A Saudi Billionaire's Detention Is Making Some Investors Nervous

Dec 8, 2017
Originally published on December 12, 2017 8:28 am

One of the world's most famous — and flashy — billionaires is being detained by the Saudi government in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was swept up in early November, along with more than 200 other Saudi businessmen and princes, in a massive anti-corruption campaign spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Many analysts saw it as a power grab by the young prince.

Alwaleed is the highest-profile Saudi figure detained in the November sweep. More than just a member of Saudi Arabia's ruling family, he is a businessman believed to be worth about $20 billion, with significant investments in many Western companies, including Citigroup, Twitter and Time Warner. He owns enormous yachts and a Boeing 747 with a gold-trimmed interior.

But detaining a key international financial player of Alwaleed's stature could harm potential investment in Saudi Arabia, some analysts say.

Simon Henderson, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Alwaleed enjoys the spotlight, comfortably rubbing elbows with the world's movers and shakers

"He enjoys his reputation both as an international tycoon and for his relationships with international business figures," says Henderson. "And frankly, he's flamboyant ... and loves to have his photograph taken."

But Henderson says Alwaleed is also known for philanthropic works and has worked with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates on a number of business and humanitarian projects, including vaccination drives. Henderson says the 62-year-old prince is a good example of modern Saudi Arabia — progressive and worldly — and "all of a sudden, he falls from favor."

There's been no sign of Alwaleed since he was detained as part of the anti-corruption crackdown. Allison Wood, a Middle East consultant for Control Risks, says many investors and analysts are trying to figure out what might happen to him. Alwaleed's company, Kingdom Holdings, offers no clues, she says.

"The official reaction from Kingdom Holdings has been to say that it's broadly business as normal," she says. "I don't know that a lot of people really believe that, necessarily, given that its largest shareholder has not been heard from for several weeks at this point."

Shares in Kingdom Holdings dropped by 10 percent after Alwaleed's arrest.

It's unclear why Alwaleed was detained. In response to an NPR query about his case, Fatimah Baeshen, a spokesperson at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., said the embassy "does not have information on specific individuals, due to Saudi privacy laws."

Alwaleed may have gotten on the wrong side of Salman, who is trying to reform the economy and needs buy-in from the business community, says Ayham Kamel, a Middle East specialist with the Eurasia Group.

Kamel says Alwaleed has not rallied the domestic or international business community to invest in ventures sponsored by the crown prince, such as Neom, an ambitious new economic zone and business hub envisioned to be bigger than Dubai.

"In the last few months, although he has been supportive of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform efforts, he has not put money behind where his mouth is," he says.

Kamel doesn't believe the detentions will deter many international investors. "Part of what will make Saudi Arabia more viable over the long term is ending the corruption networks that connect the ruling family with business elites," he says.

But the Washington Institute's Henderson believes the detentions send a clear signal to Saudi and international investors.

"The crown prince is clearly not a person you want to get on the wrong side of. ... It would be bad for your business and might well be bad for you," he says.

Wood, from Control Risks, says there's been no apparent transparency or due process in the detentions. But no matter the reason Alwaleed was picked up, she says, his continued absence is making some foreign investors nervous.

"Investors are certainly worried about where Alwaleed is," she says. "It's certainly introduced a great deal of uncertainty for companies that have associations with him."

Some detainees have been released after paying a settlement, including Prince Miteb bin Abdullah — once seen as a contender to the throne — who reportedly paid $1 billion for his freedom. The government public prosecutor says 159 are still being held.

The Eurasia Group's Kamel says Alwaleed certainly has the money to get out of his gilded prison, but may be digging in his heels.

"I think it's to make a point, and also to reach a deal that works for him as well," he says.

Until then, associates and business partners of Alwaleed can only guess about his fate.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

One of the world's most famous and flashy billionaires is among those being detained at a luxury hotel in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was swept up, along with more than 200 other businessmen and princes, in a massive anti-corruption campaign in November. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Prince Alwaleed bin Talal is more than just a member of Saudi Arabia's ruling family. He's a businessman believed to be worth about $20 billion, with significant investments in many Western companies - including Citigroup, Twitter and Time Warner. And he enjoys the spotlight.

SIMON HENDERSON: He enjoys his reputation - both as an international tycoon and for his relationships with international business figures. Frankly, he's also flamboyant.

NORTHAM: That's Simon Henderson, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute. He says Prince Alwaleed is also known for philanthropic works and for comfortably rubbing elbows with the world's movers and shakers.

HENDERSON: He's just been a good example of modern Saudi Arabia. And all of a sudden, he falls from favor.

NORTHAM: There's been no sign of Alwaleed since he was detained back in November as part of an anti-corruption crackdown. Allison Wood, with the consultancy company Control Risks, says many investors and analysts are trying to figure out what's happened to him. She says Alwaleed's company, Kingdom Holdings, offers no clues.

ALLISON WOOD: The official reaction from Kingdom Holdings has been to say that it's broadly business as normal. I don't know that a lot of people really believe that, necessarily, given that its largest shareholder has not been heard from for several weeks at this point.

NORTHAM: People are still trying to figure out why Alwaleed was detained in the first place. Ayham Kamel, with the Eurasia Group, says Alwaleed may have got on the wrong side of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who's trying to reform the economy and needs buy-in from the business community. Kamel says Alwaleed hasn't invested in ventures sponsored by the crown prince.

AYHAM KAMEL: In the last few months, although he has been supportive of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's reform efforts, he has not put money behind where his mouth is.

NORTHAM: The Washington Institute's Henderson says Saudi Arabia's crown prince wants to oversee business decisions across the kingdom and is trying to consolidate power.

HENDERSON: The crown prince is clearly not a person you want to get on the wrong side of. It would be bad for your business and might well be bad for you.

NORTHAM: Allison Wood, with Control Risks, says, for whatever the reason Alwaleed was picked up, his continued absence is making foreign investors nervous.

WOOD: Investors are certainly concerned about where Alwaleed is. It's certainly introduced a great deal of uncertainty for companies that have associations with him.

NORTHAM: Some of those detained have been released after paying a settlement. The Eurasia Group's Kamel says Alwaleed certainly has the money to get out of his gilded prison but may be digging in his heels.

KAMEL: I think it's to make a point - and also to reach a deal that works for him as well.

NORTHAM: And until then, associates and business partners of Alwaleed can only guess about his fate. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.