Saudi calls on its citizens to leave Lebanon

201 detained in sweep over $100bn in corruption

BRUSSELS: US Defense Secretary James Mattis (right) speaks with Saudi Arabia’s Assistant Minister of Defense Mohammed Al-Ayeesh during a round table meeting on the second day of a defense ministers meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels yesterday.—AFP

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia yesterday urged its citizens to leave Lebanon “as soon as possible”, days after Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation while visiting the kingdom. A foreign ministry source, quoted by state news agency SPA, also called on Saudis not to travel to Lebanon because of “the situation” in the country, without elaborating.
Meanwhile, the political party of Prime Minister Saad Hariri is calling for his immediate return to Lebanon after he announced his resignation in strange, pre-recorded statement from Saudi Arabia. Following a meeting of his Saudi-aligned Future Party in Beirut yesterday, the party issued a statement saying it was “necessary” for Hariri to return “to restore Lebanon’s dignity and respect.”

The statement read by former Prime Minister Fuad Saniora seemed to indicate that Hariri is being held in Saudi Arabia against his will. Hariri resigned his post abruptly on Saturday in a pre-recorded speech from Saudi Arabia and has not returned to Lebanon. In his absence, Lebanon has been awash with speculation the 47-year old prime minister may be held against his will in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials have denied Hariri is under house arrest.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile announced yesterday it has detained 201 people as part of a sweeping probe, estimating that at least $100 billion has been misused through embezzlement and corruption in past decades. The kingdom’s Attorney General Saud Al-Mojeb said in a statement that 208 people had been called in for questioning since Saturday evening, and that seven people were released without charge, leaving 201 people still in detention. The figure released by the government is far larger than previously reported as it appears more arrests were made throughout the week.

Overnight Saturday, when the surprise arrest began, 11 princes and 38 officials and businessmen had been detained. They are being held at five-star hotels across the country, including the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh. Critics and observers say the purge that has targeted top princes, officials, military officers and businessmen is a power grab by the crown prince to sideline potential rivals and critics.

Among those detained are billionaire Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal and two of the late King Abdullah’s sons, including Prince Miteb who until Saturday had headed the powerful National Guard before he was ousted and detained. Prince Miteb was once a contender for the throne and was believed to be opposed to the king’s 32-year-old, Mohammed bin Salman, becoming successor as crown prince. The crown prince is leading the probe as the head of a newly-formed anti-corruption committee. “The potential scale of corrupt practices which have been uncovered is very large,” the attorney general said, adding that based on investigations over the past three years, at least $100 billion has been misused through corruption.

The government has declined to name the individuals being questioned, saying it is respecting their privacy during this phase of the process. An estimated 1700 bank accounts have been frozen belonging to individuals. Al-Mojeb confirmed that action was taken to suspend personal bank accounts, but did not disclose any figures. The government has stressed that only personal banks have been frozen, leaving companies and businesses so far untouched.

For years, Saudis have complained of rampant corruption and misuse of public funds by top officials in a system where nepotism is also widespread. Royal family members have long received undisclosed monthly stipends from state coffers built up during years of higher oil prices. The government, however, has been forced to introduce austerity measures since oil prices fell three years ago, reducing subsidies and driving up costs for average Saudi nationals. -Agencies

This article was published on 09/11/2017