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Saudi royal behind al-Yamamah arms deal held in crackdown on corruption

Richard Spencer, Middle East Correspondent

 

The Times
Many officials are reportedly being held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh
Many officials are reportedly being held at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in RiyadhGIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince has ordered the arrest of a cousin, as part of efforts to retrieve millions of dollars allegedly paid in bribes to seal Britain’s biggest arms deal.

Sources in Riyadh told The Times that one of the 208 princes, ministers and officials detained last weekend was Prince Turki bin Nasser, the man tasked with buying fighter jets from Britain as part of the $43 billion al-Yamamah deal between Saudi rabia and BAE Systems, the British defence group.

Officials said that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who now has total power and is using it to overhaul the way Saudi Arabia has been run for a century, believes that more than $100 billion of Saudi funds have been stolen by senior royals, corrupt officials and billionaire businessmen from the country. “We want our money back,” one source said.

Among the string of allegedly corrupt deals being investigated is the al-Yamamah series of contracts for Saudi Arabia to buy weapons from warships to fighter jets over a 20-year period, the same source confirmed.

The purge of hundreds of princes, ministers, former ministers and businessmen has been said by critics to be a power grab preparatory to his succeeding his father as king.

Among those ousted is his cousin, the head of the national guard, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was his only serious rival. However, among the names of those detained — some leaked, some confirmed by well-placed sources — are people with no political ambition but with huge fortunes.

The same sources refused to confirm the arrest, claimed by the news site Middle East Eye, of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, an even bigger fish. For years he was Saudi Arabia’s biggest international fixer, as ambassador to Washington.

His father, Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, was defence minister for 40 years and a dominant figure in Saudi public life until he died as crown prince in 2011.

Prince Bandar was also named as a recipient of huge BAE Systems “backhanders” in a British investigation later blocked by Tony Blair, the then prime minister. He remains phenomenally wealthy.

Yesterday rumours continued to swirl across the Middle East about the full purpose and effect of events in Riyadh last weekend. The attorney-general, Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb, has attempted to limit some of the damage by the refusal of the authorities to confirm publicly the names of those detained, any possible charges or the sums of money involved.

One estimate had said the authorities were looking to reclaim $800 billion, a sum that would fund Saudi plans for a massively expanded sovereign wealth fund to invest in new businesses. The crown prince has said that he is desperate to reform the kingdom and modernise the economy, weaning the country off its dependence on oil.

He has already lifted the ban on women driving, in part so that they can join the workforce, and is keen to invest in new industries, especially technological ones. Sheikh Saud said that 208 people had been “called in for questioning”, and seven released without charge. Some estimates had put the number of those detained at more than 500.

“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,” Sheikh Saud added.

Among the other targets have been the construction industry. Princes have been given grants of land which they have then sold to property developers. Further corruption is often said to be involved in the awarding of construction contracts. A source said that a particular target of attention was shoddy but overpriced building work.

Another well-known figure detained is Bakr bin Laden, brother of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama and head of the family’s construction firm, the country’s biggest. Saudi Bin Ladin, as it is formally known, has also been in dispute with the government over what it says is a huge unpaid bill for building work that the authorities could not afford to pay because of the fall in the oil price.

The dominance of well-connected princes in the world of television has also been questioned in the past. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the richest man detained, is a nephew of King Salman as well as owner of Rotana Television, while Waleed al-Ibrahim, owner of MBC and the al-Arabiya news channel, is a brother-in-law of the late King Salman. Their arrest has also been seen as a shot across the bows of Saudi media.

President Trump has tweeted his support for the purge, saying he had “great confidence” in King Salman and the crown prince. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”