Scores more Saudis detained in $100bn corruption sweep

2017-11-10 07:05
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses while meeting with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Jiddah. (Presidency Press Service, Pool Photo via AP, File)

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman poses while meeting with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Jiddah. (Presidency Press Service, Pool Photo via AP, File)

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Riyadh - Dozens more people have been taken into custody by Saudi authorities, the kingdom said on Thursday, bringing to 201 the number detained in a sweep that investigators say has uncovered at least $100bn in corruption.

Saudi critics and experts have called the unprecedented purge of top princes and businessmen a bold and risky move by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman aimed at consolidating power as he keeps an eye on the throne, side-lining potential rivals and dismantling alliances built with other branches of the royal family.

The sweep comes at a time of increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and its main regional rival, Iran, over the ongoing conflict and suffering in Yemen and a newly erupting political crisis in Lebanon.

READ: Saudi Arabia seeks to reassure investors after royal purge

Saudi Attorney General Saud al-Mojeb said 208 people had been called in for questioning, and that seven were released without charge, leaving 201 in custody.

The new figure is far larger than what was previously reported by the government, reflecting a continuing series of arrests throughout the week.

Throne contender

The stunning purge began overnight on November 4, initially catching 11 princes and 38 officials, military officers and business leaders. They are being held at five-star hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.

The 32-year-old crown prince, who is the son of King Salman and is popularly known by his initials MBS, is leading the investigation as head of a newly formed anti-corruption committee.

Among those detained are billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and two sons of the late King Abdullah, including Prince Miteb, who until Saturday had headed the powerful National Guard.

Several years ago, he was considered a contender for the throne and was believed to have opposed MBS becoming crown prince.

The government declined to identify many of the other individuals being questioned, saying it is respecting their privacy during this phase of the investigation.

An estimated 1 700 individual bank accounts have been frozen.

"The potential scale of corrupt practices which have been uncovered is very large," al-Mojeb said, adding that based on investigations in the past three years, at least $100bn has been misused through corruption and embezzlement.

Al-Mojeb confirmed that action was taken to suspend personal bank accounts, but he did not disclose any figures.

Austerity measures

The government stressed that only personal accounts have been frozen, leaving businesses untouched.

Saudis have complained for years of rampant corruption and misuse of public funds by top officials in a system where nepotism is also widespread.

In recent years, Saudi families have also had to contend with austerity measures that have driven up costs while simultaneously being told they can no longer count on cushy government jobs.

Meanwhile, members of the sprawling royal family and their business associates had long been seen as operating above the law. Members of the royal family receive undisclosed monthly stipends from state coffers built up over years of high oil prices.

After oil prices fell three years ago without fully recovering, Saudi Arabia introduced new taxes and lifted some subsidies in order to boost revenue and cut government spending.

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