Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed detained in corruption inquiry

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi authorities detained a billionaire global investor and the head of the National Guard as part of an anti-corruption purge that consolidates Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s hold on power.

Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who owns investment firm Kingdom Holding 4280.SE, was among 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers detained, two senior Saudi officials told Reuters on Sunday.

A top security official, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was detained and replaced as minister of the powerful National Guard by Prince Khaled bin Ayyaf. This consolidates Prince Mohammed’s bin Salman’s control of security institutions which had previously been headed by separate branches of the ruling family.

RELATED: Photos of Prince Alwaleed

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Saudi Arabia's billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal gestures during a press conference in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, on July 1, 2015. Alwaleed pledged his entire $32-billion (28.8-billion-euro) fortune to charitable projects over the coming years. The prince said in a statement that the 'philanthropic pledge will help build bridges to foster cultural understanding, develop communities, empower women, enable youth, provide vital disaster relief and create a more tolerant and accepting world.' AFP PHOTO / FAYEZ NURELDINE (Photo credit should read FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images)
Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, Saudi billionaire and founder of Kingdom Holding Co., smiles while speaking at the Bloomberg Year Ahead: 2014 conference in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. Alwaleed said President Barack Obama lacks a 'comprehensive and coherent foreign policy' toward the Arab world. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 29: Suadi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and Princess Ameerah exit Westminster Abbey after the Royal Wedding of Prince William to Catherine Middleton on April 29, 2011 in London, England. The marriage of the second in line to the British throne is to be led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and will be attended by 1900 guests, including foreign Royal family members and heads of state. Thousands of well-wishers from around the world have also flocked to London to witness the spectacle and pageantry of the Royal Wedding. (Photo by Ian Gavan/GP/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 02: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME) Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin AbdulAziz Alsaud and Princess Amira attend the re-opening of the newly restored Savoy Hotel on November 2, 2010 in London, England. (Photo by Indigo/Getty Images)
President of French Polynesia Gaston Tong Sang (L) welcomes Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal and his wife, Princess Amira al-Taweel (2ndL) on July 26, 2010 in Papeete on the French Polynesian Island, after the billionaire spent four days holiday on the Bora Bora island. AFP PHOTO GREGORY BOISSY (Photo credit should read GREGORY BOISSY/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi tycoon Prince Alwaleed bin Talal speaks during a press conference in Riyadh on February 23, 2010. Global media giant News Corp has bought a 9.09-percent stake in Rotana Group, which is controlled by bin Talal, the companies said. AFPP HOTO/STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
FRANCE - JULY 16: Nicolas Sarkozy and Prince Alwaleed bin Talal at opening of Islamic art department of the Louvre Museum In Paris, France On July 16, 2008-Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Bin Abdul aziz Al Saud, front left, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, front right, at opening of future Islamic art department inside the Louvre , during a ceremony marking the launch of the works. (Photo by Pool Interagences/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
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News of the purge came in the early hours of Sunday after King Salman decreed the creation of an anti-corruption committee chaired by his 32-year-old son Prince Mohammed, who has amassed power since rising from obscurity less than three years ago.

The new body was given broad powers to investigate cases, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions and freeze assets.

“The homeland will not exist unless corruption is uprooted and the corrupt are held accountable,” the royal decree said.

Analysts said the goal of the purge went beyond corruption and aimed to remove potential opposition to Prince Mohammed as he pushes an ambitious and controversial reform agenda.

In September he announced that a ban on women driving would be lifted and he is trying to break decades of conservative tradition by promoting public entertainment and visits by foreign tourists.

In economic policy, he has slashed state spending in some areas and plans a big sale of state assets.

“The most recent crackdown breaks with the tradition of consensus within the ruling family whose secretive inner workings are equivalent to those of the Kremlin at the time of the Soviet Union,” wrote James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

“Prince Mohammed, rather than forging alliances, is extending his iron grip to the ruling family, the military, and the National Guard to counter what appears to be more widespread opposition within the family as well as the military to his reforms and the Yemen war,” Dorsey said.

An economist at a big Gulf bank, who declined to be named because of political sensitivities, said nobody in Saudi Arabia believed corruption was at the root of the purge.

“It’s about consolidating power and frustration that reforms haven’t been happening fast enough,” the economist said.

ALARM BELLS

The round-up sets alarm bells ringing across the region and beyond. It also recalls the palace coup in June through which Mohammad bin Salman ousted his elder cousin, Mohammad bin Nayef, as heir to the throne and interior minister.

MbS, as he is known, was widely expected to follow through by, at the least, removing Prince Miteb bin Abdallah from leadership of the National Guard, a pivotal power-base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes.

Other detainees include former finance minister Ibrahim al-Assaf, a board member of national oil giant Saudi Aramco; economy minister Adel Fakieh, who once played a major role in drafting reforms; former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah and Khalid al-Tuwaijiri, who headed the Royal Court under the late King Abdullah.

Prince Alwaleed is one of Saudi Arabia’s best-known international businessmen as an investor in firms such as Citigroup (C.N) and Twitter (TWTR.N).

Bakr bin Laden, chairman of the big Saudi Binladin construction group, and Alwaleed al-Ibrahim, owner of the MBC television network, were also detained.

Some detainees were believed to be held at the opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel in the diplomatic quarter of Riyadh, sources in contact with the government told Reuters. The hotel and an adjacent facility were the site of an international conference promoting Saudi Arabia as an investment destination last month.

The detentions followed a crackdown in September on political opponents of Saudi Arabia’s rulers that saw some 30 clerics, intellectuals and activists detained.

Prince Alwaleed, a flamboyant character, has sometimes used his prominence as an investor to aim barbs at the kingdom’s rulers.

In December 2015, Prince Alwaleed called U.S. President Donald Trump, who was then a candidate, a “disgrace to all America” and demanded on his Twitter account that he withdraw from the election.

Trump responded by tweeting: “Dopey Prince @Alwaleed_Talal wants to control our U.S. politicians with daddy’s money. Can’t do it when I get elected.”

In November 2016 Prince Alwaleed put aside the clash with Trump and embraced him as the U.S. president-elect, saying he was heartened by reports that Trump had appeared to delete online references to his proposed ban on Muslims.

Reporting by Katie Paul, Reem Shamseddine, and Stephen Kalin, and Rania El Gamal and Tom Arnold in Dubai; Editing Samia Nakhoul and Matthew Mpoke Bigg

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