Saudi Arabia winds down 15-month anti-corruption campaign

The campaign ended as abruptly as it began, despite speculation within the local business community that a new round of arrests was imminent.

Saudi Arabia winds down 15-month anti-corruption campaign

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has ended a sprawling crackdown on corruption ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that it said had recovered more than $106 billion through settlements with scores of senior princes, ministers and top businessmen.

A royal court statement said the government had summoned 381 people, some as witnesses, under the campaign launched in November 2017, but it provided no names. It said 87 people confessed to charges against them and reached secret settlements that included the forfeiture of real estate, companies, cash and other assets.

The campaign ended as abruptly as it began, despite speculation within the local business community that a new round of arrests was imminent.

The public prosecutor refused to settle the cases of 56 others due to existing criminal charges against them, and eight more who declined settlement offers stand accused of corruption, the statement said. Detainees who were not indicted were freed.

For the first three months of the campaign, many of the kingdom`s economic and political elite were held in Riyadh`s Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Some detainees were reportedly tortured, which the authorities have denied.

Critics called it a shakedown and power play by Prince Mohammed. It unsettled some foreign investors that he is courting to diversify the country`s economy away from oil.

The October killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents inside the kingdom`s Istanbul consulate tarnished the crown prince`s reputation in the West and intensified criticism of Riyadh`s human rights record and its role in the Yemen war.

Prince Mohammed has defended the anti-corruption campaign as "shock therapy" as he tries to overhaul the economy.

His social reforms, including the easing of such restrictions as bans on cinemas and women driving, have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the arrests of dozens of clerics, women`s rights activists and intellectuals.

SIGNAL GOVERNMENT `WANTS TO MOVE ON`

Karen Young, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said it was hard to say if the campaign had been successful.

"The good news is that the government seems to be signalling that it wants to move on," she said. "On Saudi foreign policy and domestic politics, particularly towards citizen activists, there is still deep apprehension in the West."

Ali Shihabi, head of the Arabia Foundation in Washington which regularly supports Saudi policy, said the end of the campaign reflected a government attempt to address international criticism of a lack of due process and transparency.

"Now critics will bemoan lack of names and details on each case but we must remember that individuals themselves have no desire to be named," he said.

The original sweep netted cousins of Prince Mohammed such as billionaire investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, National Guard minister Prince Miteb bin Abdullah and former Riyadh governor Prince Turki bin Abdullah.

Miteb was freed within weeks after agreeing to pay more than $1 billion to settle corruption allegations against him, a Saudi official said at the time. Two months later, Alwaleed settled after reaching what he called "a confirmed understanding between me and the government." Turki has not been heard from since.

Also detained were senior officials, including ousted economy minister Adel Fakieh, who is believed to still be in detention, and former chief of the royal court Khalid al-Tuwaijri.

Top businessmen were held alongside them. Waleed al-Ibrahim and Saleh Kamel were released early on, while others including Amr Dabbagh and Mohammed Hussein al-Amoudi only got out this month.