From Asia TimesAnti-corruption drive expands with arrest of hundreds of businessmen; $800 billion in assets targeted
By Pepe Escobar and Agencies
The Saudi "anti-corruption" crackdown led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), which initially netted 11 princes and a few dozen ministers and former ministers, has caught up with hundreds of businessmen, who are being detained in the luxurious Ritz Carlton and other hotels in Riyadh. The Wall Street Journal reports the Crown Prince is targeting an astonishing $800 BILLION in assets believed to be held in 1,700 frozen bank accounts.
The latest speculation, to which we give substantial credence, is that the Crown Prince will top up his coup by having himself crowned King "in a matter of days," according to our sources. Al-Arabiya, the Saudi-owned pan-Arab television news channel, posted on Twitter on Wednesday that the abdication may be imminent but then deleted the post.
How will this play out further?
Not even the key players probably know. But it is entirely possible -- in the midst of feuding in the royal family -- that the entire Saudi Monarchy could be overthrown and replaced by a military junta much as happened in Egypt in 1952, when King Faruq was overthrown and replaced by military leaders Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Reuters reports that Saudi authorities have questioned 208 people in an anti-corruption investigation and estimate at least $100 billion has been stolen through graft, a top official said on Thursday as the inquiry expanded beyond the kingdom's borders.
"Based on our investigations over the past three years, we estimate that at least $100 billion has been misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement over several decades," Attorney-General Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said in a statement.
Anti-corruption authorities have also frozen the bank accounts of Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, one of the most senior members of the House of Saud, and some of his immediate family members. Nayef had been appointed as Crown Prince in 2015 and was first in line to the throne until he was replaced by MBS in June. He is a nephew of King Salman and grandson of the founding monarch King Abdulaziz.
The investigation has spread to the neighboring United Arab Emirates, as the UAE central bank has asked commercial banks and finance companies there to provide details of the accounts of 19 Saudis, commercial bankers told Reuters on Thursday.
The UAE, particularly Dubai, is one of the main places where wealthy Saudis park their money abroad. In addition to bank accounts, they buy luxury apartments and villas in Dubai and invest in the emirate's volatile stock market.
Some wealthy Saudi individuals have been liquidating assets within Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries this week, apparently in an effort to move money out of the region and escape the crackdown, private bankers and fund managers said.
In Riyadh, rich individual investors have been selling equities heavily, although buying by state-linked funds has helped to support the market. In Dubai, shares in real estate developers have sunk as investors worry about the impact on the property market of a pull-out by Saudis.
The UAE commercial bankers said they had not been asked to freeze the Saudi accounts at their institutions, but they believed the central bank's request for information might be a prelude to such action.
The risk of the accounts being frozen "jeopardizes Dubai's pitch as a private banking centre," said a Gulf-based banker, adding: "Banks in the UAE are full of Saudi money."
One senior banker at an international bank with business in Saudi Arabia said his institution had already frozen some accounts, both inside the kingdom and outside it, in response to Saudi government requests.
The bank is conducting its own investigations into accounts linked to people who have been detained, the banker said without elaborating.
Another banker in the region said his institution was receiving more enquiries from Saudi clients about cross-border financial transactions, but it was handling the enquiries with extreme caution as there could be further action by regulators.
Pepe Escobar is an independent geopolitical analyst. He writes for RT, Sputnik and TomDispatch, and is a frequent contributor to websites and radio and TV shows ranging from the US to East Asia. He is the former roving correspondent for Asia (more...)