Two days after the most stunning purge in recent Saudi history, the so-called “anti-corruption probe” – which was really a counter-coup – that led to the arrest of dozens of Saudi Arabian royals, ministers and businessmen allowing Mohammed to further cement control over the Kingdom, appeared to be widening on Monday when, as Reuters reports, Saudi banks begun freezing the accounts of those arrested.
The Saudi central bank ordered commercial banks to freeze the accounts of people under investigation in the probe, the Reuters sources said, adding that the number of accounts affected could run into the hundreds, although the names of those affected have yet to emerge. “The freezing of accounts has already happened,” said another source. “The freezing is a precautionary measure that will end as soon as the suspects are either charged or pronounced innocent.” Considering that prince Alwaleed alone has over $19 billion in assets, including nearly a billion dollars in jewelry, plans, yachts, furniture and cash, the local central banks may have “accidentally” found an unexpectedly efficient way of refilling Saudi’s dwindling foreign reserve account.
At the same time, fears of a broader crackdowns were spreading, and as Bloomberg reported this morning, the Olayan family, which runs one of Saudi Arabia’s biggest conglomerates, is putting plans to sell shares in some of its local assets on hold “amid slow economic growth in the kingdom.” What it means is that right now it is a good idea to keep a very low profile.
Olayan Financing Co., which controls the billionaire family’s investments in the Middle East, decided not to proceed with an initial public offering of a holding company of about 20 local units, the people said, asking not to be identified because the discussions are private. Plans for the sale of the holding company, which may worth as much as $5 billion, could be revived in the future, they said.
Olayan had been working with Saudi Fransi Capital on the planned sale that could have happened as early as next year, people familiar with the matter said in March. It’s also working with HSBC Holdings Plc’s local unit on the 30 percent sale of its Health Water Bottling Co., people said in May. The IPOs would be the first time Olayan Financing sold shares in one of its Saudi businesses since at least 2000. The family still plans to proceed with the IPO of its water business, the people said.
Such fears appear justified, because as Reuters writes, the crackdown continued on Monday when the founder of one of the kingdom’s biggest travel companies was reportedly detained. Al Tayyar Travel plunged 10% in the opening minutes after the company quoted media reports as saying board member Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar had been held by authorities. The company gave no details but online economic news service SABQ, which is close to the government, reported Tayyar had been detained as part of the anti-corruption probe.
Many more are coming: the front page of leading Saudi newspaper Okaz challenged businessmen on Monday to reveal the sources of their assets, asking: “Where did you get this?” in bright red text. Another headline from Saudi-owned al-Hayat warned: “After the launch (of the anti-corruption drive), the noose tightens, whomever you are!”
Meanwhile, to prevent royals from quietly fleeing the country, a no-fly list has been drawn up and security forces in some Saudi airports were barring owners of private jets from taking off without a permit, pan-Arab daily Al-Asharq Al-Awsat reported.
And as the crackdown extended, so did the confusion, and many analysts were puzzled by the targeting of technocrats like ousted Economy Minister Adel Faqieh and prominent businessmen on whom the kingdom is counting to boost the private sector and wean the economy off oil.
“It seems to run so counter to the long-term goal of foreign investment and more domestic investment and a strengthened private sector,” said Greg Gause, a Gulf expert at Texas A&M University. “If your goal really is anti-corruption, then you bring some cases. You don’t just arrest a bunch of really high-ranking people and emphasize that the rule of law is not really what guides your actions. It just runs so counter to what he seems to have staked quite a lot of his whole plan to.”
Robert Jordan, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says on Bloomberg TV, said that the Saudi Crown Prince’s anti-corruption drive, which included detaining Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, was “almost the equivalent of arresting Bill Gates.”
“The Saudis have come to a fork in the road and they have taken it,” he said adding that “this is about the most breathtaking revelation I think we could possibly have imagined.”
The reforms have been well-received by much of Saudi’s overwhelmingly young population, but caused resentment among some of the more conservative old guard, including parts of the Al Saud dynasty frustrated by Prince Mohammed’s meteoric rise. “It’s overkill – and overkill in a way that makes it harder to achieve his long-term objectives,” said Gause.
Meanwhile, in a more troubling escalation, overnight The Saudi-led military coalition said on Monday it would temporarily close all air, land and sea ports to Yemen to stem the flow of arms from Iran to Houthi rebels after a missile fired toward Riyadh was intercepted over the weekend. Saudi Arabia has been involved in a two-year-old war in Yemen, where the government says it is fighting Iran-aligned militants, and into a dispute with Qatar, which it accuses of backing terrorists, a charge Doha denies. Detractors of the crown prince say both moves are dangerous adventurism. Saudi’s focus now appears to have turned to Iran, and with the war drums beating louder, some wonder how long before the increasingly chaotic events in Saudi Arabia lead to another Middle-east war.