Saudi anti-corruption purge winds down, but questions emerge

FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2017 file photo released by the state-run Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks at a meeting of the Islamic Military Counterterrorism Alliance in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom’s unprecedented anti-corruption campaign has exposed a new hierarchy and brought into sharp focus just how little power even the wealthiest royals wield in the face of the country’s young potentate-in-waiting. (Saudi Press Agency via AP, File)

Saudi Arabia's unprecedented anti-corruption campaign shows diminishing power of wealthy royals in face of crown prince

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — 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 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 there to serve him, are seen seated or standing around the prince as he looks out onto the desert.

The photos on Twitter project 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.

But 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, though 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 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 says the campaign, which began in November, netted an astounding $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, though 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 Vladimir Putin's own purported anti-corruption purge years earlier, the Saudi crown prince's crackdown was seen as highly selective, targeting figures who may 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 roughly 380 people questioned in the anti-corruption probe, though dozens of high-profile names were leaked to state-linked media. The government has also not detailed the allegations the detainees faced or how they were being prosecuted, leading to concerns about transparency and due process.

"The entire process was shrouded in secrecy from the onset," said Marwa Fatafta, a Middle East adviser to Transparency International. "Asking detainees for assets in exchange for their release sounds like extortion, which is corruption."

On Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index, Saudi Arabia scored a 46 last year, or what is considered a "failing grade."

Critics and observers say that underlying Prince Mohammed's purge was a political effort to pressure leading businessmen and princes who did not actively support his so-called Vision 2030 plan, a blueprint for how to restructure the country and wean it from its dependence on oil revenue.

Supporters of the crown prince argue the anti-corruption campaign succeeded because it kept intact the privacy of people's settlements and the allegations they faced.

Many detainees remain very wealthy and have expressed their loyalty to the king and crown prince "because they understand the power dynamics of the country," said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington D.C.-based think tank that has links with the Saudi government.

He said the government sent a clear message to anyone indulging in high-level corruption that the old ways of doing business will no longer be tolerated.

"It was clearly a success. The objective was behavioral change," he said. "Now, will some people be bitter? You never know. ... That's always a risk."

Just hours before his release, Prince Alwaleed voiced his support for the crown prince in an interview with Reuters from the hotel suite where he was held.

"My allegiance is not on the table ... for the king, crown prince, Saudi Arabia, it's non-negotiable," he said, before later adding: "I can only say I'm supporting the king and crown prince in all the efforts they're doing to really have a new Saudi Arabia."

Ryan Bohl, a Middle East analyst for U.S. private intelligence firm Stratfor, says because the Saudi public appears to be supportive of efforts to weed out corruption, it is difficult for elites who may be looking to organize against the crown prince to find many supporters.

"Young people are with the crown prince. Not only is he young himself, but he's making decisions that so far have been very popular or seen as long overdue," Bohl said.

Last month, 11 princes were detained for allegedly trying to storm one of the royal palaces to complain about the removal of some royal perks as the crown prince works to overhaul the economy in the face of lower oil prices.

They were immediately sent to a high-security prison on the outskirts of Riyadh, pending trial, according to state-linked media reports. Another prince, who released an audio recording calling the government's reasons for their arrest "false" and "illogical," was promptly sacked from his position as head of one of the kingdom's sports federations.

The incident revealed some of the simmering tensions within the royal family, less than a year after the crown prince sidelined an older, more experienced cousin to become heir.

Fatafta, of Transparency International, says the crown prince "managed to create a culture of fear" without ensuring sustainable change through measures like a more transparent state budget and independence for the judiciary.

"If you want to have true accountability, then everybody, including the crown prince and the king, should be accountable," she said. "In this case, how do you make sure that the crown prince is not abusing his power while he is trying to keep the royal family under check?"

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Follow Aya Batrawy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ayaelb

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