World News

Billionaire Saudi Prince Is Freed From Detention

Posted January 27, 2018 4:38 p.m. EST

BEIRUT — For more than 80 days, he was locked up, incommunicado, held somewhere in the capital of the kingdom named after his family, his absence spreading alarm among his relatives and business partners.

Then on Saturday, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s most famous investor and one of the world’s richest men, reappeared, giving a videotaped tour of the luxury suite in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh that he said had been his home for the past few months.

Thinner and sporting a scruffy salt-and-pepper beard, he pointed out his tennis shoes, his dining room and his salads; he hoisted a Diet Pepsi for inspection before taking a sip.

“I’m very comfortable because I’m in my country, I’m in my city, so I feel at home,” he said in an interview with Reuters. “It’s no problem at all. Everything’s fine.”

A few hours later, Prince Alwaleed was released and returned to his mansion in Riyadh, according to two associates of the prince’s family, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the release had not been officially announced.

But his freedom, it is widely presumed, was purchased by handing over a large chunk of his immense fortune to the government.

The release of Prince Alwaleed appeared to signal the winding down of an opaque, 2 1/2-month operation that Saudi officials said was meant to stamp out the kingdom’s endemic corruption. In addition to Prince Alwaleed, at least 10 other princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers were taken into custody in November.

Two and a half months later, many of the high-profile detainees have been released, apparently after either being cleared or agreeing to hand over significant assets to the government. They included Waleed al-Ibrahim, the main owner of MBC, a satellite broadcaster; Khalid al-Tuwaijri, the former head of the royal court; and Fawaz Alhokair, who owns a large fashion retail company.

While it remains to be seen whether the effort to root out Saudi Arabia’s endemic graft will succeed, many Saudis suspect another primary goal of the leader who orchestrated the arrests, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was to radically reshuffle the main players in the Saudi economy, with the apparent aim of casting himself in the lead role.

“In the short run, it has worked, by generating some assets and consolidating his power, and it has been popular in a way that could offset some of the anger over austerity measures,” said Steffen Hertog, a professor at the London School of Economics, describing Mohammed’s gambit. “But in the mid to long term, I think confidence in the private sector has taken a hit, and this could be difficult to rebuild.”

The entire process, from the initial arrests through the detentions, has been shrouded in such secrecy that it remains unclear exactly who was taken into custody, what they were accused of and what sort of deals they had to strike to get out.

But interviews with more than a dozen people, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid provoking the prince, have pulled back the curtain on some details of the arrests and the detainees’ time in their five-star jail.

It started with a storm of phone calls from the Royal Court.

In early November, princes, businessmen and government ministers were invited to dinner with King Salman or to meetings with Mohammed. Others were handcuffed in their homes and dragged off like criminals. All were detained, and most landed in what became the world’s most luxurious jail.

The Riyadh Ritz-Carlton stands behind high walls and ornate gates, across a freeway from the diplomatic district. The hotel has long welcomed distinguished guests, and when President Donald Trump and his family stayed there in May, American and Saudi flags were projected on its facade.

The hotel’s new guests — or inmates — received a cooler welcome.

Each got his own room, but had to leave the door open, with guards posted outside. The detainees could order room service and watch TV, but they had no phones or internet, to prevent appeals for help. The rooms were still lavish, but their curtain cords and glass shower doors had been removed to prevent suicide attempts. They were not allowed to summon lawyers, who might have been able to help, and many succumbed to being stripped of their substantial assets.

Many of the detainees were overweight or had health problems, and some were in their 70s, so a doctor noted their medical needs. Since none had packed for an extended stay, a tailor came, took their measurements and soon brought them new outfits.

Eventually, Royal Court officials confronted the detainees with files on assets they said had been stolen from the state and pressed the detainees to transfer them to the government.

Mohammed, 32, who is spearheading efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy and loosen its strict social conventions, has said that he believes the campaign could recover more than $100 billion in ill-gotten gains.

But his critics say that wrapped up in the anti-corruption efforts are tactics aimed at increasing the young prince’s control of the economy while curbing his rivals’ power and prominence. The arrest of Prince Alwaleed — who, like Mohammed, is a grandson of the kingdom’s founder — sent shock waves through the international business community, which had seen him as one of the more open faces of the normally private kingdom. He has been referred to as the Warren Buffett of the Middle East.

Citing privacy rules, the Saudi government never said publicly why it had detained Prince Alwaleed, but some speculated that he had taken a royal loan after his investments sank in the 2008 financial crisis and that he had never fully repaid it. Others who met Prince Alwaleed said he had privately criticized Mohammed’s reform program as misguided, angering the young leader.

In the interview with Reuters early Saturday, Prince Alwaleed drank from a mug with his own face on it and said that his detention had been a “misunderstanding.”

“Rest assured this is a clean operation that we have and we’re just in discussion with the government on various matters that I cannot divulge right now,” the prince said, according to a transcript of the interview. “But rest assured, we are at the end of the whole story.”

It was unclear whether the prince was able to speak freely. But a few hours later, he was released from the Ritz and returned to his home.