Saudi Arabia's capacity to surprise continues to amaze. Over the weekend, billionaire international businessman Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal was released from his confinement at the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton and allowed to go home to one of his palaces.
Accusations of corruption apparently are being dropped. His 12-week confinement, he told Reuters, was the result of a "misunderstanding." He is in "final discussions" with the authorities for what he wants to be a "complete vindication.”
Prince Al-Waleed's change in fortunes may also have come as a shock to Britain's BBC television network. For three Tuesdays in January, it has broadcast hour-long episodes in a series entitled "House of Saud: A Family at War." The title neatly sums up how the Saudi monarch's son, Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (popularly known as MbS), has ripped up previous understandings on how the kingdom is ruled. Notions of caution and consensus have been discarded as MbS sidelines cousins and reforms the economy, including banning corruption.
The Jan. 16 program explained in detail how Saudi corruption works, also noting in passing that MbS has acquired a $550 million yacht, a $300 million French chateau, and may have been involved in the acquisition for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi of Leonardo Da Vinci's “Salvator Mundi,” bought at auction in November for $450 million.
One of the examples of corruption the BBC chose to explain involved, you guessed it, Prince Al-Waleed. Apparently he received a payment of more than $300 million when a Dutch company won the contract to build two military air bases in the kingdom. The bases themselves, part of the multiyear, multibillion-dollar Al-Yamamah military aircraft supply deal, cost just over $200 million. The extra money went through a secret set of accounts and the company, Ballast Nedam, was later fined 500 million Euros (now about $620 million) for illegal payments to foreign agents, the BBC reported.
One of the particularly interesting facts about Prince Al-Waleed is that, until MbS rose to prominence, he was the best known Saudi prince in the world, although he has not been significant politically. Put simply, his pedigree — an eccentric father and a non-Saudi mother (actually, Lebanese) — disqualified him from playing an official role in the Saudi “Game of Thrones” or figuring in “Riyadhology," the study of the Saudi royals and their roles in the kingdom which I wrote about in a column three weeks ago.
But now Al-Waleed's fate is politically and economically significant. Whereas other incarcerated princes who have made deals to secure their release — the late King Abdullah's son, Miteb, reportedly handed over more than $1 billion — can be sidelined into obscurity, Al-Waleed cannot.
The international business world, which MbS wants to attract to achieve his Vision 2030 economic transformation of the kingdom, will be watching what happens, checking to see how complete Al-Waleed's vindication is and whether, for example, he has to give up his shareholdings in Twitter and the Four Seasons hotel chain as part of some deal.
The whole anti-corruption episode introduces uncertainty rather than clarity into Saudi Arabia's attempt to modernize. Already dragged back by what are widely perceived as poor foreign-policy choices in Yemen and Qatar, delay now is emerging on the economic front — as outlined in the Wall Street Journal’s report, "Aramco IPO Stalled by Indecision Over Where to List." The partial privatization of the world's largest oil company has been depicted as the way of funding new investment in the kingdom.
Clarity may, or may not, emerge.
In the meantime, if you come across a slightly emaciated man in the lobby of the Four Seasons in Riyadh who claims to own the place, it is probably best not to ask how the hotel compares with the Ritz-Carlton.
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which focuses on U.S. foreign policy concerns in the Middle East.