Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, one of the kingdom’s leading international business personalities, has been released from detention, more than two months after he was taken into custody in what the Saudi authorities described as a sweeping crackdown on corruption.
His release came hours after he told Reuters in an interview at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing and be freed within days. The Prince’s arrest sent shockwaves through the international business community and, many analysts would argue, brought about a widespread loss of faith in the kingdom’s business practices. As one international speculator told The Middle East Online: “There are ways and ways of doing business and none of them include arbitrarily incarcerating business legends such as Prince Alwaleed. He is probably the world’s best known Saudi Arabian, not only for his business acumen but also for all the charitable works he does across the globe.
“It’s true that there needs to be all kinds of reform in business practise in Saudi Arabia and, while one must applaud the Crown Prince for his commitment to ensuring they are brought about, anyone who knows Alwaleed would say his ideas are more similar to those of the Crown Prince, than they are different. He has long been a great advocate for transparency and reform, not only in business but across the board,” the analyst concluded.
The decision to free him, and the release of several other well-known tycoons, suggested the main part of the corruption probe was winding down after it sent shockwaves through Saudi Arabia’s business and political establishment.
In his first interview since being detained, conducted hours before his release, Prince Alwaleed told Reuters he maintained his innocence of any corruption in talks with the authorities. He added that he expected to keep full control of his global investment firm Kingdom Holding Co without being required to hand assets to the state. He confirmed that he had been able to communicate with executives at his business while detained.
Prince Alwaleed, who is 63, described his confinement as a “misunderstanding” and said he supported reform efforts by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “There are no charges,” the Prince noted. ” There are just some discussions between me and the government. 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. But rest assured we are at the end of the whole story. And I’m very comfortable because I’m in my country, I’m in my city, so I feel at home. It’s no problem at all. Everything’s fine,” he said.
Prince Alwaleed had been confined at the Ritz-Carlton since early November, along with dozens of other senior officials and businessmen, part of the Crown Prince’s plan to reform oil superpower Saudi Arabia and consolidate his position in the country’s hierarchy.
By releasing Prince Alwaleed the government appears to be signalling that it wants to move to a new phase.
The attorney general said that 90 detainees had been released after their were charges dropped, while others traded cash, real estate and other assets for their freedom. The authorities were still holding 95 people, he noted. Some are expected to be put on trial.
An official Saudi source said on Friday that several prominent businessmen had reached financial settlements with the authorities, including Waleed al-Ibrahim, owner of regional television network MBC, who was released. Terms of his settlement were not revealed.
Saudi authorities have said they expect to raise some $100bn for the government through such settlements – a huge windfall for the state, which has seen its finances squeezed by low oil prices. Some private analysts think that target will be hard to hit, given how many suspects have seen charges dropped.
After being released, Prince Alwaleed confirmed his intention to stay in Saudi Arabia and to return to the challenge of juggling his global business interests. “I will not leave Saudi Arabia, for sure. This is my country.”
Footnote: With the announcement of Prince Alwaleed’s release, shares in his company Kingdom Holding immediately began to increase.
This edited article acknowledges input from Reuters and Gulf Business