Saudi Arabia officials say more than 200 people have been summoned for questioning as part of a burgeoning investigation encompassing up to $100 billion in corruption-related wrongdoing.
A statement issued Thursday by the kingdom’s attorney general, Saud Mojeb, said a total of 208 individuals had been called in for questioning, with all but seven of them placed in detention.
Those caught up in an unprecedented crackdown that began in earnest over the past weekend include tycoons, VIPs and some members of the Saudi royal family.
Saudi officials have not publicly confirmed the names of the detained, citing privacy concerns, but one of the world’s richest men, Alwaleed bin Talal, was among those widely reported to be in custody in a luxurious Riyadh hotel.
The probe is being spearheaded by the kingdom’s brash crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, a son of King Salman, Saudi Arabia’s monarch. The prince’s anti-corruption campaign broke sharply with a long tradition of consensus among senior princes underpinning most major steps by the government.
Although graft and bribery on an industrial scale have long characterized business dealings in the kingdom, the corruption crackdown also is widely viewed as a bid by the crown prince to consolidate his power.
Estimates of the amount of money involved in the alleged malfeasance have varied widely, and Mojeb’s statement marked the first official indication of the scope of bribery, fraud and other financial crimes, though without attaching a precise timeline.
“We estimate that at least $100 billion has been misused through systematic corruption and embezzlement over several decades,” said the attorney general’s statement, which was carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
In a step that has sent shudders through the kingdom’s vast web of financial holdings, Saudi authorities have moved to freeze bank accounts belonging to the accused, Mojeb said. Saudi Arabia is eager, though, to maintain stability and stave off any investor fears in the face of the corruption probe.
“Normal commercial activity in the kingdom is not affected by these investigations,” said the statement from the attorney general, who sits on the anti-corruption committee set up shortly before the wave of detentions began. “Companies and banks are free to continue with transactions as usual.”
Regulators in the neighboring United Arab Emirates are cooperating with the investigation, asking UAE commercial banks for information regarding 19 Saudi-held accounts, the Reuters news agency reported. That could be a prelude to freezing those accounts as well.
The UAE is a favorite place for wealthy Saudis to park their money.
The Saudi statement indicated that the investigation could broaden in coming days.