Saudi authorities’ anti-corruption drive appears to be closing as individuals, including a former government minister and members of the royal family, detained in the sweep have appeared in public.
Former Saudi Finance Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, who had been detained during the anti-corruption investigation, attended the kingdom’s cabinet meeting January 2 in his capacity as minister of state and adviser to the king.
Assaf, who is also on the Saudi Aramco board, was detained because of embezzlement allegations related to the expansion of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, unidentified sources told the Wall Street Journal. Since Assaf’s release, Saudi media outlets reported that, after questioning, the former finance minister was determined to be not guilty.
Before the cabinet meeting, Saudi online news site Sabaq reported that Assaf would return to work after investigators reviewed complaints against him and found him innocent of all charges. An editorial in Saudi daily Okaz stated: “The cabinet session is proof that the pockets of the minister with a white moustache have also proved to be white as well.”
Also seen in public was the former commander of the Saudi National Guard and son of the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who attended a horse racing event with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.
Numerous media outlets published pictures of the two princes. However, no details were reported regarding Prince Mutaib’s involvement in the investigation or his release.
Saudi authorities last November began a kingdom-wide anti-corruption campaign, holding both average citizens and royalty accountable. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a royal decree forming an anti-corruption task force with the jurisdiction to “investigate, issue arrest warrants, travel bans and freeze accounts and portfolios,” a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency said.
More than 200 individuals, including members of the royal family, former ministers and high-profile businessmen, were arrested in the culmination of a 3-year investigation.
Saudi authorities leading the investigation negotiated settlements with some detainees and said that those held on corruption charges would be required to return misappropriated funds. Some suspects would have to turn over as much as 70% of their wealth, the London Financial Times reported.
Most of those arrested agreed to settle to avoid further prosecution. The settlements totalled an estimated $50 billion-$100 billion, which was to be channelled into economic development projects.
“The committee has followed internationally applied procedures by negotiating with the detainees and offering them a settlement that will facilitate recouping the state’s funds and assets and eliminate the need for a prolonged litigation,” the public prosecutor said in a statement.
Many high-profile detainees, including the Saudi billionaire businessman and philanthropist Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and the former Minister of Economy and Planning Adel Fakeih, one of the 10 richest politicians in Saudi Arabia. are still being held at the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh.
“The holding to ransom of Prince Alwaleed, Adel Fakeih and others on trumped up charges of corruption and/or embezzlement projects the kind of image of Saudi Arabia that it does not want the world to see,” an expert analyst told The Middle East Online today. “It may have exhorted millions of dollars to help fund it’s faltering economy but by doing so in this way it has trashed its reputation in the international arena and done lasting damage”, the analyst added. “If you were one of the large multi-national corporations the kingdom says it seeks to attract to do business in Saudi Arabia, would you be happy to invest capital and expertise in a country that believes it is acceptable to behave in such a way? The government has pulled a stunt that is the 21st century equivalent of throwing people into the dungeons. The Riyadh Ritz Carlton may be a luxury hotel but, make no mistake, it is still a prison to those who are being held there against their will. This arrogant manoeuvre will backfire against those in power in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons,” the analyst concluded.