize power and eradicate corruption.

The purge is now winding down, or at least moving to a new phase. More than 300 of those detained in the sweep have been released, although 56 others are still in custody and could face prosecution. The luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh, where most detainees were held, is scheduled to reopen to the public on Feb. 14.

Among those detained was Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, once seen as a contender for the throne. The night of his arrest, he was ousted as head of the powerful National Guard, a position once held by his father, the late King Abdullah. His arrest raised concerns that the purge was politically motivated.

At the Ritz-Carlton, where Prince Alwaleed, Prince Miteb and many others were held, interrogators dressed in civilian clothes and supervised by some Cabinet ministers questioned the detainees about their financial dealings. Guards were positioned outside the rooms, where detainees had access to room service and satellite TV.

The government said the campaign, which began in November, netted an astounding US$106 billion in financial settlements in closed-door exchanges with detainees eager to avoid further detention, embarrassment and trials. The settlements include a combination of cash, real estate, commercial assets and stocks, although no detailed breakdown has been given.

As one of the world’s largest oil producers, Saudi Arabia’s purge echoed that of another major oil producer: Russia. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin’s own purported anti-corruption purge years earlier, the Saudi Arabian crown prince’s crackdown was seen as highly selective, targeting figures who might have criticized him or been reluctant to support his ascension to power.

The crown prince had earlier detained dozens of people who allegedly had not enthusiastically supported his moves or who had criticized his hawkish policies on Yemen and Qatar. The government has not officially revealed the names of the approximately 380 people questioned in the anti-corruption probe, although dozens of high-profile names were leaked to state-linked media. The government has also not detailed the allegations that the detainees faced, or how they were being prosecuted, leading to concerns about transparency and due process.

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