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'Disappeared': Saudi business chiefs languish in jail as MBS chases UK deals

Mohammed bin Salman is seeking up to $100bn of investment while in the UK. Critics say his actions at home continue to harm his reputation
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Cairo before visit to London this week (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's concerted push to improve its international image is being stained by the alleged torture and ongoing imprisonment of businessmen on opaque corruption allegations, their supporters and commentators say.

As the powerful crown prince flies into London to attract foreign investors and push his vision of social reform, more than 50 of the hundreds of tycoons, royals and government advisers rounded up in November remain in prisons around the country.

But information on who they are and why they remain locked up has been suppressed, even as property seized as part of the campaign is being sold to meet national budget targets and beat a projected $52bn deficit.

As Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince, visits London on a three-day tour to meet political and business leaders and chase deals that could be worth as much as $100bn, details are emerging about those still detained.

They include a former economic minister who was bin Salman's point man for key reforms up until the November purge, a businessman lauded for making the kingdom more competitive, and a chief executive of a start-up company bought by global consultancy giant McKinsey & Company last year.

The nature and extent of their alleged corruption has not been disclosed by the Saudi authorities - making it impossible for any outside groups or media organisations to fully investigate the circumstances. But their continued detention should raise questions for potential investors, say their supporters.

Ray Romestant, who worked as the key aide to one of the men for nearly a decade, told MEE: "What seems strange is how the business community of either the USA or UK would feel any confidence in a country in which the business community - including some of its most successful and admired leaders - is taken hostage in a process that lacks any transparency and yet purports to be about eliminating corruption."

'Everyday, a new initiative'

One of the remaining prisoners is Amr Dabbagh, the chairman and chief executive of al-Dabbagh Group, the Jeddah-based conglomerate started in 1962 by his father. The company employs 13,000 people around the world.

As the head of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) for eight years, Dabbagh was before his arrest credited with overseeing work that moved Saudi Arabis from 64th to 11th on the World Bank's list of most business-competitive nations in 2010.

'Every day, he had a new initiative. Boom, boom, boom and then all of a sudden, he disappears'

- Ray Romestant, former right-hand man to Amr Dabbagh

The developments he achieved at SAGIA were described as "remarkable" in a 2010 US diplomatic cable that called for greater US investment in the kingdom.

Romestant, who was Dabbagh's right-hand man for nine years, said: "Everybody loved Amr. He was smart. Having a meeting with him was like having a meeting with a Stanford MBA textbook."

After leading SAGIA, Dabbagh led his family's business, but was also involved in a long list of entrepreneurial and charitable initiatives - until November.

Dabbagh with Bill Clinton at a Clinton Global Initiative event in 2012 (Twitter)
"Every day, he had a new initiative. Boom, boom, boom and then all of a sudden, he disappears," Romestant said.

On 4 November, Romestant said, Dabbagh was summoned from Jeddah to the Ritz Carlton, the luxury Riyadh hotel turned into a makeshift prison for hundreds of Saudis accused of corruption by the state, and has been in custody ever since. "His plane is probably parked on the tarmac," he said.

A separate Saudi source has told MEE that Dabbagh has been tortured and agreed to surrender his assets in order to go home, but continues to be held. 

Dabbagh is known to have close relations with Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, the son of late King Abdullah, who fled the kingdom for Paris late last year ahead of the purge.

Ousted minister and start-up CEO

In addition to Dabbagh, Adel Fakeih, the kingdom's ousted economy minister, and Hani Khoja, whose Saudi-based consultancy, Elixir, which McKinsey & Company bought last April, also remain in custody, according to well-informed Saudi sources.

A former food industry executive and the mayor of Jeddah, Fakeih ruffled feathers in the kingdom's business community as minister of labour when he put a quota on the number of foreign workers that companies could hire in order to increase jobs for Saudis. 

Fakeih was one of very few ministers from the Jeddah business community, considered to be more established as compared to the more recently enriched circles of Riyadh, and was noted among consultants advising the kingdom for his competence.

Adel Fakeih in 2014 (AFP)
In 2015, he was appointed as minister of economy and, by the following year, had become the go-to man for major reforms to the economy, reporting directly to MBS. He continued in this role up until his detention in November.

While Fakeih served in the government, Khoja is a self-made business consultant - and author of a self-help book, A Global Nomad in Search of True Happiness.

According to an interview he gave last July, he left Proctor & Gamble in 2005 to start up Elixir, the consultancy that grew to 140 employees before McKinsey purchased it, but continued to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary.

After the acquisition, Khoja said he planned to "continue as CEO of Elixir and help it expand within Saudi Arabia to serve Vision 2030". 

Incommunicado and uncertainty

Last week, MBS said that those who had been freed "know they have made big mistakes and they have settled". Why Dabbagh, Fakeih and Khoja are still in custody remains unclear. 

Carool Kersten, a senior lecturer in the study of Islam and the Muslim world at King's College London, said one reason certain individuals may continue to be held is that they are perceived to be too independent. "Or they have indeed done certain things - thus having egg on their face and MBS knows about it," he said.

In addition to the reshuffle of the Saudi military last week, MBS also appointed several of his cousins to leadership positions in several key provinces and even a few in his royal diwan. Kersten said this could be a sign that he is attempting to mend fences with his family, while non-royals like the trio are still fair game.

But MEE understands that as recently as late January, royals living in exile abroad - including some whose family members were in custody as part of the purge - were receiving offers to return home in exchange for portions of their assets.

Kersten, who spent 10 years working in Saudi Arabia before becoming an academic, said the lack of transparency around the campaign is a way to create leverage.

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"They keep people incommunicado and create uncertainties. They often don’t have to lay a finger on people," he said.

"White collar crime and political activities that are not leading to immediate revolutions, the regime can play it differently - with velvet gloves."

The Saudi embassy in London did not respond to requests for comment.

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