56 people still in custody –  All detainees have left the Ritz-Carlton

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s attorney general said yesterday $107 billion has been recovered so far in a major crackdown on high-level corruption and that 56 suspects were still being investigated. Sheikh Saud Al-Mojeb said he has completed inquiries into 381 high-profile corruption suspects and decided to keep 56 in custody and free the rest. Those released include individuals proven not guilty but also others who had agreed financial settlements with the government after admitting corruption charges, he said.

Total settlements with the suspects had topped 400 billion riyals ($107 billion) in various forms of assets handed over that included property, securities and cash. In November, the authorities launched an unprecedented anti-graft swoop that netted hundreds of members of the extended royal family, top businessmen and officials. The anti-corruption drive was led by Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year-old crown prince and author of the “Vision 2030” program of social and economic reforms in the ultraconservative nation.

Among those detained was one of the desert kingdom’s most high-profile and wealthiest men, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. The man dubbed the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia was released on Saturday after striking an undisclosed financial agreement with the authorities. He remains chairman of the Kingdom Holding Company in which he owns a 95-percent stake.

Some critics have labeled Prince Mohammed’s campaign a shakedown and power grab, but authorities insist the purge targeted endemic corruption as the country prepares for a post-oil era. But Prince Mohammed also appears to have won widespread approval for the purge among ordinary Saudis, partly because the government has said it will use some of the money it seizes to fund social benefits. “What has happened is great, it will be counted as a win for the government. Whoever the person is, he is being held accountable, whether a royal or a citizen,” said Abdullah Al-Otaibi, drinking at a Riyadh coffee shop yesterday.

“The total number of subpoenaed individuals reached 381, a significant number of whom were called to testify or provide evidence,” the attorney general said yesterday in a statement released by the information ministry. Mojeb said he had decided to “keep in custody those individuals – 56 in total – where the attorney general has refused to settle with them due to other pending criminal cases”. He said he will continue investigating the 56, but provided no further details about their identities.

On Friday, the authorities also released media mogul Waleed Al-Ibrahim, owner of influential Arab satellite network MBC. Another high-profile detainee, former National Guard chief Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, was released recently following a “settlement” with the authorities which reportedly exceeded $1 billion. The government said most of those detained agreed monetary settlements in exchange for their freedom.

Those caught up in the corruption crackdown were detained at the luxury Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. In another sign that the investigation was winding down, a Saudi official told Reuters yesterday that all detainees had now left the Ritz-Carlton. The hotel, where the cheapest room costs $650 a night, is to reopen to the public in mid-February. Some detainees are believed to have been moved from the hotel to prison after refusing to admit wrongdoing and reach financial settlements; they may stand trial.

The windfall from the settlements will help finance a package announced by King Salman this month to help citizens cope with the rising cost of living, Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan told the World Economic Forum in Davos on Wednesday. He said part of the estimated $13 billion aid package for this year will come from the proceeds of the financial settlements.

Saudi Arabia relies heavily on oil income, and introduced a string of austerity measures after crude prices began to slide in mid-2014, resulting in massive budget shortfalls. Riyadh twice raised the prices of fuel and power and imposed excise duty on certain products and a five-percent value-added tax (VAT), in addition to taxing expatriates. Saudi Arabia, which pumps 10 million barrels of oil per day, has posted budget deficits totalling $260 billion over the past four years, and projects a shortfall of $52 billion this year. – Agencies