Plea for Money Preceded Saudi Crackdown on Elites

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A sweeping, self-styled anticorruption campaign that has upended Saudi Arabian politics and business started with a request from the country’s king and new crown prince to prominent citizens: Make patriotic contributions to help shore up government finances.

When the plea for cash was largely rebuffed, according to people familiar with the matter, the prince,

Mohammed bin Salman,

decided on sterner steps. Members of the country’s elite were lured to the Ritz-Carlton luxury hotel, arrested, accused of bribery and other crimes and pressed to make what the government has termed settlement payments.

Billionaire Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, one of the world’s richest men and a large investor in


and other Western companies, was among a handful of businessmen freed over the weekend after agreeing to make payments and, in some cases, hand over corporate holdings, a senior Saudi official said on Sunday.

Efforts to reach Prince al-Waleed were unsuccessful. People close to him have said he maintains his innocence. In a video interview with Reuters aired Saturday, the prince said his business was a “clean operation” and that he would retain control of his company, Kingdom Holding Co.

Others released on Saturday and Sunday, the senior Saudi official said, include construction magnate

Bakr bin Laden,

whose company has been effectively nationalized, and media investor Waleed al-Ibrahim, who founded Mideast television network MBC. Neither could be reached for comment.

The Saudi official said those let go after months of confinement had signed documents admitting wrongdoing. He declined to discuss details of the settlement deals.

Saudi officials had earlier demanded that Prince al-Waleed pay more than $6 billion, The Wall Street Journal has reported. It was unclear what deal was eventually reached. Another royal family member,

Prince Miteb bin Abdullah,

settled for $1 billion in November, the Journal has reported.

Last week, Saudi Finance Minister

Mohammed Al-Jadaan

said authorities had received a total of roughly $100 billion in payments from around 350 people accused in the crackdown.

On Sunday, the senior Saudi official said about 40 remaining holdouts could go on trial. Some have been moved from the luxury Ritz hotel where detainees were initially held, to the maximum-security al-Hayer prison south of the Saudi capital, Riyadh.

These latest developments mark a new phase in Crown Prince Mohammed’s efforts to reorder the kingdom’s elite as part of a broader move to remake Saudi Arabia’s oil-reliant economy and ease religious restrictions that have long defined the country’s conservative society.

Saudi government officials have described the recent crackdown as a campaign against corruption and vowed that the proceeds would help ordinary Saudis. Human-rights groups have called the moves a power grab by the crown prince, who was named heir to the throne in June.

Prince Mohammed “has broken the resistance from the business elite and the royal family,” said Bill Law, an analyst at Gulf Matters, a London consultancy focused on the Middle East. “He stands unimpeded. He is unassailable.”

The crown prince and his father

King Salman

held intense meetings with rich Saudis in the runup to the crackdown last autumn and demanded financial help to support their economic and social revamp, according to a Europe-based financial adviser. Some of the adviser’s clients were present.

“What can you do for your country?” the prince asked the men, according to the adviser. The octogenarian king has turned over the day-to-day affairs of the country to his son.

Saudi officials didn’t answer questions about the meetings.

At the time, the government was preparing a record-high proposed budget of $260 billion that would impose new taxes on regular Saudis.

Late on the night of Nov. 4, dozens of Saudi princes, government officials and businesspeople were summoned for what they were told was an urgent meeting with Prince Mohammed at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton.

Instead of a meeting with the prince, however, the elite Saudis found themselves in a makeshift prison. It was soon clear: They had “to cooperate to get out and pledge allegiance” to the crown prince, said a person close to detainees.

Those being held weren’t allowed to close the doors of their suites so they could be monitored, people familiar with the matter said. Their phone calls were restricted to routine business dealings, the people said, and they weren’t allowed to discuss their detention.

Caught off guard, Prince al-Waleed ordered his staff to find some freshly laundered clothes to wear during detention, said a person familiar with his situation.

In Prince al-Waleed’s video interview, he gave a tour of his expansive suite, which included a kitchenette, a large dining room, an office, a bedroom and bathroom. Wearing a traditional white robe, he held up a can of Diet Pepsi and drank from it.

“It’s no problem at all,” he said.

He said he was allowed to exercise, given access to food compatible with his vegan diet and allowed to make calls to his company, Kingdom Holding, a Saudi-based conglomerate.

After news of his release, the company’s share price closed up 10% on Sunday in Riyadh trading. It had fallen 21% after his November arrest, though it recovered from some of those losses in recent weeks.

Other detained businessmen have had to give up substantial stakes in their businesses.

Mr. bin Laden, chairman of construction company Saudi Binladin Group, was released after agreeing to surrender his stake in the company to the government, according to the senior Saudi official.

Saudi Binladin Group said it will remain a private-sector company, though it has said some shareholders had possibly agreed to transfer some of the company’s shares to the Saudi government.

The agreement marks the end of Mr. bin Laden’s decades-old role at the helm of the construction group tasked with handling many of the kingdom’s most prestigious and complex projects.

The company helped revamp mosques and build vast new infrastructure in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and over time built an unrivalled position as the Saud family’s preferred contractor, with a reputation for navigating the Saudi bureaucracy and completing projects ahead of schedule.

Foreign investors have registered complaints about how Prince al-Waleed and others had been treated. Saudi officials say foreign investments flows in the Kingdom have rebounded after dipping immediately after the arrests in early November.

“Investors have realized [the anti-corruption crackdown] is good for the economy, it is creating a level-playing field,” said Mohammed Al-Jadaan, the Saudi finance minister, speaking at the World Economic Forum meetings last week.

The impact on domestic businesses could be more dramatic, said Ellen Wald, non-resident scholar at the Washington, D.C.-based Arabia Foundation. “People won’t be rushing to invest more, to build up companies and infrastructure, if they are concerned they might be arrested tomorrow,” she said.

Among ordinary Saudis, Prince Mohammed’s crackdown has been popular, especially as citizens face new taxes and higher fuel prices.

At the World Economic Forum, Saudi Princess Reema bint Bandar summed up Saudi leaders’ frustration with how the changes unfolding in her country are viewed elsewhere.

“You ask us to change but when we begin to exhibit change you come to us with cynicism,” she said.

Write to Summer Said at, Benoit Faucon at and Georgi Kantchev at

Appeared in the January 29, 2018, print edition as ‘Money Plea Preceded Saudi Crackdown.’

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