DUBAI/RIYADH: Saudi banks have frozen more than 1,200 accounts belonging to individuals and companies in the kingdom as part of the government’s anti-corruption purge, bankers and lawyers said Tuesday.
They added that the number is continuing to rise.
Dozens of royal family members, officials and business executives have been detained in the crackdown and are facing allegations of money laundering, bribery, extorting officials and taking advantage of public office for personal gain.
Already, as much as $33 billion in personal wealth belonging to the richest detainees has been put at risk.
Since Sunday, the central bank has been expanding the list of accounts it is requiring lenders to freeze on an almost hourly basis, one regional banker said, declining to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to media.
The list contains hundreds of names, people with knowledge of the matter told Bloomberg on condition of anonymity.
The banker did not identify the companies affected but said they included listed and unlisted firms across many sectors.
He added that if the freezes stayed in place for long, they could start to hurt day-to-day business activities such as paying staff and creditors or making other transactions.
A second banker said, however, that most of the frozen accounts belonged to individuals rather than companies, and banks were being allowed by the regulator to continue to fund existing commitments.
A central bank spokesman was not available to comment.
“It’s almost the equivalent of arresting Bill Gates to have Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal under arrest,” Robert Jordan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Bloomberg TV Monday.
A genuine push against corruption would add to the credibility of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s push to prepare the economy for the post-oil era, including selling a stake in Saudi Aramco and bolstering non-oil revenue, he said.
Among top business executives detained in the probe are billionaire Prince Al-Waleed, chairman of investment firm Kingdom Holding; Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar, founder of Al Tayyar Travel; and Amr al-Dabbagh, chairman of housing builder Red Sea International. The stocks of all three companies, which have issued statements saying they continue to operate as normal, plunged between 9 and 10 percent Tuesday.One of the bankers speaking to Reuters said the central bank had met with some foreign banks this week to reassure them that the freezing of accounts targeted individuals, and that firms linked to those people would not be damaged.
Prince Mohammad directed ministerial committee the Council for Economic Affairs and Development to ensure that national and multinational companies – including those wholly or partly owned by individuals under investigation in the anti-corruption probe – were not disrupted.
“The council recognized the importance of these companies for the national economy, and the importance of ensuring that investors could operate with confidence in Saudi Arabia,” the state news agency said in a report Tuesday.
According to a senior Saudi official, the charges against Prince Al-Waleed include money laundering, bribery and extortion of some officials.
Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the former head of the powerful National Guard, is charged with embezzlement, fraudulent employment and the awarding of projects to his own companies. Another royal family member, Prince Turki bin Abdullah, is accused of corruption related to a massive train project, using his influence to win projects for companies affiliated to himself, the official said.