Palestinian billionaire detained in Saudi Arabia in sweeping corruption probe

Family says Sabih al-Masri was held while visiting Riyadh last week in order to ‘answer questions about his business and partners’

Palestinian businessman Sabih al-Masri speaks in a June 27, 2010 interview. (screen cpature: YouTube via Wambda)
Palestinian businessman Sabih al-Masri speaks in a June 27, 2010 interview. (screen cpature: YouTube via Wambda)

Palestinian billionaire businessman Sabih al-Masri was reportedly detained in Saudi Arabia for questioning last week during a business trip to Riyadh, amidst a sweeping anti-corruption purge of the Saudi elite.

Masri, who is the founder of Zara Investment Holding and chairman of Jordan’s largest lender, Arab Bank, was held in the Saudi capital over “information related to corruption,” according to Arabic-language news reports.

Friends and family sources confirmed Masri’s detention to Reuters on Saturday.

“He has been answering questions about his business and partners,” a source told the news agency without elaborating.

According to the Rai al-Youm news website, Saudi authorities did not charge the 80-year-old businessman with any crime.

It was not immediately clear when Masri was released. He and Saudi authorities did not respond to media requests for comment.

Masri’s arrest comes in the wake of a sweeping anti-corruption purge of the Saudi elite last month by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends a meeting in Riyadh, November 14, 2017. (AFP/Fayez Nureldine)

Dozens of high-profile figures including princes, ministers, and tycoons are being held in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, now a makeshift luxury prison, in the biggest sweep of the kingdom’s elite in its recent history.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s attorney general said most of those detained have struck monetary settlements in exchange for their freedom.

Some 320 people were called in for questioning, and 159 people are currently being detained, many of whom have agreed to a “settlement,” or handing over allegedly ill-gotten gains to the Saudi state treasury, attorney general Sheikh Saud al-Mojeb said.

The attorney general has previously said he estimates at least $100 billion has been lost in embezzlement or corruption over the last several decades.

His latest statement comes after Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the former National Guard chief once seen as a contender to the throne, was released in early December following a settlement reportedly exceeding $1 billion.

Some analysts saw Prince Miteb’s removal as an attempt by Salman, who is also Saudi defense minister, to consolidate his control over the security services.

But Saudi authorities insist the purge was meant solely to target endemic corruption, as the kingdom seeks to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

In a recent interview to The New York Times, Prince Mohammed described  reports equating the crackdown to a power grab as “ludicrous,” saying that many of those detained at the opulent Ritz-Carlton had already pledged allegiance to him.

The attorney general said the bank accounts of 376 people have been frozen, all of whom are detained or linked to corruption allegations.

Saudi forces also grounded private jets at airports, possibly to prevent high-profile figures from leaving the country, an aviation source told AFP.

The purge has triggered uncertainty among businesses that could lead to capital flight or derail reforms, experts say, at a time when the kingdom is seeking to attract badly needed investments to offset a protracted oil slump.

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