Saudi graft settlements may top RM393.7b as Ritz empties


RIYADH • Saudi Arabia is winding down an unprecedented and controversial anticorruption drive that led to dozens of princes and billionaires being detained at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh.

Talks with suspects are expected to end by the end of the month and authorities will likely recover more than US$100 billion (RM393.65 billion) in settlements, a senior official said, asking not to be identified because the details are private. Those who don’t reach deals will be referred to prosecutors, the official said.

Authorities have already agreed to drop charges against about 90 suspects who were released, AG Sheikh Saud Al-Mojeb said in a separate interview at the Ritz-Carlton late on Sunday. About 95 people were still at the hotel, including five weighing settlement proposals, with the others reviewing evidence presented against them, he said.

“The royal order was clear,” Al-Mojeb said, as Arabic music streamed through loudspeakers in the hotel lobby. “Those who express remorse and agree to settle will have any criminal proceedings against them dropped.”

Saudi Arabia launched an anti-corruption drive in November, rounding up hundreds of suspects including some of the country’s richest individuals and government ministers. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed Talal was among those detained at the 492-room Ritz-Carlton, as was former Finance Minister Ibrahim Al-Assaf and Adel Al-Fakeih, who was removed as minister of economy and planning on the eve of the arrests.

The purge, led by Crown Prince Mohammed Salman, reverberated across board rooms, financial markets and world capitals as bankers, analysts and diplomats sought to assess its impact on the biggest Arab economy. Stocks in companies owned by detainees slumped.

Though Saudi Arabia is trying to become more open, the probe was conducted in a “pretty nontransparent way,” Moritz Kraemer, global chief rating officer at S&P Global Ratings, said in a Bloomberg TV interview yesterday. The probe “could be a step in the right direction but it could also be a step towards more arbitrary ruling”, he said.

Al-Mojeb, who declined to discuss individual cases, defended the process against criticism over a lack of transparency in the process for determining payments to secure freedom.

“We are in a new era,” he said. “Corruption will be eradicated. The campaign against corruption won’t stop.”

The settlement payments being processed were a combination of cash, real estate, stocks and other asset classes, the senior official said. Only a handful of those still detained at the hotel will likely reach an agreement with the authorities, the official said.

About 350 people have been summoned for questioning since King Salman ordered the anti-graft probe on Nov 4. Many came as witnesses or to provide information, with some spending only a few hours or less at the Ritz, the official said.

Staff said current detainees had access to hotel facilities including a spa, gym and a bowling alley, and the restaurant could accommodate any special dietary requirements.

Bloomberg was unable to meet with detainees or independently verify the AG’s remarks. But two people who have spoken to some of the detainees said they were not given access to lawyers or allowed out of their rooms except for questioning.

Al-Mojeb denied the suspects’ rights were violated. All had access to legal council and some did retain lawyers, though many chose to settle voluntarily without outside representation, he said. Those released faced no restrictions on their movement, he said. — Bloomberg