Saudi frees Prince Alwaleed bin Talal after undisclosed settlement

29 January 2018

Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was released on Saturday after nearly three months in detention following a "settlement" with authorities, as a sweeping anti-corruption campaign targeting the kingdom's elite winds down.

Al-Waleed bin Talal  

Prince Alwaleed, dubbed the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia, was the most high-profile detainee among 350 suspects rounded up since 4 November, including business tycoons and ministers, who were held in Riyadh's luxury Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

His release came hours after he told Reuters in an interview that he expected to be cleared of any wrongdoing and be freed within days.

It also came soon after he was quoted praising members of Saudi Arabia's royal family. "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," he said.

A senior Saudi official said Prince Alwaleed was freed after he reached a financial settlement with the attorney general.

''The attorney general has approved this morning the settlement that was reached with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, and the prince returned home at 11:00 am (08:00 GMT),'' the official said, without giving details of the terms.

The decision to free him, and the release of several other well-known tycoons on Friday, 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 said he expected to keep full control of his global investment firm Kingdom Holding Co without being required to hand assets to the state. He said he had been able to communicate with executives at his business while detained.

Prince Alwaleed, who is in his early 60s, described his confinement as a ''misunderstanding'' and said he supported reform efforts by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

''There are no charges. There are just some discussions between me and the government,'' 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.

The arrest of Alwaleed, one of the world's most prominent investors, had brought into sharp relief the power struggles, societal shifts and systemic changes taking place in Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the country's young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Alwaleed was among hundreds of people, including princes, tycoons and former cabinet members, who were detained in November as the authorities in Saudi Arabia embarked on what they said was a determined and overdue campaign to root out a deeply-entrenched system of graft in the kingdom.

The arrest of so many influential Saudis was intended to send a message that no one was immune to prosecution and to signal to foreign investors that corruption would no longer be tolerated, Saudi officials said. It was part of a more ambitious and far-reaching effort to yank the moribund kingdom into the modern era, they asserted.

But the precise nature of the accusations and even details of who exactly was arrested were shrouded in mystery. The government soon disclosed that it was hoping to reach financial settlements with the accused, rather than bring criminal charges, which fed suspicions of a government shakedown rather than an earnest attempt at reform.

The detainees were not sent to police stations or prisons but to the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh, the Saudi capital - fuelling the perception of an elite feud, rather than a law enforcement action, and one that would be settled in private rather than a courtroom.

The government has not officially disclosed how much it had received from the detainees in financial settlements. Rumours put the amount at upwards of $100 billion. Reports that the government had taken control of assets in media and construction companies as part of the settlements suggested that the Saudi leadership was looking to "concentrate power, but in fewer hands, observers said.

The attorney general said earlier this week that 90 detainees had been released after their charges were dropped, while others traded cash, real estate and other assets for their freedom. The authorities were still holding 95 people, he said. Some are expected to be put on trial.

After being released, Prince Alwaleed said, he would stay in Saudi Arabia and would return to the challenge of juggling his global business interests.

''I will not leave Saudi Arabia, for sure. This is my country.''

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