Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was released from custody on 27 January 2018, more than two months after being detained by the Saudi authorities. In an interview with Reuters shortly before his release, he said that he expected to be cleared of all charges and freed within days.
The prince is known for his business empire, philanthropy and for being the wealthiest man in the Middle East on Forbes’ billionaires list. However, his fortunes changed when, on 4 November 2017, he was arrested along with more than 200 Saudi royals, senior officials and businessmen.
The order for his arrest came directly from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS), a few hours after King Salman issued a royal decree establishing an anti-corruption committee and installing his son at his head. The committee has the authority to investigate, arrest, issue travel bans on and freeze the assets of those it finds corrupt.
According to the decree, the committee’s goal is to ‘preserve public money, punish corrupt people and those who exploit their positions’, although several commentators have described it as a power grab by MBS.
Saud al-Mojeb, the kingdom’s attorney general, said, “[T]he potential scale of corrupt practices which have been uncovered is very large. Based on investigations over the past three years, at least $100 billion has been misused through corruption.”
Of all the arrests, bin Talal’s was perhaps the most surprising. As a business tycoon with billions of dollars in investments around the world, his detention sent ripples through the financial markets, including in Saudi Arabia itself, where his conglomerate, Kingdom Holding Company, is publicly listed on Tadawul, the Saudi stock market.
According to Bloomberg, the company’s stock fell by as much as 9.9 per cent at the open in Riyadh on the day of his arrest and closed 7.6 per cent lower, the lowest since June 2012.
A few weeks after the arrests, Saudi authorities started negotiating with the prominent detainees, offering deals in return for their freedom, according to the Financial Times.
The London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi reported that bin Talal had denied the charges of corruption or any other wrongdoing and offered to make a ‘donation’ to the Saudi government, which was rejected.
According to Britain’s Daily Mail, the prince was transferred from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the capital Riyadh, where he was being held, to the maximum security al-Hair prison after he refused to pay the amount requested by the government, which the newspaper put at $1.03 billion, and declined to hand over control of some of his investment companies.
Al-Hair prison, south of Riyadh, is usually used to hold political activists demanding reform as well as terrorists or suspected terrorists. Raif Badawi, a prominent Saudi activist, was detained there until his case came to the attention of international human rights organizations, which protested his unjust sentence.
Prior to his arrest, bin Talal, a nephew of the current king and grandson of the late King Abdulaziz bin Saud – the founding father of modern Saudi Arabia – was the public face of the Saudi royal family to many foreign executives and investors.
His net worth, originally estimated at $20 billion in 2017, fell by more than $2 billion following his detention. Forbes still lists him as the 45th richest man in the world, with a net worth of $17.3 billion.
Unlike other Saudi princes, bin Talal is self-made, meaning that he used his inherited wealth and royal privilege to build his business empire and invest around the globe. Besides being the founder of the Kingdom Holding Company, in which he has a majority stake, he is the largest individual shareholder in Citigroup, the second-largest voting shareholder in 21st Century Fox, owns large stakes in the Four Seasons hotel chain, owns London’s Savoy Hotel and part of New York’s Plaza Hotel.
Additionally, he owns Rotana Group, the Arab world’s largest entertainment company, and has a 10 per cent stake in Euro Disney SCA, the company that owns, manages and maintains Disneyland Paris. In December 2011, he invested $300 million in Twitter, purchasing secondary shares from insiders. The purchase gave him a more than 3 per cent share in the company, which was valued at $8 billion earlier that year.
Business as usual?
Speaking to Reuters just ahead of his release, bin Talal said, “[T]here are no charges. There are just some discussions between me and the government … on various matters that I cannot divulge right now. But rest assured we are at the end of the whole story. And I’m very comfortable because I’m in my country, I’m in my city, so I feel at home. It’s no problem at all. Everything’s fine.”
The interview, given from his suite in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, was his first since being detained. He told Reuters that he had accepted the interview request because he was upset by media reports that suggested he had been sent to prison and tortured. “All lies. It’s very unfortunate,” he said.
When asked about the terms of his release and the discussed settlement, he debunked a media report claiming he had been offered a $6 billion acquittal deal. He also confirmed that his companies would remain under his ownership and that no assets would be transferred to the state.
Bin Talal has been married four times. His first wife was his cousin, Dalal bint Saud, the daughter of the late King Saud. The couple had two children: Prince Khaled, born in 1978, and Princess Reem, born in 1982. They later divorced. Bin Talal went on to marry a second time and after divorcing again, he married Khulud al-Anazi. His fourth wife was Ameera al-Taweel, whom he divorced in 2014 after about six years of marriage. In an interview with the Saudi daily Okaz, he said: “Yes, I announce it through Okaz for the first time. I have officially separated from Princess Ameera al-Taweel, but she remains a person that I have all respect for.”
In a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair, prior to his most recent divorce, he said, “I had three unsuccessful marriages yet I have a very good relationship with these wives. They talk to me. I talk to them. One of them is the mother of my two children.”