Saudi Arabia detains at least 11 princes, dozens of former ministers in corruption probe

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Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 24, 2017 (Reuters Photo)
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 24, 2017 (Reuters Photo)

Saudi Arabia has detained at least 11 princes and dozens of former ministers through its newly formed anti-corruption committee, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV reported Saturday, citing unnamed sources.

The new committee, headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was formed by royal decree hours earlier on Saturday.

The king ousted one of the country's highest-level royals from power, relieving Prince Miteb bin Abdullah of his post as head of the National Guard. Prince Miteb was once considered a contender for the throne.

Prince Miteb was replaced by a lesser known royal, Prince Khalid bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, who had held a senior post with the National Guard.

Prince Miteb's father— the late King Abdullah— also had led the National Guard and had transformed it into a powerful and prestigious force tasked with protecting the ruling Al Saud family, as well as important holy sites in Mecca and Medina, and oil and gas sites.

Prince Miteb was once considered a contender for the throne. His ouster essentially sidelines one of the most formidable rivals to the current crown prince, who is also defense minister. Just three months ago, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was ousted from the line of succession and from his post as interior minister, overseeing internal security.

The monarch also replaced Minister of Economy and Planning Adel Fakeih with his deputy, Mohammad al-Tuwaijri.

The heads of the three state-owned TV networks, including Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (Rotana), Walid Al Brahim (MBC) and Saleh Kamel (ART) were also arrested. Prince Alwaleed is one of the Middle East's richest people, with investments in Twitter, Apple, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Citigroup, and the Four Seasons, Fairmont and Movenpick hotel chains. He is also an investor in ride-sharing services Lyft and Careem, both competitors to Uber in the U.S. and the Middle East, respectively.

Meanwhile, Saudi King Salman on Saturday sacked three senior state officials, the latest in a series of shake-ups in the world's top oil exporter.

Salman relieved Prince Moteib bin Abdullah of his post as minister of the National Guard, replacing him with Khaled bin Ayaf, the official Saudi news agency SPA reported.

Minister of Economy and Planning Adel al-Faqieh was replaced by Mohammed al-Tuwaijri, SPA said, quoting a royal decree.

Commander of the Saudi Navy, Abdullah al-Sultan, was replaced with Fahad al-Ghafli.

No official explanation was given for the sackings. In recent months, the Saudi monarch has carried out a string of reshuffles appointing young people in senior state posts.

The arrests came as Lebanon's prime minister, a close Saudi ally, announced his own resignation from the Saudi capital. Yemeni rebels, the target of a 2 ½ year Saudi-led military campaign, meanwhile fired a ballistic missile toward Riyadh's international airport on Saturday night that was intercepted by Saudi air defense before it could cause any damage.

Al-Arabiya reported that the anti-graft committee is looking into deadly floods that overwhelmed parts of the city of Jiddah in 2009 and the government's response to the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus that has killed several hundred people in the past few years.

Reports also suggested those detained were being held in the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, which only days earlier hosted a major investment conference. The phone number for the hotel had been disconnected by Sunday morning and a Dubai-based spokeswoman for the hotel chain did not respond to a request for comment.

The government said the anti-corruption committee has the right to issue arrest warrants, impose travel restrictions and freeze bank accounts. It can also trace funds, prevent the transfer of funds or the liquidation of assets, and take other precautionary measures until cases are referred to the judiciary.

The royal order said the committee was established "due to the propensity of some people for abuse, putting their personal interest above public interest, and stealing public funds."

Saudi nationals have long complained of rampant corruption in government and of public funds being squandered or misused by people in power.

Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, said the scale of the arrests are designed to further smooth the young crown prince's eventual succession to the throne.

"As a leader who is set to remain in power for decades, Mohammed bin Salman is remaking the kingdom in his own image and signaling a potentially significant move away from the consensual balancing of competing interests that characterized Saudi rule in the past," Ulrichsen said.

Saudi Arabia's stock market fell in early trade on Sunday after the cabinet reshuffle and the string of detentions.

The Saudi equities index was down 1.0 percent after 25 minutes of trade as declining stocks overwhelmed advancers by 155 to 15. Investment firm Kingdom Holding, owned by billionaire Talal, who was one of those detained, plunged 9.9 percent.

Shares in National Industrialization Co (Tasnee), in which Kingdom holds a 6.2 percent stake, fell 1.3 percent and Banque Saudi Fransi, in which Kingdom bought a 16.2 percent stake in September, sank 2.8 percent.

However, much of the market escaped panic selling and some blue chips were little changed, with top petrochemical producer Saudi Basic Industries down only 0.2 percent.

Analysts said the news worried the stock market because businessmen implicated in the probe might end up having to sell some of their equity holdings, which could temporarily at least weaken prices. New investment in the market by the businessmen could shrink.

However, they said local investors might ultimately welcome the prospect of Prince Mohammed increasing his power and reducing uncertainty about his authority. Economic reforms such as privatization and development projects could potentially now move faster.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Dubai's stock market fell 0.9 percent as the most heavily traded stock, Deyaar Development, lost 1.9 percent. Qatar's stock index dropped 0.6 percent in a broad-based decline, with nine of the 10 most active stocks weaker.

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